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16 June 2008

A new Cold War

A battle of resistance to the US missile defence system has prompted Czech campaigners to mount a hu

By Kate Hudson

How do you make a government listen? Not an easy question to answer. Campaigners in the Czech Republic have been up against a brick wall recently: their government is determined to give the go-ahead for a new US radar base to be built near Prague, ignoring around 70 per cent of popular opposition.

For more than a year, communities have been organising to prevent this facility being built for the US missile defence system. They argue that it will put them on the front line in future US wars, and that they are being embroiled in a new Cold War, not of their making. The campaign has been carried out at every level of society, from the Shadow Foreign Minister, Lubomir Zaoralek, to tiny hamlets, where mayors have conducted local referenda, overwhelmingly opposed to the radar.

But still the government ignores the opposition and has rejected calls for a national referendum. They know they would lose.

In May, two local activists undertook a new form of campaigning to get through to the government. Jan Tamas and Jan Bednar, two young activists from Ne Zakladnam – the No to Bases movement – began a hunger strike, demanding at the very least that the government should initiate a proper national discussion.

The Czech Prime Minister, Mirek Topolanek, described the hunger strike as an “absolutely irregular means”, and insisted that there was a ‘normal’ discussion on the radar. The Czechs want to know where this ‘normal’ discussion has taken place and who is party to it, other than the Czech government and the US administration.

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The decision to embark on a hunger strike was a controversial one, not least because of the danger it poses to the health of the protestors – and the fact it is unlikely to lead to a government climb down.

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But Tamas and Bednar’s has had an impact. The hunger strike has raised awareness of the radar issue both within the Czech Republic and internationally. But in addition to that, they have been able to actually extend the action. After three weeks without food, Tamas and Bednar agreed to a new phase in the protest, opening the action to anyone opposed to the radar.

The hunger strike now takes the form of a ‘chain hunger strike’, both nationally and worldwide, and numerous people are joining the fast for 24 hours at a time. Czech politicians and celebrities have been eager to do their bit, including senators, deputies, intellectuals and cultural figures.

Some politicians have treated this in a flippant fashion. One minister from the ruling conservative party observed, “I think a fast is useful for all of us and, as I recall, many Social Democrat leaders would need a fast lasting several days not just one”.

Others have attempted to take the high moral ground – President Vaclav Klaus refused to meet the protesters, saying that the method was tantamount to blackmail.

But in reality you can be sure that the Czech government is taking the issue very seriously. With the Czech-US treaties on the radar due to be signed in the next few weeks, the growing protest comes at a crucial moment.

The parliament is evenly divided between government and opposition, and the government relies on two rogue opposition voters. This wafer-thin majority looks even shakier with the announcement that one of the six MPs from the junior coalition partner, the Czech Green Party, is to take part in the hunger strike.

The Czech Green leadership has so far backed the radar but is coming under increasing pressure to withdraw support, and with it, any chance of Parliamentary approval for the US project.

The Czechs have called for an international day of solidarity with the hunger strike on 22 June, so we will be showing our support for their campaign – and opposing Britain’s involvement in Missile Defence – by holding a day’s fast opposite Downing Street. We are asking people to join us for a vigil between 12 and 2pm British Summer Time. This is a real opportunity to change the outcome in the Czech Republic, and international pressure will help their cause – and may even make their government listen! Please join us.

Kate Hudson is chair of CND