Europe, Headlines, North America

EUROPE: U.S. Base Nears Moment of Truth

Zoltán Dujisin

PRAGUE, Jan 21 2008 (IPS) - U.S. diplomatic and business representatives have stepped up their lobbying activities to secure a deal for the construction of a military base in Central-Eastern Europe ahead of the U.S. presidential vote.

The U.S. administration is hurrying to secure an agreement with Czechs and Poles to enlarge its missile defence system to Central-Eastern Europe by building a radar in the Czech Republic and a missile base in Poland.

A two-day seminar held Jan. 16-17 in Prague brought together representatives of 40 Czech businesses and 10 U.S. arms producers, among them giants such as Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, to discuss the construction of the missile defence system.

The meeting was attended by Czech foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg and Missile Defence Agency (MDA) director Henry Obering, who also visited Prague to promote the radar’s construction.

Czech businessmen exchanged business cards and gave 20-minute presentations on how they could be useful to the U.S. companies.

Following the seminar, Schwarzenberg declared that an exclusive treaty between U.S. and Czech firms and scientists could be signed by June, and that it would “minimise legal, commercial and political obstacles and create favourable conditions for new contacts between Czech and U.S. businesspeople and researchers.”

Czech deputy foreign minister Tomas Pojar adds that he is pushing to have Czech companies involved in the construction and maintenance of the radar base, and says he plans to sign a ministerial agreement allowing Czech companies to participate in research and development relating to the missile defence system.

But the lobbying efforts of U.S. government officials and companies partially backfired when the arms giant Raytheon, the world’s largest producer of guided missiles, invited several Czech deputies for a dinner at the U.S. embassy to “support the cooperation of Czech and U.S. companies in the military industry.” Most opposition and governmental deputies reportedly rejected the invitation, claiming it was inappropriate for a private company to lobby politicians in this manner.

“If the corporation really wanted to appeal to Czech politicians, it could have done it using a letter but certainly not by inviting them to a dinner,” Jan Vidim from the ruling Civic Democrats told the daily Pravo.

The government’s pro-radar stance was also questioned by statements coming from U.S. top security expert Philip Coyle, who visited Prague following an invitation by the Czech branch of Greenpeace.

During his visit Coyle met with media, politicians and mayors of the localities to be affected by the radar base to claim that the system that has so far cost the U.S. over 110 billion dollars is unreliable, could re-heat the Cold War, and will make the country of 10 million less safe.

Coyle, for several years a Pentagon official, furthermore declared that the expansion of the missile defence system to Eastern Europe was primarily meant to protect similar U.S. military infrastructure in Greenland and the UK rather than defend U.S. allies from long-range missiles as its radar supporters claim.

Greenpeace’s Martin Kloubek said his organisation invited Coyle to show that not even in the U.S. is there agreement on the radar, unlike what the government wants the public to believe.

“Mr. Coyle’s visit is part of the public and politicians getting independent, non politically influenced expert or scientific views, and it also shows there is no consensus on the system in the U.S.,” Kloubek told IPS.

General Obering and deputy foreign minister Pojar implied Coyle upholds out of date views as he abandoned the development of missile defence systems seven years ago, whereas Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek refused to comment on Coyle’s views, arguing that his visit was of an unofficial nature.

Coyle says General Obering’s claims that the system actually works are based on tests performed under unrealistic operational conditions.

Obering’s visit to Prague is part of a U.S. effort to rush the project’s completion ahead of the U.S. elections, Coyle told IPS. The senior advisor to the independent Centre for Defence Information in Washington explains that once an agreement has been signed with Prague and Warsaw it will become “very difficult for the next U.S. presidential administration to do something different.

“I don’t think Czech citizens should take those risks if the system doesn’t actually work. If the radar is built in the Czech Republic that would be the first thing the enemy would attack to blind its opponent,” Coyle told IPS.

Whereas newly elected Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk reportedly prefers to wait until the upcoming U.S. presidential election before taking a definite stance on the missile base, Topolanek is keen on reaching an agreement by April. The Czech Prime Minister says a draft agreement could be ready in February and the definite treaties sent to parliament by June.

But the new Polish government, which has toughened its demands with the U.S. and considers its endeavour to set up a missile base on Polish territory an additional security liability, might condition the pace of talks for the more enthusiastic Czechs.

Consultations with North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) member states and Russia are expected to intensify under Tusk’s fresh tenure.

The Czech opposition and some experts have criticised their government for not toughening its demands following Poland’s pattern.

Topolanek himself, who usually dismisses Moscow’s concerns over the radar, has admitted the negotiations could be delayed by “external influence”, and has agreed to coordinate the Czech position with Warsaw.

The Czech Prime Minister recently declared that the radar base should be part of the NATO system, and together with Obering has expressed hope that the April NATO summit in Bucharest will endorse the project.

If the Czech government agrees to the base, the decision will have to pass in the country’s parliament and will require the president’s signature, but no radar will be built if Poland doesn’t go ahead with the missile base.

The government will also need to cope with the highest opposition rate measured so far in spite of its half-million euro information campaign: the latest opinion poll concluded that 70 percent of Czechs oppose the stationing of the radar on Czech soil against a mere 23 percent supporting it.

Nevertheless, many believe that in the end public opinion will be irrelevant. “There will be no referendum, and the government knows well that what people think does not matter,” leading daily Hospodarske Noviny wrote Jan. 14. “What matters is how parliament will approach the negotiated international treaties with the U.S. Therefore, the masses do not need to be convinced.”

“Unfortunately it depends on a decision by parliament,” Kloubek told IPS. “But for many parties it will be very hard to ignore such public resistance.”

Kloubek also admits to the possibility that “some politicians” are aware of the missile defence system’s shortcomings but don’t really care as its purpose is to strengthen the Czech alliance with the U.S. “But not the majority of MPs see it this way,” he said.

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