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Q & A

Czech official warns of Europe crises

September 06, 2008|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

UNITED NATIONS — The Czech Republic and Poland have infuriated Russia by agreeing to allow the United States to install a missile defense system in their countries, which are former Soviet satellites that now belong to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

This week the lead Czech negotiator on the missile shield, Deputy Foreign Minister Tomas Pojar, was in Washington for talks with U.S. officials about the deal, which was signed in July and awaits ratification by his country's Parliament.

On Friday he spoke to Western reporters at the U.N. about Russia's swift military intervention in Georgia last month in defense of pro-Moscow separatists in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. A resurgent Russia, he said, has begun testing the West in the former Soviet Union's sphere of influence.

He warned of new crises ahead, citing Ukraine's strategic Crimean peninsula as a possible site for a flash point.

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How is last month's war in Georgia affecting discussion of the missile shield plan in your country?

For us, the events of Georgia were not such a surprise. They do not have any effects on our . . . placing radar in the Czech Republic. We think it's an important project for the North Atlantic alliance, it's an important project for the Czech Republic, and it's important to have missile defense for the whole North Atlantic area. But it never had any specific relevance to the situation in Georgia.

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Why weren't you surprised by what happened in Georgia?

It was very clear from the activities of the Abkhaz and South Ossetian secessionists in the region, the activities of the Russian military, the Georgian military. The incidents were accelerating for months. We were predicting it was possible that there may be some escalation. We were trying to avoid it and warn everyone to be cautious. But surprising it was not.

And we would not be surprised if in the future there would be similar events in Crimea [which is home to Russia's Black Sea fleet and has an ethnic Russian majority population]. We hope it's not going to happen, but we think the situation there is not very stable. And to provoke more instability would probably not be very difficult.

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Does your country want a missile shield to protect itself against a Russian threat?

You have to distinguish between strictly military issues and geopolitical issues. From the military sense, this is not against Russia. This is not a threat to Russia and will not affect Russia's security. Geopolitically . . . the problem for the Russians is clearly the presence of a system and of U.S. forces on the territory of the former Warsaw Pact. You have to distinguish military reasons from geopolitical reasons. For us, both are important. . . . We are glad that one significant piece of NATO architecture will have its presence on the territory of the Czech Republic.

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Is there any concern about possible sanctions from Russia? Could it affect your fuel supply?

We hope Russia will be a reliable gas and oil supplier, as we are paying for our gas and our oil. We are fortunate that we have some maneuvering space in the sense that we get oil and gas from two different directions. [One-third of oil imports and one-fourth of gas imports are from non-Russian suppliers.]

I am not expecting any sanctions or reactions from Russia.

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Have you seen any signs on the military front of increasing Russian pressure on your country, such as deploying missiles or troops?

Well, I hope they will not have a chance to deploy them on our territory. They did that 40 years ago and I hope that was the last time. . . . We haven't seen any specific military movements or activities with respect to the Czech Republic, but we have seen some [Russian] messages to the West -- to NATO, the European Union and the United States.

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What do you think the Russians could do in Crimea? Annex it from Ukraine?

A new conflict can be created in Crimea . . . because of [Russia's] political and demographic and military presence. You have a lot of similarities to the situation in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but it is not exactly the same. We should pay real attention to Ukraine, . . . supporting economic stability and, as far as we can do it, political stability.

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How should the European Union respond to the Georgian crisis? Should there be sanctions against Russia?

There shouldn't be any talk about sanctions, because I cannot see what kind of sanctions we would be talking about. The response should be a strong Western presence in the Caucasus and Ukraine in terms of support of economic stability, international presence on the ground, international monitors on the ground, and it should be robust. . . . The U.S. announcement releasing $1 billion for Georgia is exactly the way we should move forward.

We are being tested. We should be careful and we should be firm.

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What about Georgia's prospects for NATO membership?

I would not rule out any possibility. There needs to be a really serious debate within NATO.

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Is your country reconsidering its defense in light of what happened in Georgia?

Our security is based on our membership in NATO. . . . We cannot do anything on our own.

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Do you have assurances that the rest of NATO would defend you?

NATO is not dead. I think Article 5 of NATO is still valid: An attack on a NATO member state is an act of war against all of NATO. But I'm not expecting that.

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A high-ranking Russian general recently suggested that Russia could use rockets to destroy interceptor missiles to be stationed in Poland. What if Russia doesn't like this radar in your country?

Well, Russia doesn't like a lot of things that are in Europe. Let's not be tricked into excluding some pieces of the NATO defense infrastructure.

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boudreaux@latimes.com

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