Czech Public Cool to Missile Defense
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
President Bush is in Prague today talking about a controversial U.S. plan to build part of its missile defense system in the Czech Republic. The president will go on a similar mission to Poland later this week after he attends the G-8 meeting in Germany.
U.S. officials say the missile system would help protect the European countries and U.S. troops stationed there from possible missile attack, but it's proving a tough sell - to the public at least.
NPR's Emily Harris reports.
EMILY HARRIS: Protesters in Prague didn't wait for President Bush to arrive.
(Soundbite of demonstration)
HARRIS: Yesterday shortly before the president's jet landed, several hundred Czechs showed up at a central Prague square to declare they want no U.S. military base in their country. Nineteen-year-old Marketa Duscova(ph) had painted a peace sign on her cheek. She said the missile defense system will just bring trouble.
Ms. MARKETA DUSCOVA (Protester): (Through translator) It seems needless to me. When the radar will be here we will become more visible and an attack will be more likely.
HARRIS: Ten days ago, an estimated 2,000 marched through the Czech capital. Villagers around the planned radar site southwest of Prague have held referendums, all overwhelmingly against the idea. But the Czech government is pressing on with the project.
Mr. JIRI SCHNEIDER (Prague Security Studies Institute): I think the government is determined to actually - to conclude successfully these negotiations.
HARRIS: And they're doing the right thing, says Jiri Schneider, program director at the Prague Security Studies Institute. He says Europe faces many potential threats, including possible missiles from rogue nations.
Mr. SCHNEIDER: This is an American project which will actually provide benefits for European security.
HARRIS: Next door in Poland, the U.S. wants to put 10 interceptors, rockets with no warheads, designed to destroy incoming missiles. Former defense minister Radoslav Sikorski says the official proposal Washington sent to Warsaw included a suggested reply.
Mr. RADOSLAV SIKORSKI (Former Defense Secretary, Poland): Well, it said, take the missile base, pay for the cleanup of the area, pay for the infrastructure to connect it, pay for its external protection, and just sign on the dotted line and be happy.
HARRIS: But Poland is trying to negotiate security guarantees should Russia make good on its threat to point rockets at Europe, including at Poland, if the missile defense project goes ahead.
Mr. SIKORSKI: If we are heading towards worse relations with Russia, then we need some kind of material reassurances. Poland should receive several batteries of Patriot missiles, something that would address directly the likely Russian response.
HARRIS: NATO's top official says the alliance members are moving toward backing the U.S. plan and possibly extending it to cover all of Southern Europe. But even among NATO members, there is skepticism, says Stefani Weiss, a security expert with the Bertelsmann Foundation.
Ms. STEFANI WEISS (Bertelsmann Foundation): Americans lost a lot of their credit, you know, as it was out lying to the public what was the state of affairs in Iraq. That is not forgotten in Europe, and so there is a difficultly for those people who come check on it if that is really what the U.S. is intending to do or if there's a hidden agenda.
HARRIS: Russia thinks there may be a hidden agenda. Washington says the system would deter Iran, but in sharp language Sunday, Russian President Vladimir Putin noted Iran has no such weapons. And Moscow claims even a strictly defensive system at first could later change. But Polish Foreign Ministry spokesman Robert Szaniawski says Russia is the problem, not the U.S.
Mr. ROBERT SZANIAWSKI (Polish Foreign Ministry Spokesman): Russians still think that East Europe is part of their influence. They can't agree that we are part of European Union. You have to treat Russians very seriously, and you have to listen to them, you have to understand them. But Russians have to start to listen to us.
HARRIS: The parliaments in both Poland and the Czech Republic would have to approve any deals their governments hammer out. And in both countries the outcome is not at all certain.
Emily Harris, NPR News, Warsaw.
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