Czech cabinet approves SOFA agreement but fate of U.S. radar base still uncertain

11-09-2008

The Czech government approved the second of two agreements on Wednesday on the stationing of an American radar base on Czech soil, as part of the planned U.S. missile defence shield. Defence Minister Vlasta Parkanová told reporters the agreement would be signed by her American counterpart on September 19th in London. Once that happens, the only thing standing in the way of the radar base would be approval by the Czech parliament. But as Rob Cameron reports, that remains a considerable obstacle.

On the official side at least, the controversial project to build a key element of the U.S. missile defence shield on Czech territory is all going according to plan. Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice signed the main treaty on the radar base back in July. The second part of the legal framework, the so-called Status of Forces Agreement or SOFA, took longer to negotiate, containing as it does the minute details of an American military presence on Czech soil.

The SOFA agreement covers everything from legal jurisdiction on the base to whether U.S. personnel will pay Czech taxes. Defence Minister Vlasta Parkanová told reporters the deal included several important concessions.

“The Czech side succeeded in including a clause that says the agreement will only cover American personnel serving the radar facility. Any other U.S. military deployment on Czech territory would be possible only with the permission of the Czech Republic, which would have to be granted in accordance with the Czech constitution and Czech law.”

Once the SOFA agreement is signed, the two treaties can be submitted to the Czech parliament for approval. But that’s not likely to happen anytime soon. Successive opinion polls have shown the Czech public is overwhelmingly against the radar base, at least two of the three parties in the ruling coalition are trying to extinguish low-level insurrections led by rebel MPs, and there are local and Senate elections in a few weeks’ time. Jiří Pehe is a political analyst and former adviser to ex-president Václav Havel:

“I think that at this point the fate of the agreement with the United States is quite uncertain. It seems that even the Russian-Georgian conflict has not changed significantly the opinion of those who were against the American radar base in the Czech Republic, but we have to wait and see. We don’t know whether there have been any shifts in the [opposition] Social Democratic party, which would be crucial to the approval of the radar base. I think that without several deputies from the Social Democrats who would decide to vote for the radar base, it’s very unlikely the agreement will be approved.”

Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek told journalists on Wednesday that the agreements would go to the Czech parliament at the earliest in December, after the U.S. presidential elections. And who will be the next American president could have an enormous impact on whether the missile defence shield – which has of course remained elusive for decades – will become reality, or will be put on ice once again.

11-09-2008