Czech Dissidents Stand Up Again—This Time to the Pentagon!

by Gwendolyn Albert, WW4 REPORT

In violation of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the and commitments made in the year 2000 at the UN Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, the United States is planning to expand its missile shield defenses—a system to target potential incoming missiles and shoot them down en route—to cover any potential missiles fired from the Middle East, seen as a growing threat due to Iran’s reported pursuit of ballistic missile technology.

The plan is to place 10 interceptor rockets in the northwestern town of Koszalin in Poland, and a radar base in the Brdy district southwest of Prague in the Czech Republic to track any incoming missiles. Iran reportedly is in possession of medium-range missiles now which could reach Israel or Turkey, and the US claims Iran could possess an ICBM by 2015. The cost of this European expansion of the missile defense shield is estimated at $3.5 billion. Around 200 US personnel, both military and civilian, are expected to work at the Czech base, which would be the first of its kind in Europe.

Since the idea of a missile defense shield was first proposed during the Reagan administration, the US has spent approximately $110 billion developing it. In response to the reported threat from North Korea, the US has already set up two sets of missile interceptors at Ft. Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California—again in violation of international non-proliferation agreements—to defend against incoming missiles from that country.

Critics of the effort say it will not work: In 2004, the Union of Concerned Scientists issued a 76-page report entitled “Technical Realities” which found “no basis for believing the system will have any capability to defend against a real attack.”

Undaunted, the Bush administration has also announced plans to place interceptors—missiles to shoot down other missiles—not on earth, but in orbit, reviving and expanding a proposal which prompted critics of the plan two decades ago to nickname it “Star Wars.” This expansion could cost as much as $200 billion. The militarization of space is obviously fraught with ethical and political problems which will increase existing tensions in an unstable world and accelerate the arms race.

Back to Wenceslas Square

The first rumblings of dissent against the plan to locate the US anti-missile radar base in the Czech Republic came from two segments of civil society which can in no way be described as having “popular” appeal in this country: the tiny peace movement (whose efforts to protest the Iraq war are consistently undermined by the Czech Communist Party driving away potential centrist supporters) and the slightly more institutionalized (but still small) women’s movement. These two groups were ahead of the game on this issue years ago, when rumors of the plans for the US base first surfaced, and their activism has spurred what has become a genuinely popular, nationwide wave of protest, “NE zakladnam” (“No to Bases”), complete with petition drives and demonstrations all over the country. Recent public opinion polls show more than 60 % of the country is opposed to a US anti-missile radar base on Czech territory.

May 26, 2007: yet another demonstration against the base is called for 3 PM on Wenceslas Square in the capital Prague, site of the famous demonstrations that accompanied the collapse of the communist regime in 1989. Two thousand people turn out; in Poland, a similar demonstration draws one thousand people in the capital Warsaw. The “NE zakladnam” poster at the Prague protest reads “David vs. Goliath” and makes a pun on the similarity between the words “radar” and “zrada”—meaning treachery, betrayal, treason. Banners carried at the demonstrations often read: “1938 – Munich, 1968 – the Kremlin, 2006 – No more decisions about us without us!” The movement is not only protesting the planned base, but is calling for a nationwide referendum on the issue. Opinion polls show that as many as 73% of the Czech public agree a referendum should be held.

“Referendum” is a touchy word in this part of the world. Many here still remember Vaclav Havel’s hopeful prediction, prior to his political career, that the fall of the Berlin Wall would herald the dismantling of not only the Warsaw Pact, but also of NATO; that vision of a “peace dividend” and a nuclear weapons-free Europe has yet to be realized. As for including the public in decisions, referenda were never held on two of the largest decisions to ever affect this country, the decision to divide Czechoslovakia into two separate states and the decision to join NATO. A referendum on EU membership was held under the auspices of what was then a center-left government, and the Social Democrats, currently in opposition, are supporting the call for a referendum on the base issue as well.

One of the reasons the base strikes such a nerve with people here, besides their visceral dislike of the idea of foreign troops in a place that has had its fill of military occupation, is that it touches on the thorny issue of “sovereignty,” a concept which is not the territory of the right wing alone but resonates with the nationalism that is common currency across the political spectrum here. The issue is also providing a forum for Czech society to debate how it understands the events of the last twenty years of “transition,” as well as a test of the responsiveness of Czech democracy.

