Czech gov't nixed U.S.-Russia arms deal

WikiLeaks: 2005 coalition refused to OK missile sale

By Bill Lehane

The Social Democratic (CSSD) led government of 2005 effectively blocked an effort by the U.S. Navy to acquire 23 Russian missiles because it would not do business with Belarus, a third party to the deal, according to the latest diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks.

Confidential communications from the U.S. Embassy in Prague published by the whistleblower website refer to a planned purchase of 23 KH-31 (or MA-31) Russian sea-skimming missiles via a Czech arms dealer, in a complex transnational deal.

The plans would have seen Belarus replace its 30-year-old stock of 23 such missiles by trading goods over its open border with Russia for 23 new missiles in a "cashless barter deal," said the cable dated March 9, 2005, and signed "Cabaniss," a likely reference to then U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic William J. Cabaniss.

Cabaniss is now the head of the supervisory board of Tatra, a Koprivnice-based truck and all-terrain vehicle manufacturer that often contracts with the military. He did not respond to requests for comment.

"Once the newer missiles arrive in Belarus, the Belarus Army would sell the older missiles to a private firm in Belarus, which would then sell the missiles to a private firm in Ukraine," the cable continued.

"The Ukrainian middleman would take a 20 percent cut and pass the missiles on to the Czech arms dealer, who would bring them to the Czech Republic and make them available to the U.S. contractor for delivery to the U.S," it said.

The cable concluded, "Post believes this might be the only way for the U.S. to acquire these missiles. Is the Navy's need for these missiles strong enough to overcome U.S. objections to military purchases, even indirectly involving Belarus?"

A subsequent cable also signed by Cabaniss dated one day later revealed that the arms dealer's request for an export license had been "put on hold" over concerns about Belarus, a former Soviet republic widely criticized for its human rights record, whose president Alexander Lukashenko was once branded "Europe's last dictator" by Condoleezza Rice.

"The Czech government has been very critical of the Lukashenko regime, and some in the MFA [Foreign Affairs Ministry], particularly those responsible for the promotion of human rights and democracy, have voiced objection to the deal," the cable reads.

A third cable dated April 1, 2005, documented that the Foreign Affairs Ministry, then led by Cyril Svoboda (Christian Democrats, KDU-CSL), told the Industry and Trade Ministry that it did not approve the granting of an export license.

The cable said an unnamed U.S. Embassy official had called to confirm this development, and that "his counterpart at the [Industry and Trade] Ministry ... told him that no license has been approved, or will be approved for this transaction."

"The Czech government considers the matter closed and expressed its thanks for the consultations with the U.S. government," the communication concluded.

The U.S. Embassy in Prague declined to comment on the documents.

"We cannot comment on the authenticity of this purported cable," Paul Oglesby, press attache at the embassy, told The Prague Post.

The Foreign Affairs Ministry also declined to comment.

"The ministry does not comment in any way on the content of published information from an unauthorized internal communication of the U.S. administration," said Vit Kolar, a ministry spokesman.

Svoboda has likewise refused to comment on the missile deal, but admitted there were several similar cases at the Foreign Affairs Ministry around that time.

He also strongly criticized the leak itself, telling the daily Pravo he believed WikiLeaks Editor-in-Chief Julian Assange should be in prison and the issues should not be discussed in public.

The documents were first published Jan. 19 by Belarusian news site, which said it got them from Israel Shamir, a Russian-born writer living in Sweden who describes himself online as "an accredited writer of WikiLeaks."

Mandy Castle of IHS, the British-based publisher of defense magazine Jane's Defense Weekly, described the revelations in the documents as "all speculation" and declined to comment further to The Prague Post.

Simon Saradzhyan, a research fellow at Harvard University specializing in Russian defense matters and U.S.-Russian relations, said he could not comment directly on the proposed deal, but said such indirect arms acquisitions were "not unheard of."

"It is done primarily for two reasons," Saradzhyan said. "One is to 'exonerate' the original supplier from being directly involved in a deal to a country that is either under international sanctions or exports to which may upset another country, which is a major buyer of the supplier's hardware."

"Another reason is to obtain a weapon that the manufacturer doesn't want to sell to the buyer directly and that the buyer wants to study in order to either acquire technology or to develop a technology to defend against that weapon," Saradzhyan continued.

Pravo suggested Jan. 20 that this kind of defensive intelligence-gathering was the U.S. Navy's motivation for the proposed missile deal.

Gwendolyn Albert, a human rights activist and researcher, said she "welcomed the revelation that the Czech government refused to deal with Belarus on principle."

"Belarus has one of the worst human rights records in Europe," she said.

"Like some of the other former Soviet republics which have retained autocratic or totalitarian forms of government, it has a long record of official or semi-official harassment of civic organizations, lawyers and journalists, including quite serious allegations of torture and unlawful detention," she added.

Albert said she was not surprised to learn of an apparent U.S. willingness to deal with Belarus, adding that she was "shocked to find clothing made in Belarus for sale in a U.S. department store" several years ago.

Albert noted the decision came before a change of leadership in the Christian Democrats and the election of subsequent representatives she termed as "populists who flirt with nationalism."

She also said it was "difficult to predict" if the current government would make such a decision, arguing it has often been a stronger supporter of human rights abroad than within its own borders, before pointing to the axing of the Human Rights and Minorities Ministry as well as the failure to appoint a human rights commissioner.

- Klara Jiricna contributed to this report.


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