Time running out for decision on US missile bases

It began as a rumour, but is now beginning to take shape. The United States, it seems, is serious about plans to build controversial new missile bases in Central Europe. The Americans reportedly have their eyes on a number of potential locations, and several Czech politicians have already given the idea their support. But the timing of the project could not be less fortunate - with so much uncertainty over the future government.

The U.S. is worried at a potential missile attack on either America or Europe. Those worries have been heightened by rumours that Iran is developing a nuclear weapon. Washington, therefore, is looking to improve its existing system of anti-missile defence, by building more early warning systems and possibly interceptor bases in Central and Eastern Europe.

The Czech Republic, Poland and also Hungary are seen as ideal candidates. They are NATO members, close U.S. allies and have the military and technical experience to make the project work.

It should be pointed out that military experts from the U.S. and Europe have been discussing the project for several years; it's not new. But it does seem to be gathering steam. The U.S. has been pushing the Czechs to agree on a date when a team of military planners can come and visit the Czech Republic to check out potential sites.

Czech politicians have of course been very much distracted by the election stalemate and difficulties in forming a new government, so they have been trying to postpone the visit. Time, however, is running out. The Americans will decide in a matter of weeks on the potential locations, and want a final answer from their allies by September.

According to a report in Mlada Fronta Dnes newspaper, the bases would be built on the site of two former missile bases dating back to the Cold War. The first is Dobris, which isn't far from Prague, the second is Rapotice in south Moravia. Before 1989, the bases housed long-range Soviet-made S-200 surface-to-air missiles, which were removed in the mid-1990s.

The bases are equipped with air-conditioned bunkers, special launchers linked by railway tracks, and automatic loading systems. They also still belong to the Czech military, so there would be no tricky land purchases if the plan does go ahead.

The potential problems, however, are not whether the bases are air-conditioned or not. The real obstacle is political. For a start, the Czech Republic still doesn't have a government three weeks after the elections, so the Americans don't really know who they're dealing with. Mirek Topolanek, who's leading coalition talks, says he's broadly in favour of the bases, but there is no guarantee he will be prime minister when the final deal is signed.

Many politicians, particularly on the left, are against the plan. They allegedly include President Vaclav Klaus, who generally never goes against the grain of public opinion. And public opinion here is crucial. A U.S. missile base at Dobris, 60km from Prague? Creating a prime military target, half an hour down the motorway from the Czech capital, at a time of heightened global tension? It's hard to see Czechs jumping for joy at the idea.