Europe, Headlines, Human Rights, North America

CZECH REPUBLIC: Base Drops Out of Radar

Zoltán Dujisin

BUDAPEST, Sep 17 2009 (IPS) - The Czech Republic has entered election campaign period with dire warnings being sounded of falling into the Russian sphere of influence, just as the U.S. drops its plans to build a missile base in Eastern Europe.

The ODS has not recovered from the shock of seeing the U.S. Democratic administration drop its plans to extend the U.S. missile defence system to Eastern Europe, which was communicated this Thursday by U.S. President Barack Obama to caretaker Prime Minister Jan Fischer.

Leader of the opposition Social Democrats Jiri Paroubek described the announcement as a “victory for the Czech people.” He added that “what we’ve been saying for three years has been confirmed: there’s no need for a U.S. missile defence shield.”

Topolanek was less cheerful: “This is not good news for the Czech state, for Czech freedom and independence. It puts us in a position wherein we are not firmly anchored in terms of partnership, security and alliance, and that’s a certain threat,” he said.

Former foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg, who was a member of Topolanek’s cabinet, said the U.S. decision was a diplomatic gesture towards Iran and Russia, and described it as “pretty cheap”.

Schwarzenberg and former Czech president Vaclav Havel are among the many top personalities who signed a letter directed at U.S. President Barack Obama this summer, cautioning him over his overly conciliatory policy towards Russia.

The letter had wide resonance in the Czech Republic and a few neighbouring countries, but few noticed it outside the region. The British magazine The Economist, known for its harsh criticism of Russia’s foreign policy, termed it “plaintive” and “naïve”.

The letter, written by several ‘intellectuals’ and former politicians from post- communist Eastern European countries, says the radar issue had become “a symbol of America’s credibility,” and warned that its handling will have “a significant impact on the future of transatlantic relations.”

Gocev says “certain members of the former government are heavily invested in support of the base and are desperate to such an extent that they even begged the reluctant American side to build the base. They have to vindicate their position in the face of a clear majority opposing it.”

The previous Czech cabinet, led by the neo-liberal Civic Democrats (ODS) of former prime minister Mirek Topolanek, fell last May after losing a vote of confidence in parliament that was moved by the leftist opposition.

Due to a constitutional crisis, the date of the new elections is still unknown, and in the meantime a caretaker cabinet is running the government.

“The ODS fear losing the elections and they are trying to construct the equivalence that voting for the social democrats equals communists ruling again, which equals being under the Russian yoke,” Petr Gocev, researcher at the Prague School of Economics told IPS. “Conversely, voting for ODS means communism is adverted and represents the only guarantee of liberty.”

Czech media connected to figures like Havel and Schwarzenberg regularly promotes the idea that Russia’s network of spies is influencing developments in the country through contacts with local politicians and non-governmental organisations.

Andor Sandor, former chief of Czech Military Intelligence, has said in an interview that Russians “try to influence political decision-making through public opinion,” while admitting that “civic associations do not know that they are connected to Russian spies.”

The views of officials at the Military Intelligence differ little from this. Its annual report states that “Russia did its utmost last year to prevent the construction of a U.S. radar base in the Czech Republic,” adding that “Russian agents are trying to push through their interests in the Czech Republic also via politicians” while returning to “Soviet practice”.

“Here we go again. This is so stupid that it is almost not even worthy of comment,” was how Jan Neoral, founder of the League of Mayors against the Radar reacted to the widely circulated accusations. “I have campaigned against the radar for three years, entirely for free, out of my own convictions, and using my own money.”

Jan Bednar, from the ‘No to the Bases Initiative’, denied the accusations as well, pointing to double standards. “There are also agents of other secret services operating here, in particular the CIA. It is strange that the only thing that is talked about are the activities of the Russian agents.”

The activist also wondered why “no intelligence service has put forward any evidence that Russian spies have influenced us in any way.”

“The Anti-radar movement was always accused of serving Russian interests and being manipulated by Russian intelligence as useful idiots,” Gocev told IPS. “The only reason being, it works. Anti-Russian sentiments prevail among the public since the occupation in 1968 and it is easy to exploit them.”

The left sees political interests behind many of these reports and points to more than professional relations between members of ODS and the intelligence services.

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