Bush to visit Prague in effort to win over Czechs on missile defence

George W. Bush, photo: CTK

The United States is rolling out the big guns as it tries to persuade those opposed to placing part of its missile defence system in Europe. On Monday the head of the Missile Defence Agency is due to meet Czech officials and MPs in Prague, while the Czech government has confirmed that US President George W. Bush will also visit the country in June. So will these high-profile visits allay Czech fears over missile defence?

George W. Bush, photo: CTK
The Americans are launching an offensive to win the hearts and minds of the Czech people over missile defence, which is fast becoming one of the most divisive issues in post-communist Czech history. The United States wants to place ten interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar station in the Czech Republic, as part of plans to extend its existing system of missile defence to counter threats from countries such as Iran. Jan Hartl, director of one of the country's leading polling agencies STEM:

"There is some ambivalence concerning American missiles and radar. This can become a hot and controversial issue in the public debate. I think the majority of the population is not well informed about what it would actually mean. It needs some more communication and some more support."

That support ranges from about 30 to 50 percent, and Jan Hartl says the trend is not an upward one. American officials want to change all that. On Monday, the head of the Missile Defence Agency, Lt Gen Henry Obering, arrives in Prague to speak to Czech MPs and senators. This will be a crucial meeting. Placing the radar station on Czech soil must be approved by parliament, where the right-of-centre government has no guaranteed majority. The system can only go ahead if supported by at least some in the left-wing opposition, which remains firmly opposed to the plan.

It's also just been announced that U.S. President George W. Bush will visit Poland and the Czech Republic in June, en route to a G8 meeting in Germany. Missile defence is expected to dominate the visit. But can Mr Bush persuade Czechs of the benefits of the system? Well, Jan Hartl thinks his visit could help:

"I'm not prepared to say it could persuade Czechs, but it could help the situation quite a lot, if the communication is well prepared and well targeted. The lack of enthusiasm among part of the population in a way mirrors the lack of enthusiasm among politicians and the low profile of communication about the issue."

Winning Czech hearts and minds is just part of the task facing Washington. The biggest opposition to the plan is further east - in Russia. There's also some scepticism in NATO, with some claiming missile defence has the potential to create a damaging split. Talks this week at NATO headquarters in Brussels suggest the Americans may be winning over the alliance. Winning over Moscow will be much harder.