Thursday, February 28, 2008

The U.S. and the Czech Republic are close to an agreement on missile defense, said President Bush and Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek yesterday, after a meeting at the White House.

Mr. Topolanek said the remaining discussion is over environmental standards for the radar tracking system, and that it is only “a technical matter, which is going to be resolved very soon.”

In remarks to reporters in the Oval Office, with Mr. Topolanek sitting next to him, Mr. Bush spent several minutes trying to allay concerns about the missile-defense system, which are held in the Czech Republic, Russia, and in other Eastern European countries.

Mr. Bush said the system would be “in the context of [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization],” but did not yield to demands within the Czech Republic that the missile defense be run by NATO.

“It fits into the concept of NATO, and will honor the sovereignty of the Czech Republic or Poland,” Mr. Bush said.

But Mr. Bush also said that remaining discussions will include negotiations over “a status of forces-type agreement.”

“We will be coming to their country,” he said. ” ‘Under what conditions, how will people conduct themselves?’ … These are all very legitimate questions that the prime minister is asking.”

After more than a year of intense bilateral negotiations, and an often acrimonious public debate in Prague, many Czech citizens and government leaders have concerns about the system, which would put a tracking site in the Czech Republic and interceptor missiles in Poland.

Public opinion polls show about 70 percent of Czech voters oppose the missile-defense system. Russia also is suspicious of the plans.

But the Bush administration has made missile-defense bases in Europe a foreign-policy priority in its final year in office. Mr. Bush yesterday tried once again to pacify Russia’s concerns that the system is aimed at it, and he appealed to Europe’s self-interest.

“Russia could overwhelm a system like this,” Mr. Bush said, indicating that the system is intended to protect against rogue regimes such as in Iran, or terrorist groups such as al Qaeda, that may obtain nuclear weapons.

“The interesting opportunity is for Russia to realize the benefits of such a system by extending the radar coverage into their country, because they will be under the same threat of radicalism that we will be, ‘we’ collectively,” Mr. Bush said. “If some of these countries develop a weapon that’s capable of developing a nuclear warhead, free nations, nations such as Russia, do not want to be in a position of political blackmail.”

Leading opponents of the missile-defense system have said they may support the effort if it is under control of NATO and not the Pentagon.

“We are not against missile defense as a concept, but we would rather like to see it debated and carried out under the alliance,” said Jan Hamacek, a member of the opposition Social Democratic Party, who serves as chairman of the foreign-affairs committee in parliament.

“What’s missing here is a substantial debate on the alliance level, to what extent the threats we are talking about are real, and to what extent a global, layered, missile-defense system is the answer to the threats that we are facing.”

The Czech Republic’s Green Party, a junior member of the governing coalition, also supports NATO leadership of the missile-defense system.

“NATO is the perfect platform for discussing collective security,” Ondrej Liska, the Greens’ vice chairman for foreign affairs said.

Mr. Topolanek, before leaving Prague for the United States on Tuesday, minimized the importance of the missile-defense issue.

“If the missile defense were to be the only purpose of my trip to the United States, I would not have gone to the United States for that purpose,” he told The Washington Times. “It could have been arranged by the offices. So it is not so crucial for me.”

However, Mr. Topolanek’s government has hired public relations executive Tomas Klvana to work exclusively on the missile-defense issue.

Mr. Konviser reported from Prague.

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