Will the Czech Anti-Bases Movement Take the Bait?
by Gwendolyn Albert, World War 4 Report
From the perspective of the Czech Republic, the transition from the Bush to the Obama administration has been followed primarily through the lens of one issue, the country’s potential participation in the US missile defense system. Since 2006, the issue of locating a US radar base on Czech territory has generated some of the most genuinely spontaneous grassroots activism in the country for the past decade—mostly through the “No to Bases” (NE základnám) coalition of individuals, local mayors and organizations.
The arguments of those opposed to the radar combine nationalist concerns over Czech sovereignty and references to previous military occupations of Czech territory with a dose of pacifism. Along with the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (which the coalition has officially distanced itself from), radar opponents have been calling for a referendum on the issue, a goal they have yet to realize. Opinion polls consistently show 70% of the public were opposed to the Bush administration plan for “the radar,” as it came to be known.
Seeing the genuine participation the movement was generating and sustaining over time, the opposition Social Democrats decided to play to the anti-radar crowd around regional election time. Last year, party chair Jiri Paroubek sliced himself a hefty chunk of publicity by suggesting hunger striking activists start eating and instead institute a “chain hunger strike” including prominent celebrities to get their point across. For his part, Czech President Klaus accused the hunger strikers of “emotional blackmail.”
Proponents of the radar were former Czech President Václav Havel and the now-defunct center-right government of former Czech PM Mirek Topolánek, which included the Czech Greens and the Christian Democrats. The Czech media echoed both the US scenario of Iran as a potential aggressor and Russia’s claims that it was the real “target” of the radar installation and the “anti-missile missiles” to be placed in Poland as part of the scheme.
In March of this year, the Topolánek government withdrew a motion it had submitted to the Czech Parliament for approving the installation of a US military radar base on Czech territory. While those opposed to the radar did their best to spin the government’s move as a capitulation to public pressure, sadly, their analysis was not credible. The move was actually a tactical step by Topolánek to guarantee political support for ratification of the Lisbon Treaty (a whole other drama in itself).
The Topolánek government was toppled in a fifth attempt at a vote of no-confidence, square in the middle of the country’s first-ever EU presidency. A new caretaker cabinet was sworn in, headed by Czech PM Jan Fischer. Meanwhile, the Obama administration had launched its “reset” of diplomacy with Russia. In September, the Czech press reported that the country had “suffered yet another blow” when the Obama administration withdrew the Bush radar plan. The administration’s timing—on the anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939—was a gift to all those on the Czech scene who perpetually warn of a renewed Russian threat to Central Europe, EU membership notwithstanding. Poland’s staunch support for the US in Afghanistan and Iraq was also invoked by critics. US Vice President Joseph Biden later apologized for the poor timing.
Havel and other Central European leaders immediately sent a letter warning the new US administration insisting that Russia remains a threat to Central Europe and that they will essentially not rest easy until US troops are on their soil. Iran (by now undergoing its own political upheaval) was cast aside entirely as a pretext, and Czech pundits alleged that Obama was suffering from “naiveté” when it came to understanding the nature of the Russian beast he was accused of trying to “appease.” Some compared the Obama administration’s move to the 1938 Munich agreement signed by Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, France and the UK to permit the Nazi annexation of Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland. Meanwhile, those opposed to the radar were celebrating the Obama administration’s move as yet another victory of their own—prematurely, as it turns out, and without paying attention to the fine print.
The emotional discussion of the radar on the Czech scene—which combines agonized soul-searching over the country’s reputation as a NATO ally, dire predictions of future betrayals by “the West” or a resumption of tyranny from “the East,” and the anti-radar movement’s idealization of “people power” (which borders on the delusional in its attempts to connect the dots between its actions and those of Czech government)—was somewhat revived in October when the Obama administration sent Vice President Biden to the Czech Republic and Poland to offer a scaled-down version of the missile defense plan.
Instead of focusing on the potential for an eventual Iranian ICBM threat and the need for a “missile shield” to protect the entire West, the new plan is ostensibly designed to address Iran’s supposed ability to strike at NATO allies such as Turkey with medium-range missiles. The New York Times reported the Obama administration plans to deploy smaller, more mobile SM-3 interceptor missiles by 2011, first aboard ships and later on land in Europe—likely in either the Czech Republic or Poland. The primary difference between the Bush and Obama plans is that the Obama plan is clearly labeled as a NATO project and will involve a mobile missile system, not permanent bases.
