Democracy Under the Radar

By Christopher Cook


Vaclav Havel, playwright, friend of rock stars, and political prisoner under the Communist regime, is former president of the Czech Republic. He enjoys an international reputation. The present president, Vaclav Klaus, is an economist of mediocre abilities who passed the pre-1989 Communist era keeping a low profile and playing it safe. He also famously nagged Havel repeatedly not to befriend rock musicians and other persons of low repute.

The two Vaclavs don’t agree on much. Klaus, for instance, calls environmental activists “terrorists,” while Havel worries about climate change. But they do agree on one thing: the US ought to build a radar base in the Czech Republic as part of the western empire’s global missile defense system. The political party in power — the centrist-right Civic Democratic Party (ODS), which would be a leftist party by US standards — agrees.

Problem is, the Czech people by a large majority oppose the idea. And now that the CR is a democracy, the people get to decide. Right? Well, maybe. But probably not.

But before we get to current politics, let’s consider geography and history. The Czech Republic is a small country (about the size of South Carolina) with a population of 10 million (about the same as Michigan). Situated in Central Europe, surrounded by larger powers, the Czechs populated a region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918, then enjoyed a 20-year independent hiatus before Nazi Germany rolled in. After WW II — when the US and Allies conceded this part of the world to the Soviet Union — the Russians took over. Then the USSR fell apart, and the Velvet Revolution freed Czechs once again.

So, now politics. It’s fair to say that Czechs, despite a very old and very accomplished culture, are relative newcomers to democratic self-rule. They relish their independence. They are fairly skeptical of foreign powers showing up at the border offering to help. And they don’t enjoy the role of a soccer ball kicked around by superpowers.

So it’s also fair to say that Czechs don’t relish the idea of being part of any US global military strategy. While George Bush may claim the radar base — along with its accompanying missile silo in next-door Poland — is needed to contain Iran, Czechs don’t feel much of a threat from that direction. On the other hand, past experience causes them to keep a vigilant eye on nearby Russia, while prudence keeps them from poking a finger in Russia’s eye. And therein lies the problem.

Would a radar base in the CR — that is, would a US presence here — be a safeguard against Russia’s growing muscle, strengthened by its oil and gas reserves? Or would it provoke Russia into throwing a vicious jab, such as jacking up the prices of exported oil and natural gas? After all, how much oil and gas can the US offer the Czechs?

In short, the radar base asks the CR to choose between a crippled former superpower (Russia) and a superpower corpocracy that hasn’t yet realized how crippled it’s become (the US). It’s a lousy choice the Czechs didn’t ask to make.

Not that Czech politicians openly admit this is an issue. Vaclav Havel, for instance, still feels indebted to the US because he half believes Ronald Reagan brought down the USSR singlehandedly. So what’s a mere radar base in repayment? Whereas Vaclav Klaus has more complicated motives — too complicated to explain (even to Czechs). As far as he’s concerned, there hasn’t been a decent western leader since Margaret Thatcher, though George Bush did invite him to Washington to pose for a photo op.

But back to the people.

Until the Iraq War and sundry other cowboy craziness exhibited by George Bush, the Czechs had a generally positive view of the US. That view has declined here, as it has elsewhere around the planet. Bush has done what McDonald’s and KFC and even Paris Hilton could not in this newly capitalist country: caused a collective national shudder of disgust. Ordinary Czechs want no part of Bush. They don’t trust him, and they don’t trust his ideas, especially his ideas regarding foreign policy, and most especially when those ideas concern Czechs. So forget the radar. Please.

But elected politicians aren’t ordinary people, here or anywhere else. They see the broader picture. The national interest. They see spheres of influence. Globally. They see farther down the road. At least until the next election. And they see dollar signs. A radar base, plus people to run it, plus infrastructure, plus ... well, you get the idea. Somebody’s gonna get rich, someone always does when the US moves its military might around. And Czech politicians, a goodly part of them still under the influence of corrupt past practices, are notoriously corrupt. Just ask any Czech.

So the Czech people don’t trust the US anymore, and they never have trusted their own politicians. But they’ll probably get the radar base anyway, and they know it. The politicians in power will do what they want, which is what is best for their constituents, whether they want it or not. After all, this is a democracy. Just like the US.

Christopher Cook is the author of Robbers and Screen Door Jesus. He lives in Prague, Czech Republic, where he’s working on a screenplay.

From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2007

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