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Czechs Bracing For Anti-Missile Protests Ahead of Obama Visit


Czechs opposed to U.S. plans to install part of a missile defense system in their country say they will go ahead with a protest march during President Barack Obama's visit to Prague this weekend, despite a ban on the demonstration. The protests come as opinion polls suggest many Czechs fear the missile shield could lead to tensions with Russia and more insecurity in Europe.

The Czech capital Prague saw a variety of protests in recent months against a planned U.S. missile defense system. Many oppose the plan - originally pushed by the Bush administration - to install radar dishes near Prague as part of the project. Interceptor rockets would be based in neighboring Poland.

In addition to ongoing protests, some demonstrations recently ended a 10-month hunger strike.

Plan angers Russia

Washington wants the system to help guard against possible missile attack from Iran or elsewhere in the Middle East. But the plan has outraged Russia, which views it as a provocation.

Former hunger striker Jan Tamas, a prominent anti-missile activist of the Czech Republic's Humanist Movement, believes the missile shield plan will increase tensions in the region.

"The United States government wants to place a missile defense radar system here in my country and interceptors, rockets, missiles, in Poland," Tamas said. "If this project gets build, it will be a very big escalation of international tensions. We believe that this is an issue that is not just a Czech issue or not just a Polish issue, but this is a European issue. Because it will influence the security in the entire continent."

Activists plan to defy protest ban

Fearing violence during Mr. Obama's visit, authorities have banned the demonstration, but activists say they protest on Sunday anyway.

The protesters plan to march to Prague's Congress Center where Sunday's summit takes place. The Czech Republic currently holds the rotating EU presidency.

Mr. Obama plans to deliver a speech in Prague, focused on the dangers of the spread of nuclear weapons. The president suggested earlier this month that a U.S. missile defense system may not be necessary in Europe, if Russia would use its influence to help make Iran abandon its alleged nuclear weapons program.

"Obviously, to the extent that we are lessening Iran's commitment to nuclear weapons, then that reduces the pressure for - or the need for - a missile defense system," president Obama said. "In no way does that diminish my commitment to making sure that Poland, the Czech Republic and other NATO members are fully enjoying the partnership of the alliance and U.S. support with respect to their security."

Most Czechs oppose shield

However opinion polls show that whatever happens, roughly seven out of every 10 Czechs oppose the missile shield.

Petr Kratochvíl of the Institute of International Relations isn't surprised. He suggested to Radio Prague that many Czechs fear tensions with Russia, which strongly opposes the missile defense system.

"I think there are more objectives in the American strategy, but obviously the main one - or the one that is perceived as the most important one in the Czech Republic, even though it is not publicly stated - is obviously that the missile defense should protect us from Russia, not from Iran, that I think is obvious," he said. "And, again, we can see that even the American administration really couples the issue with the question of US-Russian relations, not with the question of Iran and the threat from Iran, so I think definitely the main reason for the missile defense in Europe is strengthening the American presence here and diminishing the influence of Russia."

Parliament has not ratified treaties signed with Washington

So far the Czech legislators have not ratified key treaties signed by the Czech government with Washington on the stationing of the radar base and American soldiers in the Brdy military district, 90 kilometers southwest of Prague.

Fearing parliamentary defeat, Prime Minister Mirek Toplolanek recently withdrew the treaties for ratification, although he said he could ask for a vote any time.

Yet, his ability to push through the agreements has been limited since he lost a vote of no-confidence last week.

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