PRAGUE — Even before the Czech government collapsed last week in a vote of no confidence, the prospects for installing parts of a U.S.-backed missile defense system here were looking increasingly dim.
Two weeks ago the government pulled the missile defense item from the agenda in parliament because it feared a vote. Now Czechs will be looking for what U.S. President Barack Obama has to say about it, according to Jan Hartl, director of the STEM polling agency.
“A lot of people hope that the issue of the radar — and whether it's needed, and what's the real aim, and how it comes together with a series of other issues — will be clarified by President Obama,” Hartl said.
Results of a public opinion poll released by the STEM agency last month showed Czechs are conflicted.
More than 70 percent say a joint European Union security policy is more important than security cooperation with the United States, while just 28 percent say cooperation with the United States will better ensure the country's security. Seventy-two percent oppose U.S. plans for a missile defense base here.
The planned base, about 60 miles southwest of Prague, is intended to house a tracking radar that would support a missile interceptor base in Poland. Public — and political — opposition to the base has remained strong since it was first publicized in January 2007.
“When we measured reaction to the American radar there was a tendency among the population to stress the strategic security role of the EU,” Hartl said. “At the beginning of that debate it came as a surprise to a large part of the Czech Republic that Europe does not have any defense capabilities against strategic missiles and that European armed forces is a very difficult political issue.”
Not even a personal visit from then-President George W. Bush in June 2007 could shift public opinion — if anything, it strengthened opposition to the plans.
“Generally the Czech Republic has a very favorable attitude towards the United States and the American people,” Hartl said. “But they had a very negative view of George Bush. At that time of the Bush administration it was perceived that the American solution does not seem feasible and it would be advisable to look for an EU-based solution to security threats.”
But, he added, “People know the United States is the basis of the security construction of NATO.”
The Obama administration has given indications that it's willing to reconsider the missile defense plans, which have also infuriated Russia.
Even though the interceptors have succeed in hitting their assigned targets in little more than half of their tests — tests that independent experts say have been so dumbed-down as to not be realistic — the Kremlin insists the bases pose a threat to Russia because they are located so close to its borders. And Russia has even threatened to deploy medium-range missiles in the enclave of Kaliningrad aimed at the Czech and Polish bases.
Washington has said that if Moscow can help dissuade Iran from pursuing development of long-range missiles, the bases could be scrapped. The administration has also expressed concerns that the system is not operationally viable and should be returned to the drawing board for more research and development.
For now, there doesn't seem to be any viable path on the Czech side to ratification of the two bilateral treaties signed by the Czech and U.S. governments. Still, on a political level Czechs would prefer the U.S. administration pull the plug on the bases so that the Czechs don't have to say “no” to their most powerful western ally.
In a letter to Obama last week the regional governor of Central Bohemia, where the proposed base would be located, appealed to him not to carry out the plans because they would destroy a “highly valuable natural habitat.”
But the environmental impact is not the only concern for governor David Rath, of the leading opposition party, the Social Democrats. In response to questions submitted by email, Rath said “there is no reason build the radar base in Czech Republic. Even most of the Czech people do not want to have a radar in Czech Republic because is questionable (and) problematic.”
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