In Eastern Europe, Pact With Russians Raises Old Specters

KARLOVY VARY, CZECH REPUBLIC — As President Dmitri A. Medvedev of Russia and President Barack Obama prepare to arrive in Prague on Thursday to sign a landmark arms control treaty, Marcela Balounova, like many Czechs, remains haunted by her memories of 1968, when nearly one million Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia, ushering in a period of political repression.

“The Russians invaded us before and they are invading us again,” Ms. Balounova, 50, said from her art gallery in this picturesque spa town, where Peter the Great first came for a treatment in 1711 and which has since become so popular with Russians that most signs offering luxury products and services — from million-euro villas to colonic irrigation — are in Russian. “I still remember crying when the Russians came here. And now here we are more than 40 years later and this place has become a Little Moscow.”

For the United States, the signing of an arms reduction treaty with Russia in the heart of the former Eastern Bloc, one year after Mr. Obama laid out his vision in Prague for a world free of nuclear weapons, offers a symbolic opportunity to reset relations with Moscow.

But while the American-Russian deal to reduce the binding cap on deployed warheads by 30 percent has been hailed as a diplomatic triumph in Washington and Moscow, Ms. Balounova’s sentiments reflect the growing concerns of many Czechs about Russia’s motives and America’s resolve in a region where history is never far from the surface.

Such alarm has been all the more pronounced in the Czech Republic, where many saw a capitulation to Moscow in Mr. Obama’s decision last year to abandon the antimissile system proposed by his predecessor, George W. Bush, which would have been partly deployed in the Czech Republic. While Mr. Bush said the system’s purpose was to shield Europe from Iranian missiles, many here saw it as a bulwark against a newly assertive Kremlin.

U.S. officials said Mr. Obama was eager to overcome anxieties about Russia and, at a dinner Thursday with 11 heads of state or government from the region, would urge them to discard outdated Cold War ideas.

“President Obama will seek to impress upon regional leaders a new attitude toward Russia in which the outmoded fears of Russians hiding under the bed are a thing of the past,” said a senior U.S. official who was not authorized to speak for attribution.

Jiri Schneider, director of the Prague Security Studies Institute, noted that two competing narratives threatened to clash during the Obama-Medvedev visit.

“By signing this treaty in the Czech Republic, a member of the European Union and NATO, the United States is symbolically asserting its commitment to European security and putting to rest old East-West Cold War divisions,” he said. “But the risk is that the Russians can also use this visit to embarrass the host country, to say, ‘We are here and you are not out of Russia’s sphere of influence.”‘

For many Czechs of the Cold War generation, who still recall with visceral contempt the sight of Russian tanks on the streets of Prague, the Obama administration’s attempts to reach out to Russia is both naïve and fraught with danger. Hospodarske Noviny, a leading Czech newspaper, said dryly Tuesday that Prague’s role for the Obama administration was that of “butler” and “panoramic backdrop.”

Lubos Dobrovsky, 78, a former dissident who worked as a window cleaner during the communist era before going on to become defense minister and presiding over the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, dismissed the new arms reduction treaty as “a cheap marketing trick by Washington and Moscow.”

Mr. Dobrovsky joined former President Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic, former President Lech Walesa of Poland and other Central and East European leaders last July in signing an open letter pleading with the Obama administration to retain a “full engagement” in the region and to be wary of resurgent Russian imperialism.

He insisted in an interview that recent events showed that Russia remained determined to impose its will, including its “invasion” of Georgia in 2008, its threats of military action against the Czech Republic and Poland if they collaborated with the United States on missile defense, and its lackluster support of U.S. diplomacy in Iran.

He criticized Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton as “insinuating that she can imagine Russia in NATO,” thus “creating a dangerous illusion that the United States and Russia are equal.” He added his skepticism of the effectiveness of a treaty that would leave both countries with ” more than enough carriers and missiles to obliterate the entire world.”

Whatever the treaty’s disarmament aims, many Czechs say that Russia’s encroaching economic influence is a far bigger concern than its military might.

Here in Karlovy Vary, where Russian influence is so strong that the local Czech hockey team has been considering joining Russia’s national hockey league, Czech residents complain that investments in real estate by Russian investors have pushed property prices up by 40 percent. Some 25,000 Russian tourists visited last year, and borscht is supplanting knedliky, or Czech dumplings, on menus around town.

Elsewhere in the Czech Republic, which receives 75 percent of its supply of natural gas from Russia, concern that Russia is colonizing the energy sector is growing. A Czech-Russian consortium led by Atomstroyexport, a Russian engineering company, is a leading contender to build as many as five nuclear reactors in southern Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia in a deal valued at €20 billion, or $27 billion. And the Russian energy giant Lukoil financed the Russian-language edition of a book by the Czech president, Vaclav Klaus, that plays down the effects of industry on global warming.

Natalia Sudliankova, editor of Prazsky Telegraf, the country’s largest Russian-language newspaper, said it was an open secret that Russian business interests in the region were supported by the Kremlin. “What Moscow is doing is no different than what any country does,” she said. “If they can buy influence, they buy it.”

For all the Czech concerns, however, many here also stressed that Russia had seldom been weaker, buffeted by the global financial crisis, the loosening of its grip over former satellites like Moldova and Ukraine and the recent terrorist attack in the Moscow Metro. That, argued Petr Pospichal, a Czech who organized secret meetings with fellow dissidents from Russia during the Cold War and who became ambassador to Bulgaria in the 1990s, offered an opportunity for the Czechs and the region as a whole to overcome old stereotypes and look for a new approach.

“I never expected the memories of 1968 to last this long,” he said. “The world has changed since communist times, and Russia is no longer the superpower it once was. We Czechs must not assume that every time Russia defends its national interests, it is being an aggressor.”

Indeed, some among the 150,000 Russian speakers living in the Czech Republic are hopeful that the signing of an arms reduction treaty by a Russian president on Czech territory will help banish the ghosts of the past.

Konstantin Makarenko, a 21-year-old Russian real estate developer from Siberia, whose parents came to Karlovy Vary 10 years ago in search of economic opportunity, lamented that most Czechs had selective memories, recalling 1968 and 1989, but conveniently forgetting 1945, when the Red Army liberated the country from fascism.

Yet Mr. Makarenko was optimistic that the summit meeting Thursday could signal a new era. “The Czechs still seem to think we are occupying them, and I am hoping that this visit will help change that,” he said. “I am tired of being blamed for things that happened before I was born.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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