Washington courts Moscow, ruffles feathers in Prague

Washington's efforts to overcome Russian hostility to a US missile defense shield in central Europe by inviting a Russian presence at the planned US sites in the Czech Republic and Poland has caused a storm of controversy in Prague. In view of the fact that Russian troops occupied the country for twenty years after the crushing of the Prague Spring reforms in 1968 - the idea that even a small number of them should now be invited back by the US government, for whatever reason - is not easy for Czechs to stomach.

Lubomir Zaoralek,  photo: CTK
The Czech government had barely started making some headway in convincing the public that hosting a US radar site on Czech territory would be to the country's advantage when Washington announced its unexpected concession to Russia. "The Cold War is over. Russia is not our enemy," US President Bush said, urging the Russians to cooperate in blunting what he called a growing threat from Iran. While in Moscow the appeal evoked a lukewarm reaction, in Prague it caused a veritable storm. Lower house deputy chairman Lubomir Zaoralek of the opposition Social Democrats said that without Czech consent the US offer to Moscow was a breach of Czech sovereignty.

"It is simply not acceptable for any country to negotiate with another country about deploying soldiers - be they Turkish, Chinese or Russian - on the territory of a sovereign state."

Mr. Zaoralek demanded to know whether the Czech government knew beforehand of the US proposal, and if so why it had not informed the lower house about it. Under fire, Prime Minister Topolanek said that the opposition was blowing the matter out of proportion. Nothing had been settled he said, and nothing would be done without Czech consent. Despite the prime minister's assurances, the manner in which this news broke has thrown a spanner in the government's efforts to win support for the US radar base. It is grist to the mill of the opposition Social Democrats and Communists who were against the radar from the start. And even some members of the coalition government who originally supported the radar base say they might vote against if it involves having a Russian military presence in the Czech Republic, no matter how small.

Washington's efforts to overcome Russian hostility to its missile defense program have ruffled a lot of feathers in Prague, and political analyst Jiri Pehe says that if the two countries decide to go ahead with the plan the Czech government will have to make an embarrassing about-turn.

"If the Americans and the Russians decide that this is the way to go then Washington will put a lot of pressure on Czech politicians and at that point the Czech government will have many problems. First it will have to communicate this new situation to the public and that will not be easy and second, I think that the Czech government has in a way cornered itself by putting so much emphasis on bilateral negotiations with the US on the matter of the radar and insisting that Russia should not be allowed to influence the Czech government's decision. Politically this is a very sensitive issue for the Czech government because it would have to admit that under pressure from the United States it was forced to totally reverse its policy and make Russia part of the deal."

No matter how the situation develops, the prime minister will have to explain the government's position on this sensitive matter to the lower house next Tuesday where opposition deputies are preparing to grill him on issues of foreign policy and national interests.