Clinton faces dilemma on air waves

Click to follow
The Independent Online
DAYS BEFORE President Clinton leaves for summits in Brussels, Prague and Moscow, his administration is wrestling with an embarrassing dilemma: whether to accept an offer from the Czech Republic to rehouse two radio stations which broadcast from the West to Eastern Europe throughout the Cold War.

Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe, originally set up by the CIA, are based in Munich, an expensive city from where they still send foreign- language programmes to Russia and most other countries of the former Soviet bloc. The White House has ordered cuts in the stations' budget from dollars 210m ( pounds 143m) to dollars 75m, a partial merger with Voice of America and a halving of European-based staff to some 700 - all by October 1995.

Two months ago came an offer from the Czech government for the stations to use the building in Prague where the federal parliament of the now defunct Czechoslovakia used to meet. After removal costs of dollars 10m, the new headquarters would cost dollars 2m a year, barely a tenth of the Munich costs. At that point the problems began.

The first was the resistance of many of the stations' employees, many of them refugees from the former Soviet bloc, to leaving Germany. The Voice of America, fearing it might lose its grip on the two stations, also argued against the move. But the recent Russian election result, and the intensifying demands of anxious East European democracies for admission to Nato, have turned a bureaucratic dispute into a foreign-policy dilemma.

Fearful of giving ammunition to resurgent Russian nationalists, the US and its allies have already agreed not to extend the promise of speedy and full membership to the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary at the Nato summit. Denial of Prague's bid to attract the two stations could be interpreted as a further sign of Washington's exclusive focus on relations with Russia, rather than its former satellites.

Governments in Eastern Europe are among the stations' most fervent supporters because they provide an extra source of information when democratic news media are still not established in some parts of the old Soviet empire.

This consideration will make it even harder for Mr Clinton to turn down President Vaclav Havel's offer when he travels to Prague immediately after the Nato meeting. But even if the stations do move, Czech spokesmen insist this will not make up for failure to achieve their country's real goal: the security guarantees of full membership of the alliance.

'We don't see this as a kind of trade-off,' said a Czech diplomat here. 'No matter how symbolic they are, these stations are just part of the media - no more.' But for the Clinton administration, their fate has become an unexpected and unwanted headache.