VESIN, Czech Republic — After four decades of Russian domination and the oppressive presence of a nearby Czech military base, villagers in the Brdy region west of Prague got back access to their rolling hills at the end of the Cold War and along with it myriad paths into the thick forests leading to rich patches of wild berries and mushrooms.
That apparently is coming to an end. Not even two decades after one superpower departed the country, another, the United States, this spring announced agreement with the Czech government to set up a base to install U.S. radars for a missile defense system.
There are only about 600 people in this poor but bucolic village in the Brdy district west of Prague, but the view along the cobble-stoned streets is nearly unanimous: they are against the U.S. plan.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has called the American plan a threat to Russian security and threatened to retarget Russian nuclear tipped missiles against Europe. His vitriolic attacks on the missile defense plan seems to have prompted President George Bush’s invitation for the summit in Kennebunkport, Maine, that began Sunday evening.
Local villagers have little faith in either leader. They expect their nearby forest will again become forbidden territory and that far from enhancing their security the U.S. installation will add a new threat.
“We're trapped between warring giants,” said Josef Skuhra, 57, a village maintenance worker.
“We've always been happy being forgotten about, but now Russia and the United States, who have always been enemies, fight over us. And once the Americans start building, how long can it be before even Osama bin Laden knows our name?”
Vesin may be run-down, and the noise of chirping birds exceeds that of passing cars, but its residents have views. In a recent referendum, 98 per cent voiced opposition to the U.S. plan. In nearby Sedlec, 96.5 percent were against it. In Vranovice, it was 96 percent. And, just up the road, in Rozmital, 94.5 percent oppose the plan. Throughout the Czech Republic, public opinion is 60 per cent against the plan. But most believe the government has made up it's mind, and it will be built here.
Across Europe, almost no prominent defense expert has spoken up for the U.S. proposal, which is designed to protect the U.S. and Western Europe from nuclear missile attacks from “rogue nations” such as Iran.
Some leading experts openly disparage the underlying concept.
Magnus Ranstorp, research director for the Swedish Defense College, and one of the world's foremost experts on terrorism, put it this way: “It's a defense system that doesn't yet work intended to stop a threat that does not yet exist.”
The missiles are set to be placed somewhere in southern Poland. The radar that will guide them would be here, somewhere in the Brdy, an hour's drive outside Prague, the Czech capital.
Experts said the Bush administration negotiated the radar deal directly with Poland and the Czech Republic, leaving NATO and European nations out of the loop. By doing so, thereby weakening NATO's stature in Europe.
Ranstorp said Bush’s plan, by focusing on missiles, ignores Iran’s method of operation: “Iranians always leave themselves plausible deniability. In supporting international terrorism in Afghanistan, Hezbollah in Lebanon or Shi'ite efforts in Iraq, they work through third parties, and stay in the shadows themselves.”
The unilateral U.S. drive for an unproven system has in fact divided Europe, according to Otfried Nassauer, an expert on defense policy at the German research center Berlin Institute for Trans-Atlantic Security.
“In the end, Europeans have to decide whether a theoretical defense system is worth a very real split in Europe,” he said. “It's classic Bush. He had a plan and he's going ahead with it, no matter the costs or arguments against it.”
Nassauer also questioned the system, noting that a similar anti-missile system the U.S. claims is effective employs three stage rockets, while this would require a new system with two-stage rockets and require faster reaction times than the existing system.
“It is a very expensive proposal, he said. “Will the American Congress spend so much to protect Europe?”
In the Czech Republic, the arguments are more basic. Locals expect that fences will be erected to once again close off the Brdy forests if the system is built here. And while villagers acknowledge there are vast differences between U.S. and Soviet military presences, they say both represent outside pressures on their homeland.
“Does it makes us safer?” asked Jan Tamas, spokesman for Czech's small Humanist Party, which has helped organize protests in the villages of the Brdy area. “Clearly, it does not. Instead, it makes our small country a terrorist target. Before we were invisible. It makes us less safe.”
“Name one positive thing that could come to us because of this?” asked Lenka Jelinkova, 24, in Rozmital, who said she's usually not political. “From the perspectives of safety, ecology and quality of living, all it promises is destruction.”
Government officials say they expect a gain in the project in improved relations with the United States, such as visa-free travel there.
“If the [Czech Republic] is a reliable partner for the missile defense system, it should be a partner who does not need the visa obligation” said Martin Bursik, the vice-prime-minister.
Just across the street from a quaint chapel in Vesin’s village square, Jiri Belka, 33, covered with the grime of working in the woods, says they've all noticed the recent increase in the number of military vehicles crawling through forest roads.
“Looks as if they're shopping for the perfect spot,” he said. “It's probably a waste of time and money, it doesn't offer anything to this nation, and we clearly don't want it. But who listens to little people like us these days?”