Czech critics of the radar base argue that there is no difference between a radar base and a missile base, and claim the base could be used offensively as well as defensively, all assurances notwithstanding. They say that by permitting the US base, the Czech Republic would simply become an instrument of America’s unilateral foreign policy, its attempt at military domination of the globe from space, and its “war on terror.” They argue that NATO membership does not require them to allow a US base to be located in the country, and finally, that the base will not only not make the Czech Republic more secure, it may actually make the country more of a target.

They also stress that the Czech authorities will have no right to monitor the US base as to its actual use once it is installed. Whether most opponents of the base genuinely identify with all these arguments is an open question; what is clear is that most people reject the idea because the decision to begin negotiations on the plan was made without their input. The question of whether to invite the US base in was never even raised during last year’s parliamentary election campaign.

The current right-wing government was only formed after an embarrassing post-election wrangling period of more than half a year, and it has a tenuous grip on power at best. The radar issue is not its only foreign policy challenge, but it is definitely the one that has prompted the most domestic debate and action. As on many other issues, the government has been its own worst enemy, with Czech PM Topolanek impatiently scoffing at the idea that the base is anything but a done deal. Indeed, attendance at a demonstration on the issue in Prague this winter was probably given an extra boost by the attempt of the (right-wing) Prague City Hall to “ban” the gathering, claiming it would “disrupt traffic.”

Technically the city has no powers to “ban” public gatherings; no official “permission” is required to assemble in public, just notification to the authorities of the planned location and route of the event. But the city can send police to disperse a gathering deemed unsafe, and the Czech media still use the term “ban” to describe the authorities’ expression of disagreement with certain gatherings. Turnout was higher than expected – the press reported 500 people gathered, but those attending estimated numbers at 2,000 – and the event took place without incident.

Who is the Enemy?

The mayors of 23 communities surrounding the military training area in Brdy, the planned site of the base, have written directly to the US Congress to express their opposition. Since the calls for a national referendum have so far gone unheeded, some local governments have held their own plebiscites on the matter, such as the village of Trokavec, located a mere two kilometers from the planned site. In that plebiscite 70 people voted against the radar, one voted in favor, and 16 eligible voters did not participate. Three more villages plan to hold plebiscites on the issue on June 2 in the run-up to President Bush’s planned visit here.

The votes are symbolic and have no legal effect, but they did prompt the US to send Gerald C. Augeri, assistant head of MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, to visit the mayors and address their concerns. among its other activities, the Lincoln Lab runs an R&D program developing sensor systems for use in the missile defense shield program. Augeri told local politicians that the radar station would not affect electronic devices or mobile phones and would be placed at least four kilometers from the nearest houses.

Czech Greenpeace has also been active on the issue, trying to leverage the fact that Czech Foreign Minister Schwarzenberg ran on the Green Party ticket and should theoretically be much more susceptible to pressure by environmentalists than if he were from any other party in the governing coalition. Czech Greenpeace executive director Jiru Tutter issued a sharp critique of the text of the diplomatic note between the USA and Czech Republic proposing terms for the base agreement, reminding the foreign minister that any foreign army to be stationed on Czech territory for longer than 60 days must, according to Article 43 of the Czech Constitution, receive the support of parliament. Certain terms used by the USA in the note seemed to be an attempt to help the Czech government try to circumvent this requirement, but that did not wash for long. As a result of all this public pressure, the Czech foreign affairs and defense ministries announced on May 22 that they will submit their own counterproposal to Washington’s initial proposal within two months, and that the counterproposal would outline what sorts of “services” the US should provide in exchange for the base being located here.

Some Czech political commentators have noted that the country’s stance on the issue has been complicated by the fact that the government does not present a clear (or even a unified) foreign policy. Czech Foreign Minister Schwarzenberg is perceived as a figurehead, with most analysts saying the foreign policy show is really being run by deputy PM for European affairs Alexander Vondra of the governing Civic Democratic Party (ODS), a former Czech ambassador to the US who is the main person reporting on the progress of the Czech negotiations to parliament.

Vondra has spoken of a potential rejection of the base in catastrophic terms, claiming it could lead to Prague breaking its ties with NATO, which would in turn require the reintroduction of compulsory military service in the Czech Republic. Compulsory service was abolished in 2005. Czech Defense Minister Vlasta Parkanova, another cabinet member from a minority party to have been more or less sidelined by Vondra’s advocacy of the base, immediately contradicted his analysis.

Even though the missile defense shield is a US plan (not a NATO one), Washington claims the 26 NATO allies will all receive protection under the shield. But Germany expressed concern in April that Bulgaria, Greece, and Romania would actually be left out of the shield’s protective radius. The US move means debate at NATO about its own plans for missile interception is now on the front burner, and the NATO countries have held high-level talks with Russia—which has expressed its objection in no uncertain terms.

