Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

CZECH REPUBLIC: People Battle Radar Site

Zoltán Dujisin

PRAGUE, May 21 2008 (IPS) - Greenpeace activists have occupied the tentative site of a U.S. radar base, supported by the mayors and the population of surrounding villages and towns. But the government is as determined to comply with U.S. requests.

On the early morning of Apr. 28, 20 Greenpeace activists occupied an area of the Brdy woods 90km southwest of Prague, where the Czech right-wing cabinet intends to set up a radar base that will extend the U.S. missile defence system to Eastern Europe.

The military has so far restrained from evicting the Greenpeace activists, to avoid giving them further media attention.

U.S. experts have chosen the peak near the small village of Misov as the site of the radar dome, but locals fear the electromagnetic radiation to be emitted by the radar could endanger their health, and are wary of becoming potential military targets in case of conflict.

Locals are sceptical of the government-commissioned reports claiming the radar is harmless, and question their independence.

Their scepticism has been supported by scientists from the Institute of Electronic Engineering in Brno and by Greenpeace experts who have criticised the scientific validity of the successive reports.

Moreover, local authorities complain of a general lack of information from the government side, and even of threats and pressures. Prague claims secrecy is imperative at a time of ongoing bilateral negotiations.

At the site of the base, Greenpeace activists have hanged pictures of volunteers who have photographed themselves holding targets which read 'My aim is not to be aimed at', while they organise cultural events which try to involve locals.

To reach the site, locals, journalists or activists either need a special permit or they have to sneak in through the woods and dodge military controls. Violations carry a fine of up to 120 Euros.

One of the locals that made it to the site is Martin, owner of a photography store who moved to the area a few years ago from Prague seeking the quiet of the countryside. Now he might have to consider a new location to settle.

After successfully fighting the construction of a mobile operator tower in his backyard, Martin faces an even more daunting task with the radar. He has decided to offer his house as a "base" for protesters. "This time around things look more difficult, but I'm hopeful," he told IPS.

Activists feel most Czechs are on their side, "We've enjoyed the support of the majority of the population for quite some time," head of the Czech branch of Greenpeace Jiri Tutter told IPS.

The radar is opposed by 60 to 70 percent of the Czech public, the left-wing opposition, various civil society organisations and by a Russia that sees it as an aggressive geopolitical move on the side of Washington.

Greenpeace's protest could have come to an end had the Czech government agreed to postpone the decision on the radar until after the U.S. presidential election in November. "That didn't happen, so we will stay here as long as it is meaningful," Tutter told IPS.

Instead, the government says a deal will be announced soon, and is waiting to see if it can secure enough support in parliament, especially from the junior governing Green Party which is undecided on the issue.

But some locals in Misov are becoming apathetic. "I think there's nothing to do, the government has already decided the base will be here," an old woman watching Greenpeace activists packing their mini-van outside the woods told IPS.

For many other locals, after the decades of Soviet presence at the Brdy military base, U.S. presence would hardly be embraced enthusiastically.

"Like any normal person, I am against the radar," Jana, a middle-aged woman working on her garden told IPS. "For me it is not so much the radar itself, but the fact we'll have soldiers again restricting access to the woods," she said.

Access to the woods has always been restricted, but soldiers turned a blind eye in the past. With the looming possibility of U.S. troops settling in the area, the military has stiffened controls.

Asked why these woods are important to locals, Jana says "we live off them; we pick our mushrooms and cut our wood there."

Some of the mayors of the localities around the Brdy woods complain they cannot use the 200 hectares of forest in the military area, and that the toll on the local economy adds up to tens of thousands of Euros.

Local authorities would like to open the area for tourism, but central authorities argue this can only be done only slowly as unexploded munitions could be situated in the forest.

The radar is rejected by most municipalities in the Central and Western Czech Republic, and mayors have formed an association of towns and villages to fight the construction of the base.

The Anti-Radar League, as it is known, was joined by mayors of 31 of the 34 municipalities eventually affected by the construction of the base.

The Czech government is promising a generous aid package for the region, but the mayors say they don't wish to be bribed, and that much needed aid should arrive regardless of the radar.

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