By Bruce I. Konviser
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 28, 2007
PRAGUE -- A Bush administration plan to deploy a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe is drawing protests from Russia and from residents who oppose hosting foreign military bases and fear the facilities might make their countries targets for attack.
The proposed placement of about 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar tracking station in the Czech Republic would pose a "clear threat" to Russia, Col. Gen. Vladimir Popovkin, chief of Russia's Space Forces, told reporters last week. He spoke after the United States announced it would open formal negotiations with the two former client states of the Soviet Union.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin underlined his government's opposition Friday, saying in an interview with the ITAR-Tass news agency that "the creation of a U.S. European anti-missile base can only be regarded as a substantial reconfiguration of the American military presence in Europe." He called the move "a mistaken step with negative consequences for international security."
The Bush administration maintains that the missile system is limited and not meant to counter Russia, with its huge nuclear arsenal, but to protect against a "rogue state" such as Iran or North Korea attacking with a small number of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Eastern Europe lies along the flight path such rockets would follow from the Middle East to the United States.
Since the fall of communism, political leaders in Prague and Warsaw have viewed U.S. military prowess as key to their countries' security. They favor the U.S. plans for missile defense, but that may not be enough to carry the day -- there is considerable public opposition to the plans in both countries.
After nearly eight months of political paralysis, a new Czech government finally won a vote of confidence this month -- and the United States issued its request for negotiations shortly afterward. But the government is ruling without a majority in Parliament, which would have to ratify any agreement. It is far from certain that such a vote would win today, political analysts said.
Jitka Pozdenova, who works for a nongovernmental organization that promotes international exchange programs for high school students, said that she opposes the base and that people don't trust U.S. intentions.
"A lot of people are against it because it is an American thing and not a Czech or European operation," she said. "People feel America is doing it for itself."
Ales Janda, a physician, said many Czechs oppose the site being under U.S. control because of the bad memories of the Soviet Union's military presence here. "People are afraid of having a foreign army here, but it is totally different now," he said. "I think if we're a part of NATO, we can't be against it."
Opponents say they will push for a public referendum on the issue, which would intensify the debate.
Some residents here worry that the facilities would make the country a target if there was war. And the Iraq war has cooled public enthusiasm for close military cooperation with the United States, though it remains the most powerful ally of the Czech Republic and Poland.
In addition, emotional scars remain from communist days, when the Soviet Union operated a network of military bases here. Nobody is likening the United States to the country's former master, but the notion of a foreign power controlling a military base on their territory makes many people uncomfortable.
Some analysts are also concerned that bilateral agreements between NATO members will ultimately weaken the alliance. Lubomir Zaoralek, a leading member of the opposition Social Democrats, calls that his chief concern. "There would be no problem if it was a common strategy of NATO," he said.
One other issue is affecting the debate here: visas. At present, citizens of newer European Union member states, most of them from the former Soviet bloc, cannot visit the United States without visas, a fact that rankles many here.
Now, the United States is suddenly moving to change its visa-waiver law to admit people from countries considered good friends and reliable partners, Poland and the Czech Republic among them. All sides insist there is no quid pro quo for accommodation on the missile program.
But in remarks last week, Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg acknowledged the obvious: "These matters, of course, are not in principle interconnected. But the atmosphere in the Congress, when deciding on whether the Czech Republic is to be admitted in the program, can be substantially improved if we show we are a faithful ally of the U.S.A."
Lost in much of the discussion here is that the anti-missile system remains unproved after tens of billions of dollars of development work.
Assuming it worked, it would still be a chicken-and-egg game as to whether the system would enhance U.S. security, said Michael Codner, director of military sciences at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies, a British think tank.
"One could argue that the principle reason for Iran and North Korea having nuclear systems is precisely because they then render themselves much safer from invasion," he said, "bearing in mind that Iraq was invaded and North Korea never has been."