Czech Defense Ministry officials have repeatedly insisted that the base is not intended for use against Russia or China, as the communists contend, and that the technical parameters of its configuration and geographical location mean it can only be used to detect potential missiles from the Middle East. This contention is disputed by Russia, which claims that Iranian, North Korean or Syrian rockets would probably not go across Central Europe on their way to the US, but that a radar station in the Czech Republic would be able to monitor rocket installations in central Russia and the Russian Northern Fleet.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threat to train his missiles on the Czech Republic and Poland should they host the bases coverage in both the Czech press and global media, as has the maneuvers of US, EU and NATO diplomats. But criticism from another Russian source has received surprisingly little coverage. Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev made a statement in Kaliningrad on April 12, bluntly calling the planned US bases in the Czech Republic and Poland part of America’s plan to “control Europe.”

Certainly Germany, which currently holds the EU presidency, has not expressed the enthusiasm for the US plans that the UK has, but Germany has also not tried to raise the issue in NATO—which takes the position that the question is a purely bilateral one between the US and the countries concerned. Elsewhere in Europe, the issue was a key topic during the recent presidential elections in France, with the eventual right-wing victor Sarkozy expressing himself during the election campaign as follows: “It is rather disturbing, in my opinion, that the US is not discussing this anti-missile defense system with our European partners. I do not understand how anyone can say that this is simply a problem for the Czech Republic and Poland, and not a problem for Europe, unless we want to abandon our ambitions for a European defense policy.” At the European Parliament, Social Democratic MEPs from Austria, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, and Poland have also written to the US Congress expressing the socialist faction’s view that the plan could “divide the international community and therefore seriously threaten efforts to restrict the further spread of weapons of mass destruction.” Austrian President Heinz Fischer has also expressed opposition to the plan.

What are the Chances?

What of the 30 % of the Czech Republic that supports the base, according to polls? Protests are sometimes attended by an iconoclast or two holding the American flag in staunch support of the US base. Their argument runs thus: the Americans saved us last time (meaning WWII), and the rest of you will be crying for them to come save us again sooner or later, this time from Iran, or North Korea, or Syria. The US helped us end communism and we are allies again at long last, so let their radar in. One group even held a demonstration in favor of locating missiles as well as radar on Czech territory, but theirs is clearly a minority opinion. Polls do show that 56% of the Czech public believe the country should defend itself against a possible missile attack-but on its own, without the assistance of the global superpower.

The Defense Ministry says that the Czech Republic is in fact already within range of the existing missile capability of the countries from which the threat is presumed to come, but has tried to downplay the critics’ assertion that this is precisely why building such a target on Czech territory is undesirable. They have also claimed an 80% effectiveness rate for the system in the Czech media—a remarkable claim to anyone who has followed the debate on the system in the US, where the efficacy of this entire idea has been questioned for decades now. Senator Carl Levin (D-MI), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said last fall that the Pentagon had not yet performed operational testing with convincing enough results that the system would actually work when needed.

The Czech Defense Ministry website links to a fairly wide range of media coverage of the issue, including a piece on the actual equipment concerned, which is to be relocated from the Kwajalein atoll in the Pacific—a move which is also causing some controversy there. A poll in May 2007 for the Polish daily Rceczpospolita reported two-thirds of Poles also believe the decision to install the missile base in their country should be preceded by a national referendum. Fifty-one percent said they opposed the base, while 30% were in favor, a ratio similar to the Czech statistics. Plans are also afoot to locate another US radar base for the missile shield in the Caucasus.

The US has asked that the Czech Republic to make its final decision by next year, and that will depend on parliament. It is unclear at this time how the lower house will vote. The US Congress is also key, as it controls the funding for the plan, and members of the House Armed Services Committee are reluctant to commit funds without a clear, formal agreement with the Czech Republic and Poland and an expression of full support from NATO. The committee has already cut the Pentagon’s request for funds for the European part of the system by more than half, citing concerns that the technology is not ready, but the budget could still be restored later by the appropriations committee. If approved, the base would begin operations in 2011.


Gwendolyn Albert, a US citizen, is a permanent resident of the Czech Republic, a member of the Czech Government Human Rights Council representing civil society, and Director of the Women’s Initiatives Network at the Peacework Development Fund.


Technical Realities: An Analysis of the 2004 Deployment of a US National Missile Defense System
Union of Concerned Scientists, 2004…

Czech Ministry of Defense — Information Campaign on Missile Defense

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