Government humiliated over foreign missions bill

Photo: CTK

It was a humiliating defeat for the Czech governing coalition: at Friday’s session of Parliament the opposition decided to show its strength by rejecting a bill on the Czech Army’s foreign missions. The move has put at stake the future of close to a thousand Czech troops stationed abroad, and has clearly shown the fragility of the Czech government ahead of the country’s EU presidency.

Mirek Topolánek and ODS first deputy head David Vodrážka,  photo: CTK
There was shock and anger in the coalition benches as the result of Friday’s vote was read out. The cabinet fell two votes short of the 101 votes needed to extend the mandate of Czech troops abroad and significantly reinforce the country’s military presence in Afghanistan. Just moments after the vote, Prime Minister Topolánek accused the leader of the opposition Social Democrats of having gone too far:

“Jiří Paroubek is putting the life and health of our soldiers abroad on the line. Jiří Paroubek now carries personal responsibility for the lives of people threatened by terrorism not only in Afghanistan.”

Mr. Paroubek made no bones about the fact that the opposition’s no vote was a tit-for-tat move intended to punish the ruling coalition for not cooperating in the matter of health fees and to remind the coalition government that it was no longer in a position to call the shots.

“The government’s idea of a compromise is to put a bill before us and ask us to approve it. But the situation has changed. This government no longer has a majority in the lower house. It will have to accept that and act accordingly.”

Vlastimil Picek brings gifts for Czech troops in Kosovo,  photo: CTK
Parliament’s refusal to extend the mandate of Czech troops abroad threatened to leave 400 servicemen in Kosovo and more than 500 troops serving under NATO and US command in Afghanistan high and dry – stripping them of the right to use firearms in their defense and leaving them no time to withdraw from their positions. Speaking ahead of a two day trip to Kosovo to boost the troops’ morale, the army’s chief of staff Vlastimil Picek said he was deeply shocked by the development.

“I very much regret that this situation has come about. It leaves us facing a grave problem and it is the worst possible signal to our allies. I don’t wish to speculate about possible developments. In the coming hours I will simply await orders.”

Photo: CTK
Within an hour of the vote the cabinet held an emergency session and used its constitutional right to decide on the deployment of Czech troops abroad for a period of 60 days – the maximum that it can approve on its own. The extra time will have to be used to negotiate a compromise with the opposition. Two months is not enough to withdraw the country’s troops from Afghanistan and if such an order were given it would not be a safe withdrawal – Czech servicemen would have to cross dangerous territory, leaving them open to terrorist attacks. Defense Minister Vlasta Parkanová has been asked to prepare a compromise proposal by the end of the year – and it is clear even now that the army can forget about the planned reinforcements. The defense minister has already expressed readiness to withdraw the Czech anti-terrorist unit from the American-led Operation Enduring Freedom by the end of 2009, not good news from the US which is sending out reinforcements in the face of increased attacks from Taliban fighters. But even that may not be enough – some say the minister herself may be dismissed within a planned government reshuffle. Whatever happens, one thing is clear: the opposition has sensed blood and is going in for the kill, regardless of the country’s international reputation. It has offered the government a humiliating non-aggression pact which the prime minister has angrily refused, but it is now clear that some form of close cooperation will be necessary if the country is to meet its international obligations – be they in Prague or Kabul.