TransAtlantic Perspectives, Vol. I (March 2002)
The Status of Radio Free Europe weighs heavily on Czech-American Relations
Of all the relationships cultivated between post-communist East-Central Europe and the west in the decade since the fall of the Soviet empire, few have been as fruitful as that between the United States and the Czech Republic. Now the war on terrorism and the American campaign to avenge the September 11 terrorist attacks have come to bear on this relationship and on the Czech capital city of Prague. Not only have intelligence agencies in both countries exposed Prague as a major crossroad in Osama bin Laden’s al-Queda terrorist network, but the consequences of this discovery have placed a major strain on the relationship between these two friendly countries. In an ironic turn of events, American and Czech disagreement has centered on the issue of Radio Free Europe, once a symbol of American containment policies.
Radio Free Europe
Even in the face of state-led
opposition, RFE continued with its mission to penetrate the airwaves behind
the iron curtain until that curtain no longer existed. When revolution
began to sweep across East-Central Europe, RFE’s mission changed along
with the global political environment. No longer was the mission
one of confrontation, but one of potential cooperation, and RFE continued
to provide news and entertainment from an American perspective, to a region
now in the midst of democratization.
The association was extremely friendly in nature. Vaclav Havel enjoyed private rock concerts at the White House, President Clinton played his saxophone in a local jazz bar in Prague. Madeleine Albright stopped by the city from time to time, prompting rumors that she would perhaps be in line to replace Havel as President when his term ran out. All of this amiability was of course conducive to profitable relations between the Czech and American business sectors. American investments were welcomed in the new market economy, and as the Czech economy grew, both Americans and Czechs profited.
Radio Free Europe in Prague
When the U.S. decided to accept
the offer, many Czechs welcomed the move as a big accomplishment for the
new democracy. Apart from its symbolic value for a state that had
been mired in authoritarianism and external oppression for so long, RFE
was important to both Prague and the Czech Republic for structural reasons
as well. Ivo Slovacek, Professor of Political Science and International
Law at Charles University in Prague explains, “As a people who for so
many years had been on the receiving end of democratic outreach, it is
very important for the democratization process within the Czech Republic
to now be the provider or initiator of a democratic dialogue…. From
a structural standpoint, Radio Free Europe is important to Prague in that
it provides a concentration of top-flight and diverse journalists, as
well as good competition for Czech media.”
September 11, of course, changed all of this. A Washington that had, before 9/11 seemed isolationist and introspective, quickly began to look outward, and turned to all corners of the world, building a coalition to fight terrorism. This battle also involved tracing and unearthing the extensive terrorist network that had seemingly infiltrated much of the globe. This unraveling eventually led to Prague, where a September 11 hijacker—Mohamed Atta—had met with a high-ranking Iraqi diplomat the previous spring. The Americans’ attention quickly focused on Prague and possible links between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. (see “The Prague Connection” for further details).
At the time, Czech intelligence was already shadowing the Iraqi diplomat, Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani, for suspicious activities. But in April of 2001, just weeks after his meeting with Mohamed Atta, al-Ani was expelled from the Czech Republic after he was caught taking photos of the RFE building. Czech intelligence now believes that a al-Ani may have been casing the building as part of a planned attack on it.
Concrete evidence for such an attack has not surfaced, but the very possibility has placed Prague on high-alert. Currently four armored personnel carriers are stationed in front of RFE headquarters, along with paratroopers and concrete barriers. These safety measures have blocked off a major city artery. Fearing an attack, some Czech officials have demanded that the RFE building be moved outside of Prague. The idea is gaining supporters in the Czech Republic, but it is not one that has been well received by the American administration of RFE or the American government.
Radio Free Europe’s Dilemma
In a January 16 Prague Post article, Czech officials fired back at Dine’s comments, saying that they are now determined to move RFE headquarters for security reasons. They also noted that it was, in the end, no one’s decision but the Czech government’s on where RFE operates in their country. This has prompted RFE officials to tone down their stance vis-à-vis the Czech government, and they are now negotiating a move outside the city. While the mayor of Budapest has, in the past weeks, offered an invitation to RFE to relocate to the Hungarian capital city, RFE officials, while not ruling out such a move, say that they would now prefer to work out a deal with the Czech government.
While a compromise is likely to be reached in this dispute, the implications of it on American-Czech relations are not so clear. The general feeling throughout the Czech Republic is that relations are getting worse. Professor Slovacek notes, “During the 1990s the Czechs were very positive about their cooperation with America, especially as it related to the democratization process. Today, the relationship has not only become more formal in manner, but it seems as if the Americans are becoming more distant.”
The Czech mood also seems to be indicative of an more general European attitude. The world post-September 11 is undoubtedly a different place, and the American approach to international politics is changing accordingly. As the Americans increasingly opt for unilateral relations and policies, those states who once felt very much like partners in a global partnership of states—like the Czech Republic—are wondering what will become of the global balance of power. The concern is that the U.S. is abandoning the international political framework that had been built in the last half century, to pursue their own evolving interests. The result is a string of strained relationships that seemed strong just a decade ago. Few, at least, seemed stronger than that between the U.S. and the Czech Republic. Today, the future of that relationship is not so certain. The current RFE debate seems in many ways symbolic of the decline.
Seth Capron graduated from Hastings College with a degree in Political Science and International Studies. He is currently studying at Charles University in Prague as a part of TAM and will complete his studies at the University of Bath in England.