Czechs Could Shoot Down Hope for Missile Defense

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 5, 2009

PRAGUE, April 4 -- As elsewhere in Europe, President Obama received the red-carpet treatment when he arrived in the Czech Republic on Saturday. But he was also greeted by crowds of demonstrators who have nearly succeeded in defeating a key component of the Pentagon's missile-defense shield and who want Obama to bury the project for good.

Polls show that about 70 percent of Czechs oppose the shield, a futuristic project designed to intercept long-range missiles fired by Iran at Europe or the United States. Despite popular opinion, the Czech government signed a treaty with the Bush administration in July to host a radar tracking system, one of two legs of the shield that would be based in Eastern Europe.

In recent weeks, however, foes have nearly derailed the project here, a turn of events that has surprised even some activists.

Last month, the government was forced to postpone a legislative vote to ratify the treaty after opponents mustered enough support to block it. A few days later, lawmakers voted to dissolve the government of Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, a leading champion of the shield.

Topolanek remains in power for the moment but is a lame duck until elections can be held, probably in October. Analysts said a new government, mindful of public skepticism of the missile shield, will probably let the unratified treaty lay dormant, if not kill it outright.

"As far as the Czechs are concerned right now, it's on the shelf," said Oldrich Cerny, a former Czech national security adviser and foreign intelligence chief. "It didn't stand a chance of being ratified by the Parliament in its current shape."

Obama has said he has doubts about whether the interceptors will work and has questioned whether the project is affordable, but he has not pulled the plug on it. That has prompted opponents to plan large-scale demonstrations Sunday -- when Obama is scheduled to make an open-to-the-public speech at Prague Castle.

"The truth is, the treaties are not dead. They can be brought back to life," said Jan Tamas, a leader of the Nonviolent Movement, a coalition that has lobbied against the shield. "That's the strange thing about it. We have our own politicians who have already gone completely against the will of the people, so who knows what they'll try to do."

Jana Glivicka, a spokeswoman for a group called the No Bases Initiative, said many Czechs think highly of Obama and have been encouraged that he has expressed doubts about the missile shield. But she said she doubts Obama will go so far as to bury it.

The only way to do that -- or at least to ensure that the Czechs play no role in the project -- is to pressure Czech lawmakers to kill the treaty, she said.

"We really want to win this battle at home in the Czech Republic," Glivicka said. "It's not just a question of foreign policy. It's a battle for democracy. We can vote down this relic of the Bush administration on our own."

The Pentagon has said it is crucial to base the shield in Eastern Europe so it can intercept Iranian missiles aimed at Europe or the United States.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company