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Czechs Torn Over U.S. Shield

STITOV, Czech Republic -- Big politics rarely play out in little places like Stitov. That is no solace to Vaclav Hudec, whose tiny village is caught in the middle of a debate over U.S. plans to build a missile defense system here and in Poland.

Hudec, the mayor, and most of the residents of Stitov -- population 58 -- are bitterly opposed to the idea of hosting a U.S. radar base at the Brdy military zone next door. So is a wary Russia, and U.S. President George W. Bush will wade into the fray when he visits Prague this week.

Recent polls suggest that more than 60 percent of Czechs oppose the missile defense plan, which the United States says would help shield it and Europe if Iran unleashed a rocket attack. Opponents fear it could touch off a new arms race with Russia and make the Czech Republic a target for terrorists.

"I was never into politics, but into the environment and the forests," said Hudec, 47, pointing to the bucolic surroundings of Stitov, nestled in verdant hills southwest of the Czech capital.

But last month, he sent a letter to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Appropriations Committee head Robert Byrd detailing why he and nearly two dozen other mayors do not want a U.S. radar installation on their doorsteps.

"I'm just forced to. I just told myself that our politicians won't help us," Hudec said. "I approached the Democrats. There was no point asking the Republicans, who just have a different view." He has yet to receive a reply.

Protesters plan to gather outside the medieval Prague Castle to show their displeasure when Bush makes a stop Monday and Tuesday en route to the Group of Eight summit in Germany to address a conference on global democracy and security.

"It is more likely that Europe will be hit by an asteroid than Iran would use missiles to attack Europe," said Jan Tamas, a protest organizer.

Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek on Sunday accused Russia of misleading the public about the U.S. plans. "Russia needs an outside enemy to hide problems at home," he said.

Even former President Vaclav Havel -- an avowed peacenik who led the 1989 Velvet Revolution that ended communism in the former Czechoslovakia in 1989 -- has brushed off Russia's objections. "It's our business to have any radar we want to," said Havel, who will meet up with Bush at the Prague conference.

Havel said Moscow's complaints were akin to the Czech Republic kicking up a fuss if Russia were to place a radar base "somewhere in Siberia."

Support for the U.S. plan also is eroding in Poland, which would host 10 interceptor missiles. The most recent survey suggests just one in four Poles wants the shield, over which both countries are still negotiating.

Yet some say the idea makes them feel safer -- and not just from Iran, which the U.S. has accused of trying to make nuclear weapons covertly.

"Finally we would have some security in the face of Russia," said Maciej Burczak, 64, who owns a Polish construction company. "Maybe the shield is aimed against missiles from Iran, but it would make Poland safer from a threat from Russia."

(The Moscow Times 04.vi.07)

 
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