SLUPSK, Poland (Reuters) - The future location of the U.S. anti-missile shield in Poland is still an official secret but in the northern city of Slupsk the locals already know they may live next to it.
The facility, which has caused controversy in Europe and anger in Moscow, is a hot topic in Slupsk and nearby Redzikowo, an ex-military airfield poised to house the rocket silos and about 200 U.S. military personnel.
Surveys show most Poles oppose the conservative government’s plan to host the anti-missile base, fearing it could make ex-communist Poland a target for attack.
But in Slupsk and Redzikowo, apprehension seems outweighed by hopes for an economic boost and a new lease of life for the struggling community around the defunct airfield.
“I’m in favor,” said Zbigniew Borkowski, a 53-year-old taxi driver who regularly ferries customers between Redzikowo and Slupsk. “This will breathe new life into the entire region.”
Government and diplomatic sources confirm that Radzikowo, 477 kilometres (298 miles) north of Warsaw, has been picked for the base but are reluctant to go on the record until negotiations between Warsaw and Washington are well advanced.
For Borkowski, no such public confirmation is necessary. He already keeps an English course book in his cab, studying the language of his future customers while idling at a rank.
“The talk of a threat because the shield will be installed is just scare-mongering,” he told Reuters.
Local authorities say the benefits of having the base are clear for Redzikowo, which was used by the German air force (Luftwaffe) during World War Two and then became a Soviet army outpost. Now dilapidated, it is populated mostly by ex-military families living in crumbling Soviet-style apartment blocs.
“The opponents of the shield say we will be threatened, but we are calm,” said Mariusz Chmiel, a Slupsk community mayor. “The Americans aren’t going to spend millions to build the site to make the whole place vulnerable to a terrorist attack.”
“I hope this base will not be just a place where U.S. soldiers and their families live but that it will cause an economic revival for the community, bringing in investment also by U.S. firms,” Chmiel said.
The base, which will host 10 interceptor rockets, is set to cost several hundred million dollars. It will be constructed by specialized defense firms but local, Polish companies may land contracts for services and infrastructure around the base.
If Warsaw and Washington agree a deal, and parliament approves it, work on the base could start next year, with the rockets in place by 2012.
But opponents of the missile shield, led by local Catholic priest Father Jan Giriatowicz, are not swayed by the potential economic benefits.
“God wants peace, not war,” Giriatowicz says, arguing the shield would fuel global tensions and revive the arms race.
His followers say the government is unnecessarily dragging Poland into a global confrontation between the United States and its foes such as Iran.
They also fear the base will stoke tensions with former overlord Russia, which has reacted with fury to what it sees as U.S. encroachment on its former backyard.
Moscow has dismissed U.S. assurances that the shield aims to defend the United States and its European allies from “rogue states”, and has all but frozen relations with Warsaw.
Such sabre-rattling has made even some Polish and U.S. allies in NATO and the European Union nervous, a point Father Giriatowicz’s supporters are quick to make when they gather around reporters after Sunday mass.
“I oppose the shield because this is yet another arms race,” said civil servant Adam Sasiuk, 36.
But he rejected claims that Poland, an European Union and NATO member, was replacing what was once Soviet control with U.S. domination.
“The Soviet troops here were imposed on us. Now it’s different, now it’s democracy,” he said.