For a number of years, plans have been in the works to establish a U.S. radar base on the territory of the Czech Republic. Czech politicians knew about these plans, but kept them secret from the voters until after the 2006 parliamentary elections were over. The proposed base, along with related interceptor missiles to be placed in Poland, is part of a new U.S. missile defense system in Europe, and as such represents a major stage in the emergence of a new Cold War.
Although ostensibly designed to intercept missiles from "rogue states," principally Iran, the system will, in reality, allow the United States to attack other countries without fear of retaliation. It will also put host countries, such as Poland and the Czech Republic, on the front line in future U.S. wars.
Well below the radar screen for most Americans, a major and unexpected resistance movement has emerged in the Czech Republic in opposition to the U.S. military radar base. Although polls show that 70% of the population opposes the base, the Czech government might have been able to ignore the wishes of its own people had it not been for the emergence of active resistance. Recently, this resistance was dramatically strengthened by the three-week hunger strike of two Czech peace activists.
Jan Tamas and Jan Bednar are part of the new wave of Czech activists. Too young to have participated in Charter 77 and the Velvet Revolution of 1989, they have helped to revive the peace movement in their country. They got involved in the anti-radar base movement in 2006. Frustrated at the insistence of the Czech government to go over the heads of the people, they embarked on a hunger strike on May 13.
On June 2, the two suspended their hunger strike, But, according to Tamas, "there were others who "took over" from us and started the "chain hunger strike," where each person goes on a symbolic hunger strike for 24 hours. These people are all known people in the Czech Republic: actors, dissidents of the former regime, athletes, politicians including MPs, intellectuals, singers and many others."
In the past few weeks the chain hunger strike has spread globally, including to Western and Eastern Europe, Australia, and the United States. Strikers are determined to oppose the dangerous military escalation represented by the radar, along with the proposed companion U.S. interceptor missiles planned for Poland. A one-day international day of protest has been set for June 22, when dozens, likely hundreds, of people around the world will renounce food for one day.
Rice in Prague
June 22 has taken on a special urgency. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had originally planned to go to Prague on May 4 to sign the radar base treaty between the United States and the Czech Republic. Because of the uncertainty about the radar created by the upsurge against it, she was forced to cancel the trip. Rice just announced that she now intends to go to Prague on July 10 and sign the agreement.
Whether or not the treaty is signed in July, the fight against the radar will continue. With all its flaws, Czech democracy is in certain respects healthier than ours. President Bush maneuvered to make the radar base the subject of an "executive agreement" rather than a treaty, thus neatly circumventing the need for Senate approval. But the base cannot be built unless and until the Czech Parliament votes to ratify the agreement, and thus far the parliament has been evenly divided.
The sustained and innovative oppositional campaign has undermined Czech parliamentary support for the base to the point where it may well be defeated. In particular, the campaign has succeeded in mobilizing the membership of the Czech Green Party to pressure their parliamentary representatives to withdraw their de facto support of the radar. There is now a good chance that some of the Greens will defect from the government on this issue, which will deny the government its majority. Indeed, Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwartzenberg recently admitted for the first time that the Czech parliament might not ratify the radar plan. He has threatened to resign if the measure is defeated. The Czech hunger strikes are also bringing their fight to the European Union level. Tamas went to Brussels to meet with members of the European Parliament. On July 9, he plans to deliver an online petition against the radar, which currently has more than 110,000 signatures. "We would like this number to reach 200,000 signatures by that time,"Tamas says. "So please help us spread the word and get people to sign the petition."
The proposed radar base has more to do with Washington’s growing rivalry with Moscow than with any perceived threats from Iran, a fact about which Russia’s rulers are in no doubt. Although the projected radar in the Czech Republic and the 10 missile interceptors in Poland don’t constitute an immediate threat to Russia’s nuclear deterrent, with its thousands of warheads, the Kremlin believes that the system in Central Europe is the first part of a more advanced missile defense that could blunt the Russian nuclear force. Predictably, in a further act of Cold War escalation, Moscow has threatened to direct missiles toward Europe if the United States proceeds with the system, thus placing millions under heightened threat. Russia has also said it will suspend participation in a separate treaty limiting the deployment of conventional forces in Europe.
As for Iran, there is no credible evidence that a nuclear threat exists today. And the bellicose stance of the United States, far from guarding against such a threat in the future, only enhances its likelihood by creating even stronger inducements for Teheran to seek nuclear weapons for its defense. In general, the United States can best reduce the danger of nuclear warfare by taking major steps toward both nuclear and conventional disarmament and renouncing "preventive" war — not by expanding the nuclear threat. This would create a political climate that would powerfully discourage new countries from developing their own nuclear weapons.
The Czech radar base is not the only attempt by Washington to get compliant governments to sign agreements that sidestep the wishes of their own people In Iraq, for instance, the Bush administration has been trying to obtain dozens of permanent military bases, impunity for its troops and contractors, and the right to launch military strikes and arrest Iraqis without authorization from any Iraqi official.
Opposition in the Iraqi parliament may scuttle Washington’s plans. The Bush administration, which never ceases to proclaim its commitment to global democracy, is distressed that the Iraqis and Czech parliaments have the final say on the matter of foreign military bases. The Czech anti-radar activists, in fact, don’t think this goes far enough. They are demanding a referendum so that the 70% of the population who oppose the radar treaty can decide. Washington, however, does not want any democratic control in other countries over the installation of U.S. military bases, whether by parliament or by referendum.
There is a good chance, then, that domestic and international opposition will force the postponement of the Czech decision to accept the radar until after the U.S. elections in November. This will give activists in the Czech Republic a chance to marshal their forces, and activists in the United States to put pressure on the incoming administration to abandon this dangerous plan.
For More Information
Bruce Gagnon of the Global Network against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space, who went on a hunger strike himself for two weeks in support of the Czechs, has compiled a partial list of June 22 hunger strikers. If you wish to add your name to the list of June 22 fasters or organize an event in your area, please notify Bruce Gagnon at the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space — firstname.lastname@example.org
Contact CPD at email@example.com if you are interested in participating in the campaign against the Czech radar military base.
Thanks to Steve Shalom and Jesse Lemisch for their helpful comments.
Joanne Landy and Thomas Harrison are co-directors of the Campaign for Peace and Democracy (www.cpdweb.org) and contributors to Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org).