10/06/2009 - 07:47

Obama's missile defense rethink: The Czech reaction

Blanka HančilováDaniel Bagge

Daniel Bagge

Bagge is a junior researcher at the Center for Security Policy at Charles University in Prague and an adviser to Czech...

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Blanka Hančilová

Hančilová is a senior partner at Apreco Group, a network of social scientists working in international development....

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The reactions of Czech politicians to the September 17 announcement that the United States will shelve its plans for a radar in the Czech Republic as part of its European missile defense system varied from charges of betrayal to warm acceptance. In general, Prague focused on the political fallout of the decision, rather than the system's technical shortcomings, which U.S. President Barack Obama cited as one of the key reasons for scrapping it.

Jiří Paroubek, the chairman of the country's Social Democrats, hailed the U.S. decision as "a great victory for the Czech people." The Communists also welcomed the decision. So did the Green Party, which has stressed from the very beginning that they would have supported a NATO-run system but not one built and run by the United States. Missile defense opponents from areas that were to host parts of the planned system didn't hide their enthusiasm for Obama's decision. Local media, however, were quick to point out that their joy wouldn't last, since the $73 million promised by the previous government in an attempt to buy their support will most likely disappear as well.

On the other side, the Civic Democratic Party expressed disappointment with the U.S. decision. Mirek Topolánek, the party's leader and current Czech prime minister, was widely quoted as saying the decision was a sign that Washington has lost interest in Central Europe and that it gave in to Russia. Jan Vidím, a Civic Democrat and chair of the parliamentary committee for defense, was even bolder, saying the decision was "a betrayal" and a sign of "cowardice" on Obama's part in the face of Russian pressure.

In the Czech daily newspaper Lidové noviny, former President Václav Havel was quoted as saying that Russia didn't mind the radar system being situated in the Czech Republic, but instead used the situation "to check how much we fear [them]." Alexandr Vondra, a close Havel ally, former ambassador to the United States, and principle supporter of the radar system, commented in Lidové noviny that "special relations with the United States have reached their limits." He added that the Czech Republic now will have to get involved more strongly in European defense structures. According to Vondra, this about-face can be attributed to personal and generational changes in both Washington and Prague, where Cold War-era leaders are being replaced by younger politicians who "sometimes forget what is really important." (By which he seems to mean that some U.S. and Czech leaders are underestimating the Russian threat and the history of the Cold War.) For his part, current President Václav Klaus, who in November 2007 publicly backed the radar plan, was quoted in Hospodářské noviny as saying the decision doesn't signify a cooling down in U.S.-Czech relations. But obviously, not many analysts share this opinion.

Concerns over the growing influence of Russia in the region figured into an overwhelming majority of domestic opinions. On the most extreme end, some Czech commentators compared the U.S. decision to the 1938 Munich Agreement between Germany, France, Britain, and Italy that allowed Czechoslovakia to be annexed by Nazi Germany--referred to as the "Munich Betrayal" in the Czech Republic.

Other commentators, however, opined that the U.S. decision may have actually saved the country from an embarrassing loss of face if ratification of the bilateral agreements necessary to install the radar system had become hostage to internal politics. When opinion polls indicated that some two-thirds of Czechs opposed the missile defense plan, for example, the Social Democrats made a U-turn and withdrew their support.

The overall sentiment in the Czech Republic is that Washington's change of plans clearly demonstrates that Prague can no longer rely on special relations between the two countries. Instead, it will need to seek greater integration into European and NATO structures for its security guarantees, although at this time no one knows what that might look like or mean. This will be complicated by a lack of internal political stability in the Czech Republic and the slow pace of decision making by NATO and the European Union.