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Commentariat: PR and pledges rule radar debate

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The cabinet decided this week that Brdy, an area west of Prague that happens to contain a military base the US government wants to use for a planned anti-missile radar, is badly underdeveloped and needs money. At a Wednesday meeting with local mayors, PM Mirek Topolánek pledged to pump hundreds of millions of crowns into upgrading the area’s infrastructure. Regardless of whether or not the radar base ends up being built.

In rare agreement, Czech commentators called the promise a transparent effort to buy the good will of disgruntled Brdy area residents, most of whom remain steadfastly opposed to the radar.

Hospodářské noviny’s Tomáš Němeček argued this wasn’t such a bad thing. “It’s a band-aid for the radar, and that’s ok,” he wrote Thursday. “Few people want a radar in their backyard, the same way no one is interested in living next to a highway, power plant, garbage dump, water treatment plant or any other useful but demanding facility.”

“The emotional debate on the radar is finally moving into the sphere of rational, economic transactions,” Němeček wrote.

Jan Keller was more critical in his op-ed in Thursday’s Právo, calling Topolánek’s pledge “a blatant bribe”, especially in light of the fact that Brdy isn’t any more neglected than other cash-strapped, back-water areas in this country. “Allied troops are used to comfort”, he wrote. “Inviting them to a neglected area would be impolite.”

And although the cash injection is unlikely to sway Brdy mayors, locals might change their stance if they think the funding will help raise their property prices, Keller added.

It’s been a good week for commentators.

Topolánek’s Brdy visit came just a day after the cabinet’s announcement that it has hired a PR firm to develop a radar information crusade. AMI Communications, the company selected for the CZK 2 million campaign, will simply help organise and present information, not influence public opinion, the cabinet’s radar spokesman Tomáš Klvaňa said. Klvaňa, who allegedly has ties to AMI Communications, denies any potential conflict of interest. Members of the Czech media are not so sure.

HN’s Adam Černý sees the campaign’s timing as a far bigger problem, though. “It was a mistake for the cabinet to wait for things to get out of hand before hiring a PR agency,” he wrote Wednesday, calling the cabinet’s approach “unprofessional”.

Černý argued that while there is nothing wrong with hiring a PR agency to help with the campaign, even the best public relations officers won’t have the same impact as popular politicians.

“It’s up to the politicians to persuade,” Černý wrote. “The cabinet will need the support of a respected politician, such as President Václav Klaus.”

But Klaus has been warry of taking sides in the radar debate, venturing only so far as to say that it’s important that parliamentary parties come to a consensus.

That won’t be an easy task. “Even AMI Communications will have a hard time trying to convince Jiří Paroubek to support the radar,” Jaroslav Plesl wrote in LN Thursday. He noted, however, that Paroubek, opposition leader and ČSSD chairman, has given himself plenty of wriggle room when he said, “We could change our opinion, if it becomes clear that the threat of ballistic missiles form North Korea or Iran is a real threat.” Changing Paroubek’s mind, Plesl noted, will be left up to the Pentagon.

Mladá fronta Dnes left its radar commentary this week to Vlasta Parkanová, defense minister and songstress, who recorded a pro-radar song in June as a gift to US President George Bush.

In her Wednesday op-ed, Parkanová wrote that Brdy area mayors are unwilling to take part in constructive dialogue and that their complaints about not being given sufficient information on the radar and its potential risks were unfounded. “Maybe some of the mayors have misinterpreted our forthrightness,” she wrote. “What we’re offering them isn’t an opportunity to take part in deciding on whether or not the radar will be built, but a guarantee that, should the project go ahead, it will not harm the area’s natural surroundings or the health of the local residents.”

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