Ian Traynor – The Guardian January 22, 2007
The Czech government has announced that it wants to host a large US military site for the Pentagon’s much-criticised missile shield system, confirming for the first time that Washington had asked Prague for permission to build a radar site for the national missile defence programme.
Russia had warned earlier this month that any extension of the US missile project to eastern Europe would force it to review its military planning.
In one of his first acts as the new Czech prime minister, Mirek Topolanek said that building the facilities in the Czech Republic, the first extension of the “son of star wars” project beyond the US, would boost European security.
Mr Topolanek referred only to a radar site, a strong indication that the Pentagon is hoping to locate the bigger part of the European project – a large missile interceptor silo that would theoretically fire off rockets to destroy incoming missiles – in neighbouring Poland.
Russia warned earlier this month that any US extension of its missile defence project to eastern Europe would force it to review its military planning to counter the perceived threat.
The American demand was one of the first issues Mr Topolanek has had to handle after becoming prime minister. The Czech Republic has effectively been without a government since elections became deadlocked seven months ago.
The centre-right leader cobbled together a weak coalition and won a parliamentary confidence vote on Friday courtesy of two opposition defectors.
As soon as Mr Topolanek won the vote, the Americans tabled their request. “We are convinced that a possible deployment of the radar station on our territory is in our interest,” he said.
“It will increase the security of the Czech Republic and Europe.”
The new defence minister, Vlasta Parkanova, a Christian Democrat, reinforced support for the contentious scheme, while acknowledging public reservations. “I am aware that locating an allied radar site on our territory is a sensitive issue for Czech citizens. Some threats can be confronted only in cooperation with our partners, and an attack by a ballistic missile is among them………We should not consider this issue ideologically but consider whether it raises the security of the Czech Republic and all its citizens.”
The US has been quietly negotiating with the Czechs and the Poles for four years, while scouting Poland and areas east of the Czech capital, Prague, for suitable missile defence sites. Both centre-right governments in Prague and Warsaw are pro-American. If the US plan gets a green light, the spending on the Polish and Czech projects is likely to total $1.6bn (£810m) with the bases built by 2011.
The Americans have already built two missile interceptor sites, in California and Alaska, but the proposed project in the Czech Republic is the first in Europe. It has alarmed Russia, which claims it and not “rogue states” in the Middle East or Asia is the target of the missile shield. The US says the installations are aimed at thwarting potential North Korean long-range missiles, while the European sites guard against long-range missiles from Iran or other regional foes.
Up to two-thirds of Poles and Czechs are against taking part in the missile shield, according to opinion surveys, and the government in Warsaw, while in favour, has opposed the US terms. The Pentagon insists both would-be sovereign US bases with the staff stationed there, some 500 in total, not subject to Polish or Czech law.
“I approach the problem of extra-territoriality with reserve, I won’t hide that,” the Polish president, Lech Kaczynski, said last year.
Poland said it had no comment on a report that a final deal had been agreed. Foreign ministry spokesman Andrzej Sados told Reuters: “Consultations concerning that issue have been going on for months… We need more consultations, which we are conducting with our American friends through diplomatic channels.”
Although discussions have been going on for years to reassure Russia, the Kremlin argues that the missile shield is in any case doomed to failure, and will merely succeed in stoking tension and mistrust.
Nikolai Solovtsov, the officer in charge of Russia’s strategic missile command, said this month that a US extension of its missile defence project to eastern Europe would affect Russia’s military planning.
“Russia will have to take additional measures to counter missile defence systems to prevent its strategic deterrent potential being downgraded,” he said.
The Russian top brass dismiss assertions that the scheme is aimed purely at countries such as North Korea and Iran, pointing out that the project deals with intercontinental ballistic missiles, which neither North Korea nor Iran possesses.
New Europe – January 20, 2007
Prime Minister Romano Prodi has approved US plans to enlarge one of its military bases in northern Italy, drawing praise from officials in Washington and protests from local residents backed by far-left members of his ruling coalition.
The decision, announced on January 16 by Prodi during his official visit to Romania, was expected to be ratified by the government in a cabinet meeting, Italian officials said.
Speaking to reporters in Bucharest, Prodi said his government “does not oppose” the expansion of Vicenza’s Ederle base, which currently hosts about 2,700 military personnel actively engaged in US campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Under an agreement forged by US President George W Bush with former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, the base is set to be enlarged by 2010 to accommodate a further 1,800 US soldiers currently stationed in Germany.
Prodi had been accused of dragging his feet over the contentious decision, which has revealed splits within his nine-party coalition. His allies range from hard-line communists to liberal democrats.
The premier’s surprise announcement sparked angry scenes in Vicenza, where hundreds of local residents occupied the city’s main railway station amid chants of “Yankee go home.” Far-left party leaders also slammed the decision and threatened to boycott the refinancing of Italy’s peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan.
“We are against (the Ederle expansion plan). We need a debate,” said Franco Giordano of the Refounded Communists party, quoted by Deutsche Presse-Agentur (dpa).
State Department officials in Washington praised Prodi’s decision while US Ambassador Ronaldo Spogli called it “a step forward in Italian-US relations.” Set up in 1951, the Vicenza base hosts the US’s Southern European Task Force (Airborne.) Plans by the US to incorporate the local Dal Molin airfield had already been approved by local authorities.
The Prodi government, which assumed office in May 2006, has sought to distance itself from the steadfast pro-American policies of the Berlusconi government, drawing accusations of anti-Americanism from centre-right opposition leaders.
Berlusconi, a strong supporter of Bush, cited Prodi’s opposition to US air strikes in Somalia and his criticism of the US’s strategy in Iraq as evidence that the government’s foreign policy risked undermining traditionally warm relations between Italy and its transatlantic partner.
Speaking during his latest tour of Arab countries, Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema said Italy’s disagreements with the US were “circumscribed” to a few individual episodes.
Prodi’s coalition strongly opposed the US-led war in Iraq and has been distancing itself from Berlusconi’s pro-Bush stance by nurturing closer ties with the Arab world. Prodi narrowly defeated Berlusconi in last April’s general election and enjoys only a wafer-thin majority in parliament’s upper house.
“Italy should say yes (to expanding the base). A decision on this issue would no doubt influence relations between Italy and the US,” daily Corriere della Sera quoted Interior Minister Giuliano Amato as saying.
Far left members of Prodi’s nine-party coalition urged Prodi to backtrack from the Bush-Berlusconi accord, saying the base’s expansion would represent a smack in the face of Italy’s pacifist movement.
“The Bush-Berlusconi accord should be ignored,” Corriere quoted Giovanni Russo Spena of the anti-war Refounded Communist party as saying.
Plans by the US to incorporate the local Dal Molin airfield have already been approved by local authorities, in spite of widespread opposition among residents.
Earlier this month, Spogli was greeted by angry protesters when he travelled to Vicenza to discuss the issue with Vicenza’s mayor.
The debate over the Ederle base comes against a backdrop of criticisms from Italian opposition leaders, who have accused the Prodi government of “anti-Americanism”.
Prodi’s coalition strongly opposed the US-led war in Iraq and has been distancing itself from Berlusconi’s pro-Bush stance by nurturing closer ties with the Arab world.