On March 1 the Czech Republic experienced the wrath of extra- tropical cyclone Emma passing through its territory at almost 180 kilometers per hour, disrupting infrastructure, killing two people, and leaving hundreds of thousands without electricity. One of the worst hit areas was around the city of Pilsen, known for its industry and beer.
That same day groups of neo-Nazis screaming "Nenavidim" ("I hate") besieged Pilsen’s train station. Defying the wind and security forces, they marched in front of an enormous synagogue shouting racist slogans. They were immediately squeezed between the riot police and those who came to protest against their show of force, including the city mayor, as well as a sizeable group of anarchists.
While the cyclone and neo-Nazis were busy on the homefront, Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek was meeting George Bush in Washington. The two heads of state were trying to conclude negotiations about the construction of the U.S. radar base in West Bohemia, against the will of the great majority of Czech people (two-thirds according to the latest poll). Talks failed, but apparently only because of a Czech demand for stricter environmental rules. Both sides expressed hope that the dispute could be settled quickly.
The United States plans to build the radar base in the Brdy military district, some 90 kilometers southwest of Prague and 30 kilometers from Pilsen, along with a base for 10 defense missiles in Poland, as elements of what Washington calls a "missile defense shield." The Czech center-right government has been negotiating with the United States over the radar base for about a year and plans to end the talks in late spring. The project is sharply criticized by Russia, several European Union states, and the majority of Czech citizens.
Filip Pospisil, deputy chief-editor of A2 (a Prague-based weekly magazine) and independent representative for Prague-1 District, explained, "No chance the issue will be resolved through a national democratic consensus of the citizens—through the referendum…. An argument used against the referendum by the government is that the issue is very complex and should be decided by experts. Another argument is that it is difficult to even define the question itself."
But in the villages everybody understands the issue very well. Brdy Highlands may be a remote and, by Czech standards, poor area, but people there, like everywhere else in the country, are passionate followers of political trends and international developments. And they have strong opinions about the military superpower that is planning to build its base very near their homes.
Lubomir Fiala is mayor of Visky, one of the smallest villages in the country with only 42 permanent residents and just one grocery store—run by the mayor. Gentle rolling hills and fields surround Visky, but Kota 718 is just a couple of miles away. This is where "the American radar" is supposed to be built.
"We decided to run our own referendum last year," explained Fiala. "The result happened to be very straightforward: 100 percent against. Citizens of Visky don’t want to have any radar or any foreign troops. And we believe that our country as a whole doesn’t need any foreign soldiers on its soil either. But our government is making decisions without consulting the people from this area."
Fiala recounted the area’s history: "We are at the edge of an enormous military area. Brdy [Highlands] were given to the army in 1925. Then Hitler built bases here and, later on, during the Cold War, there were Soviet missiles in the ground between the villages of Borovno and Misov…. We’ve had enough of foreign troops on our land and this time we are going to fight to the last drop of blood to prevent it from happening. To me it is very simple: I am representing this village. People of this village are against the bases. I am against the bases. Therefore, there should be no American bases here.
"We understand that the Bush administration wants to conclude talks and begin building the radar before the presidential elections. The Russians are against it and that will be a tremendous problem. On top of it, we are told lies. They say that the base will be safe. But we know that it will be dangerous, hazardous to our health. There are plenty of experts who can testify to that. There will be radiation and it can be already defined where the rays will be directed."
Villagers of Visky and neighboring Trokavec explain that the naturally pristine Brdy Highlands are the source of drinking water for the entire Western part of the Czech Republic. One villager, talking through a fence, tells me, "Our little villages were always getting a little money from the government because they are right next to the military zone. It was calculated for decades that if there would be a military conflict, if enemy missiles would hit the military installations, our villages would be either annihilated or evacuated. We are sick of living next to a pile of weapons belonging to foreign powers. The majority of people were forced to leave in the 1950s, when the Soviets decided to employ their weapons in nearby forests. We love this land. All we are asking for is tranquility and peace and no foreign troops. But the Americans are already here; they are surveying the area, periodically and secretly. "
No To The Radar—No To The Foreign Bases" reads the sign on the window of the local pub in Trokavec village. Across the road begins a depressed agricultural area with deep puddles in front of the rustic houses, rotting tractors, and other farm equipment. Prague—with its hotels, opera houses, and galleries, cafes, and museums—seems to be on another planet.
As I photographed the countryside, an old woman approached me. "I am afraid," she said. "Here we are all afraid. We suspect that they are going to build something terrible around here; something much worse than what the Russians built decades ago. Please help us stop it."
Mayor Fiala remarks: "It is all done to satisfy the interest of American multinational companies, isn’t it? These games that cost trillions of dollars and countless human lives. I have nothing against the American people, but I can’t stomach American expansionism. My grandmother lived in America decades ago and even then she was complaining about the same things. Czechs have to be finally on their own. We were for too long under the military boots of others."
In Prague Pospisil attempted to put the issue into perspective: "In 2002 the former Minister of Defense (Social Democrat) Jaroslav Tvrdik visited the U.S. and agreed to accept the radar or even the missiles. For several years negotiations were done in secrecy—a fact that I consider extremely serious, the government’s failure. Only in the second half of 2006 did the Czech public receive more detailed information about the project, which triggered a bitter political battle…. The government has already invested several millions in a PR campaign, which is supposed to convince Czech citizens that the base will be good for the country. It also published a report that concludes there is no significant health hazard connected with the future base; this report was immediately ridiculed by other experts…. Another unknown is against whom should this base protect the U.S., Czechs, and their allies? From the beginning, the line was that it should be a shield against the danger from the Middle East—concretely Iran. But recently the Minister of Foreign Affairs suggested that the radar can be used as surveillance against Russia."
Two views of the proposed European "missile shield," the official view, top, as a defense against
the (nonexistent) Iranian "threat" and, below, against a Russian "threat"
In the meantime, commentary by the U.S. media has been remarkable. Typical was an Associated Press piece by Monika Scislowska that was broadcast by North American television networks, including NBC News: "The Czechs generally have been receptive to the idea of the U.S. installing missile-tracking radar southwest of Prague."
"Generally receptive" means that two-thirds of Czechs were opposed to the foreign bases on their territory. The Czech media, even mainstream newspapers, have not been silent. Milos Cermak from the center-right Lidove noviny (LN) concluded: "Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek has made a fatal mistake by neglecting public opinion in the case of U.S. radar on Czech soil, so the radar will become ‘his grave.’"
Czechs are facing their first serious test in a new chapter of history. Are they going to act, once again, as a pragmatic and cynical nation, accepting something most of them consider evil, in exchange for certain perks that include visa-free travel to the United States and a chummy relationship with the latest superpower?
What will soon be decided in cities and tiny villages near Kota 718 is the direction of the Czech political system. It will also measure the extent to which the free will of the citizens in one country can resist the hegemonic ambitions of empire.
Andre Vltchek is a journalist, filmmaker, co-founder of Mainstay Press and senior fellow at the Oakland Institute.