Czechs at centre-stage as EU troublemaker, US ally

( dpa )- For years, Poland was the European Union's prickliest post-communist nation. Now that role seems to be shifting to the Czech Republic, its smaller neighbour.

With strong support for missile defences in Eastern Europe and a unilateral deal for Czechs to travel visa-free to the United States, the Prague government is on track to overtake Poland as the region's top US friend.

"Most people expected that the Czech Republic will progress towards Europe and Poland against it," said Piotr Kaczynski, an analyst at the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies. "Now it is the other way around."

By securing a separate US visa deal in Washington, the eurosceptic Czech government showed the 27-member EU's fragile unity and undermined the bloc's efforts to negotiate common travel rules with Washington.

In effect, the Czechs gave up on Brussels after repeatedly asking the European Commission, the EU executive, to lobby the US to abolish visa requirements for US-friendly EU newcomers in the former Soviet bloc.

"The Czechs have have become a US guinea pig in Europe that indicates how far it is possible to go," said political scientist Jiri Pehe, who heads New York University's branch in Prague.

Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek signed the visa deal in Washingon last month, pledging in return to help US efforts to track airline passengers. Estonia and Latvia followed Wednesday with US visa deals of their own.

EU officials in Brussels were infuriated. Poland was far from thrilled and refused to join the rush, although it also has pressed the US for visa-free entry for its citizens.

Czech Vice Prime Minister Alexandr Vondra says the Poles, once the region's top US ally in supporting the Iraq war, should be thankful for Prague's initiative.

"What we did will be - from a mid-term perspective - good for Poland as well," said Vondra, who also holds the European affairs portfolio.

The shift is also apparent in Czech and Polish talks with Washington on hosting facilities for a US missile defence system.

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who has sought to mend relations with Brussels after the previous government's confrontational stance, has slowed down Warsaw's negotiations with the US.

He is seeking US aid to modernize the Polish army in exchange for allowing 10 interceptor missiles to be placed in Poland.

No such conditions are sought by the Czech Republic, where the US wants to set up the system's tracking radar. In fact, Czech officials now claim that the radar would improve security - even without the Polish-based missiles.

"They are changing the message because they want to sign the agreements right now," Kaczynski said.

Five years ago, Prague and Warsaw stood together in backing the US-led invasion of Iraq, driving a wedge through Europe. Both countries contributed forces - Czech troop numbers peaked at some 400, Poland's at 2,500.

Poland emerged disillusioned from the Iraq experience, questioning whether it got enough in return from Washington. Tusk, who came to power after a sweeping election victory last year, reflects that mood.

Topolanek, in a speech to a conservative Washington think tank during his recent visit, staunchly defended the US missile plan as a test case for keeping Russia's influence in its former satellites at bay.

But loyalty has its limits. After a US State Department human rights report this week criticised the Czech Republic for its treatment of Roma and other points, Topolanek sniped back.

"The country that enables torture of prisoners can hardly teach me about how human rights are being violated here," the Mlada Fronta Dnes newspaper quoted him Thursday as saying.

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