Bohemian Radar Blues

Czech government spokesman for the American missile defense radar base Tomas Klvana speaks to journalists July 27 2007 at the site of a planned radar location near Misov, western Bohemia. (Photo: Michal Cizek / AFP-Getty Images)

Since Russia has announced plans to upgrade its missile and antimissile systems let's zoom in on the tiny Czech town of Misov in central Bohemia.

Misov is a picturesque place with lovely homes and summer cottages that perhaps inspired the great Czech illustrator Josef Lada. The small village borders on the magnificent Bohemian Brdy Forest. There, the city dweller can flee Prague's heat and car pollution for a hike or bike ride. As I walk in the woods, listen to the owls' call and watch the swallows above, there seems to be a no more tranquil place in the world. True enough, its fragile beauty inspired Anton Dvorak to write his famous opera "Rusalka."

Yet this almost fairy tale landscape is the setting for something far more sinister: a renewed arms race in Europe. The Brdy Forest is also home to a huge military base that dates back to 1928 and the first Czechoslovak republic. It was also the site of a Soviet army base during the cold war.

Living Under the Radar Screen

One Czech, a resident of the largest town of Pribram, tells me it is also the site of the infamous SS-20 nuclear-tipped rockets, which caused cold war jitters in the 1980's between the superpowers. The site in question, known as the military zone of Jince, borders many of the little villages whose inhabitants are fiercely opposed to the planned American antimissile radar. "Everyone in our village [Misov] is against the radar system," says Korda, whose home faces a vast open field on the outskirts of the forest, where the base is located. The radar system, he explains, would be placed just 2 kilometers from his home. With it so close to the villagers, the locals, not surprisingly, are worried about its possible health effects as well. Earlier this year, referendums and polls were conducted in the outlying region of the Brdy forest military zone; overwhelmingly, locals expressed their rejection of the radar.

The cost of transforming the former Russian base into a radar installation, according to the daily Pravo, is about $20 million. The bill is to be paid by the Americans, or so they say for now. But residents of Misov and other nearby villages such as Vesin and Bukova are not convinced they will see much benefit from the foreign military presence. Many fear that only American personnel will run the base and locals will be kept out of the deal between Prague and Washington.

Selling the Radar to a Skeptical Nation

In June, the Czech government announced plans to install an American missile radar system at the Jince site despite reservations about its ecological and health impact on locals of towns like Misov. The man in charge of making sure the radar gets the green light from the Czech parliament as it makes a final decision on the issue is Tomas Klvana. Klvana is a thirty-something former editor of the daily Hospodarsky Noviny and an American educated spinmeister with the iron will of a Red army commissar.

He has a hard sell on his hands. After years of communist-style indoctrinations and brainwashing, Czech villagers can now think and speak for themselves and freely express their views (or at least they should) in this "new" democracy. Hence, a majority of the Czech population is against any the antimissile radar system, perhaps fearing they will again become pawns unwillingly embroiled in a new global arms race.

A civic group opposed to the radar is making headway among the populace. Briefly, the antiradar lobby argues that there is no difference between radars and rockets, in the sense that they both can be stationed on the same site. Furthermore, such a system may also be used for both defensive and offensive purposes. They also see the radar as a unilateral tool used by and controlled from the Pentagon with the Czech military simply carrying out orders from their commanders in Washington. Another argument that reverberates with the Czechs is that it's a system that could be a prime target in the event of hostilities with or a surprise attack from Iran, North Korea or, perhaps most likely of all, Russia.

Small Czech Towns Wary of Their New Foreign Friends

While the Czech government deliberates and negotiates at the highest levels, prominent Czechs from the cultural community resent the way the whole plan was hatched. "The government underestimated public opinion … and the military made fools out of the general public," filmmaker and nature and wildlife advocate Vaclav Chaloupek told the local press. He was referring to the awkward way officials disclosed that the radar base would be situated right on the edges of the Brdy Forest and so close to neighboring villages and towns.

Chaloupek also expressed concern for the local fishponds and the future of protected eagles nesting in the area. Locals already had their suspicions and fears about the base being too close for comfort. Now, with the confirmation of the radar site, their worst nightmare has come true. As the controversy over the site grew, the conservationist civic group Brdy "Res publica" asked UNESCO in April to consider the Brdy Forest and its military zone as a world heritage protected area. Such a move is likely to hinder plans to install the new radar system even further.

Radar Blurs Ideological Boundaries

Earlier this year in the town of Beroun, which borders the Brdy area, both far-right ultranationalists and leftist anarchists clashed with each other. Ironically, though they are fierce political enemies, they are totally united in their opposition to the American radar plans.

It's going to be a hard slog to sell the radar. The collation government of Prime Minister Mirek Toplanek will have the unenviable task of convincing a highly skeptical nation of the virtues of missile defense. He must do so from now until early 2008, as that's when "a clear and final answer on the base" is due, according to what his government says.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Michael Werbowski.