ISTANBUL - TDN with wire dispatches
The United States and the Czech Republic signed a treaty yesterday allowing Washington to build part of a missile defense shield in the central European state despite opposition from its former Cold War master Russia.
The deal to create a radar station southwest of Prague was marred by a failure seal a corresponding pact with Poland, where Washington wants to put 10 interceptor rockets that would be guided by the Czech site.
Washington says the shield would defend it and its European allies against missile attacks from a foe such as Iran, and points to intelligence suggesting Tehran could develop a long-range missile capable of striking its soil by 2015.
"This missile defense agreement is significant as a building block, not just for the security of the United States and of the Czech Republic, but for the security of NATO and ultimately for the security of the international community," U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in Prague, reported Reuters.
Rice, who signed the treaty with Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, all but ruled out going to neighboring Poland after meeting its foreign minister on Monday.
Talks with Warsaw have run into a snag over Warsaw's demands for billions of dollars to modernize its army and air defenses.
Harsh words for Russia:
Rice, who is due to travel to Bulgaria and Georgia on her European trip this week, also attacked Russia for adding to tension in Georgia as she landed in Prague.
"We have said both Georgia and Russia need to avoid provocative behavior but frankly some of the things the Russians did over the last couple of months added to tension in the region," Rice said.
"Georgia is an independent state. It has to be treated like one," she added, according to Agence France-Presse.
Latent tensions between Tbilisi and Moscow over the separatist regions of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia have flared up over the last week.
"I want to make very clear that the U.S. commitment to Georgia's territorial integrity is strong," the Secretary of State said.
Contacts with the 'friends of Georgia,' which includes Russia, had taken place to seek a de-escalation of tensions around Abkhazia in particular, Rice added.
On the missile defense, Russia says the shield is a threat and has threatened to aim nuclear missiles at central Europe if it is deployed. The United States says the 10 rockets are no match for Russia's atomic arsenal.
The United States was willing to make arrangements to make the system transparent to Moscow, but Russia would also have to discuss this directly with the Czech Republic, Rice said.
Political analysts say the planned bases in the former Soviet bloc would raise U.S. security interests in the region at a time when Russia grows more assertive about its role on the global stage.
"Moscow, of course, sees the move as a provocation and as a long-term security threat, and will seek to extract a hefty geopolitical or strategic price for going along," said Alexandr Kliment, an analyst at political risk consultancy Eurasia Group.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said after meeting U.S. President George W. Bush on Monday the two sides should keep talking despite failing to overcome differences on the shield.
The shield plan still faces hurdles, including widespread public opposition in the Czech Republic, a country of 10.4 million people that experienced two decades of occupation after the Soviet invasion of 1968.
It also faces obstacles to ratification in the Czech parliament, where the government has just 100 seats in the 200-seat chamber. Some deputies say they will oppose it.
The vote could be soon after a new U.S. administration takes over in January.An opinion poll last month showed 68 percent of Czechs were against the shield, while 24 percent supported it.