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Czech Govt Under Fire Over US Missile Plans

President Vaclav Klaus (red tie) and new Premier Mirek Topolanek (3rd-L), surrounded by the members of the new right-wing 15-member government, pose for media September 2006 at Prague's Hradcany Castle. Photo courtesy of Michal Cizek and AFP.
by Sophie Pons
Prague (AFP) Sep 09, 2006
Less than a week after taking office, the Czech Republic's new minority government is embroiled in a major political row with opposition parties over a US project to base missiles on Czech territory.

Washington wants to deploy 10 interceptor missiles and a radar in Europe to reinforce its defences against the threat of a ballistic missile attack from North Korea or Iran, and currently has its eye on either the Czech Republic or Poland as the favoured home for the new system.

The Czech Republic's new right wing Civic Democrat government, which finally took office on September 4 after three months of political wrangling in the wake of June elections, wholeheartedly backs the US scheme. Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek has already declared in a television interview that he is "absolutely in favour" of Czech participation.

His foreign minister Alexandr Vondra, a former Czech ambassador to Washington, has made similarly upbeat noises. Almost immediately after taking office he said the missile shield would "reinforce Euro-Atlantic links" and boost his country's security at a time when "certain threats from Iran cannot be underestimated."

But the country's second biggest party, the Social Democrats, along with the Communists are resolutely opposed to the plan.

And if the latest opinion polls are to be believed, most Czech citizens seem to back the left. A recent poll by the Stem organisation showed that 51 percent of the population found the project "unacceptable" and 61 percent thought it should be put to a referendum.

The missile issue has become the country's hottest post-election talking point, with politicians of all colours making daily comments on the question.

Outgoing Social Democrat premier, Jiri Paroubek, has voice his opposition to the project in line with an internal poll of party members.

The Communist Party, which called for an exit from NATO's military structures ahead of the elections, has launched a petition against the US plan, with the party claiming more than 15,000 signatures. The Communists this week also presented a constitutional proposal for a national referendum on the issue.

But despite the findings of the opinion polls, few Czechs have actively taken part in the small number of pacifist or anti-American demonstrations that have been organised in opposition to the missile scheme.

Nevertheless, many people here see any type of US installation as a form of foreign military occupation, sparking painful memories of the seven-year German occupation of the country before and during World War II and the later Soviet presence, according to the local press.

Supporters of the project have, for their part, called into question the validity of the latest opinion polls and complain that people have been misinformed about the missile shield. They point to one Internet site, for example, which claimed the system would disturb television reception and air traffic control. In a bid to scotch such rumours, the Czech foreign ministry this week attempted to stimulate a public discussion about the plans by holding a conference entitled "Why the Czech Republic should take part in the MD (missile defence) project."

On the same day, the US embassy in Prague launched an Internet site aimed at educating Czechs about the project. The site points out that the missile shield "can integrate with emerging NATO concepts for a missile defence system," aimed at protecting Europe and not threatening Russia, which has attacked the plans.

Washington says it is waiting for a "positive signal" from Prague before making a formal request, but it is still carrying on parallel negotiations with Poland.

Unfortunately for the Americans, public opinion in Poland does not seem any more keen on the scheme.

The United States is likely to take a final decision about the location of the missile shield before the end of the year, perhaps after a NATO summit in Riga scheduled for November 28 and 29, according to US diplomatic sources here.

But even if it does choose the Czech option, the final signing of an agreement would require clearance from the lower house of parliament. That is something which in the current political context, with left and right wing factions each having 100 seats, looks unlikely.

With opinions so deeply divided over the issue, Topolanek's Civic Democrat government could just find itself remembered as one of the most short-lived administrations in the Czech Republic's short history.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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