In Prague, Protest Against a U.S. Missile Defense Deal

Hunger strikers pressure the government to say 'no' to Washington.

Greenpeace protesters under a target banner at a proposed U.S. radar base in Czech Republic.

Greenpeace protesters under a target banner at a proposed U.S. radar base in Czech Republic.

By SHARE

BERLIN—Petitions, mass protests, and widespread public opposition so far have failed to kill plans for a U.S. missile defense shield in eastern Europe. So it is safe to say that Jan Tamas faces some long odds with his hunger strike.

On Tuesday in central Prague, Tamas, spokesman for the No Bases Initiative in the Czech Republic, began his third week of a water-and-tea diet alongside activist Jan Bednar. Their aim is to pressure the Czech government to halt negotiations over the controversial radar facility to be built in Brdy, 55 miles southwest of the capital, Prague.

After two years of talks—and three failed attempts to sign a treaty since February—Washington still faces a challenge in pushing through the plan that President Bush says will bolster NATO defenses against potential future attacks from Iran and other rogue states. The plan envisions installing 10 missile interceptors in Poland and a radar base in the Czech Republic.

The Czech government last week gave its approval to the draft of the bilateral missile defense treaty, and officials said it could be signed in the next month or so. However, Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek's sagging popularity and his conservative coalition's wafer-thin hold on power make it uncertain whether he can gain the necessary approval from parliament.

That political picture is giving hope to opponents, who are campaigning against what they call the start of a new arms race and a return to Cold War-style politics. "This is not only about the radar base anymore or about international security. It is about democracy. We are afraid for democracy in our country," says Tamas, an IT consultant whose hunger strike since May 13 has been documented on his website and has gained support from antiwar activists and luminaries of the left, including former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, linguist Noam Chomsky, and playwright/human rights advocate Ariel Dorfman.

Tamas's colleague, Bednar, was briefly hospitalized with liver problems over the weekend but vowed to continue the strike until the Czech government opened up a public dialogue on the issue.

It was the Velvet Revolution in Prague nearly two decades ago that helped topple communism in eastern Europe and symbolized the power of peaceful protest in the modern era. Now, a new type of grass-roots movement is developing that the Czech Republic has never seen before, with local antiwar chapters and civic groups springing up in towns and cities and more than 60 organizations powering the No Bases Initiative. "We have tried almost everything, but our government has failed to listen; it continues to ignore the fact that more than two thirds of Czechs oppose this plan," Tamas adds in a telephone interview. "These methods remind us of times before 1989—times we don't want to be repeated."

Bush and Topolanek have sought to wrap up a deal but missed three target dates—Topolanek's February visit to Bush at his Crawford ranch, the NATO summit in Bucharest in April, and this month's canceled visit to Prague by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Further complicating matters are the steep demands from Poland, reportedly too steep as far as some U.S. officials are concerned. Prime Minister Donald Tusk is seeking several billion dollars from the United States to modernize Poland's own military as part of the deal for accepting the missile interceptors.

The Czechs themselves are skeptical about what benefits they will gain apart from a few jobs building the roads and infrastructure around the radar base. The biggest question for Czechs, however, isn't whether or not security should be increased against threats from abroad, argues Tamas Weiss, a researcher at the Institute of International Relations in Prague. It's the way they choose to go about it. "If you ask people, 'Do you think the threat of ballistic missiles is real?' the majority [of Czechs] say yes. 'Do you think the Czech Republic should be protected?' they say yes. But ask them, Weiss says, 'Do you support an American missile defense base on your soil?' and they say no."