- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 29, 2008

EXCLUSIVE:

Czech President Vaclav Klaus said in an interview today that he expects his country to approve a deal to host parts of a U.S. missile defense system by the end of the year, adding that intense Russian opposition to the plan is helping it win support back home.

“There is a serious debate under way in my country, but the stronger the Russian position opposing the system, the easier it is in the Czech Republic to get support,” Mr. Klaus told reporters and editors at The Washington Times at the end of a Washington visit this week.

Having experienced decades of Soviet domination during the Cold War, Czechs are “extremely sensitive to any patronizing from that part of the world,” he said.

The Bush administration says the system of radar and interceptor missiles, to be based in the Czech Republic and Poland, is designed to counter attacks from rogue states such as Iran. But Moscow vehemently opposes the idea, saying it could be used against Russia’s vast missile arsenal and has warned it will take countermeasures if the system is approved.

The U.S. and Czech governments have completed negotiations on the missile defense system but are still working on a companion agreement on the status of U.S. troops working at the Czech sites. A planned May visit by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to clinch the deal was postponed as talks continue.

Both agreements must be ratified by parliament, and despite his optimism, Mr. Klaus said, he predicted the path to passage may not be smooth.

“It will not be an easy debate. That is quite clear,” said Mr. Klaus, who met with Vice President Dick Cheney during his Washington visit to discuss the state of the missile defense plan.

A poll earlier this month found that 63 percent of Czechs opposed the American radar site in their country, although other polls show greater support when the system is included in a European-wide missile defense shield.

The government of conservative Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek has only a slim majority in parliament and has faced popular protests and even a hunger strike by two anti-missile activists as it pushes the U.S. proposal.

“Nevertheless,” said Mr. Klaus, “our expectation is that it will go through parliament” by the end of the year.

Negotiations are also still under way in Poland, which would house 10 interceptor missiles under the plan. Polish officials have asked for substantial U.S. military aid as a price for accepting the system.

Mr. Klaus said the most important aspect of the missile defense plan for him was not what Prague could get in return but that the deal would solidify Czech-U.S. overall relations, “a relationship we take very seriously.”

The Polish government, he added, is taking a “slightly different” approach.

The Czech president said he saw little chance the Russia will drop its objections to the plan, saying Moscow had no incentive to offer concessions in the last months of the Bush administration.

But he said the Czech government would make its decision based on what was good for the country, not on how Russia felt about the matter.

He noted that Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev had dismissed Western outrage over the crushing of the “Prague Spring” liberalization of 1968, saying, “It’s our business.”

“That’s our message now to Russia” on the missile defense debate, he said. “It’s our business.”

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