So far, the Obama plan has not proven nearly as polarizing in the Czech Republic as the Bush one—which is a bit strange. After all, it could well result in locating not just radar but mobile missiles in the country. For some reason, however, the energy of the many demonstrations and public events that characterized anti-radar campaign over the past few years has not yet revived. For example, the turnout of those protesting Biden’s visit was less than 40 people altogether.
The “No to Bases” movement says it does indeed plan to keep protesting, as they do not believe Iran poses a threat to either Europe or the USA. In their view, ant missile defense plan is a cover for the next phase of militarizing space. “No to Bases” also analyzes missile defense as a US attempt to make the Czech Republic and Poland “Trojan horses” for destabilizing the rise of the EU as a military superpower.
In the “No to Bases” view, Iran will only pose a threat to Europe should Europe pose a threat to it. The location of mobile missiles on Czech territory would make the entire Czech Republic a target in the event of an actual attack, and would therefore decrease, not increase, Czech security. Moreover, “No to Bases” claim Iran is now and will remain militarily much weaker than nuclear powers Russia, Israel, India, Pakistan or the USA. They identify the possible threat to Iran posed by US military forces in neighboring Iraq as a major motivating factor for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. Lastly, they criticize the fact that even though the current Czech caretaker government has no “mandate” to negotiate on the Biden offer, the Czech Defense Ministry is clearly doing so anyway.
On November 3, the World Peace March (a largely European effort mostly led by the International Humanist Party) arrived in Prague with a general “Peace Party” demonstration involving celebrity musicians. Unlike previous events specifically focused on the radar issue and involving many of the same actors from the Humanist and other movements, this particular event was not promoted as related to the Biden offer or missile defense. It received almost no domestic media coverage except for brief reports that the protesters had blocked traffic in Wenceslas Square. Estimates of the numbers attending vary so widely that it is all but impossible to know how many people attended or what it even meant as a political event. While police reports and most Czech media reported 750 people in attendance, the independent electronic media gave estimates as high as 5 000, while adding that most in attendance were there for the celebrity performances. Organizers claim as many as 8 000 turned out. This was either the most underreported political event of the year, or it was just, as advertised, a “party”—and one that seems to have been made little use of by those opposed to a very specific military-related agenda for this country.
Missed opportunities seem to keep accumulating. November 17 marked the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, and “No to Bases” took a strange tactic towards what could be an important day for reiterating their demands—indeed, a day that usually saw some of their highest turnouts in past years. In a press release, organizers said that this year they did not want to be part of any “false celebrations” and have decided not to hold any events. The statement said they did not want to support the “uncritical adoration of the post-November developments”—especially as all those promoting the celebrations are ardent missile defense supporters who will “misuse it as a day of renewal of ‘Euro-Atlantic ties.'”
It is hard to avoid the sensation that the wind is going out of “No to Bases” sails even as the possibility of the location of US military and missiles on their territory is rising—and even as official Russian protest over the issue has died down and progress is being reported on its nuclear pacts with the USA. Is the “reset” of Russia-US relations a factor in the domestic Czech calculus?
At the start of 2010, the Czech Republic will add nuclear fuel to the list of natural resources it imports almost exclusively from Russia (natural gas and oil are the others). This is fuel that will fire up the reactors of the country’s power plants, owned and operated by CEZ, the world’s most profitable power company, in which the Czech government owns a two-thirds stake. CEZ is on the brink of becoming a major exporter of electricity further east, but it will be dependent on Russian resources to do so. The Topolánek government made energy independence from Russia a major platform during its EU presidency, but for some reason those who have been willing to take to the streets about the presence of US troops on Czech soil are less fired up about the stranglehold Russia will soon hold over everyday power production in the country. It seems that where notions of sovereignty are concerned, the emotional weight of the threat of a foreign military presence is a much stronger force in the Czech imagination than are notions of “self-sufficiency” with respect to energy. A virtual fight against past injustices, after all, can be waged indefinitely.
Gwendolyn Albert, a US citizen, is a permanent resident of the Czech Republic, a member of the Czech government’s Human Rights Council representing civil society, and director of the Women’s Initiatives Network at the Peacework Development Fund.
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From our Daily Report:
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Reprinting permissible with attribution