Bush visits Czechs, Poles, to drum up support for missile defence

George W. Bush, photo: CTK

The U.S. President George W. Bush visited Prague and Warsaw this week, either side of his talks at the G8 summit in Germany. His trip to Europe has been overshadowed by a row with Russia over the missile defence shield - Washington wants to build a radar base in the Czech Republic and an interceptor station in Poland. It's meant to counter threats against both America and Europe from so-called "rogue states" such as Iran, however the plan doesn't seem too popular with the locals.

Mirek Topolanek,  George W. Bush,  Vaclav Klaus,  photo: CTK
The Prague Castle band performed the Star Spangled Banner on Tuesday, as President George W. Bush stood to attention in the Castle's First Courtyard. Mr Bush was on a charm offensive in Prague, trying to persuade a sceptical Czech public of the benefits of missile defence. It seemed he'd spent at least some of the time on Air Force One brushing up on his Czech - he greeted the soldiers with a spirited "Vojaci Nazdar!"

The Czech capital was the first stop on his European tour, a fact of some significance in the light of stubborn public opposition to missile defence. For the last three months opinion polls have shown around two-thirds of Czechs against the plan, and some of that is down to fears of antagonising Russia, which has threatened to aim nuclear missiles at Central Europe if the U.S. goes ahead. Mr Bush had this to say:

George W. Bush,  photo: CTK
"The Cold War is over. It ended. The people of the Czech Republic don't have to choose between a friend of the United States, or a friend with Russia. You can be both. We don't believe in a zero sum world. We don't believe that one should force a country to choose. We believe that as a matter of fact that when we work together we can achieve important objectives. One objective is to safeguard free nations from the possibility of a missile attack launched from a rogue regime. That's a true threat to peace. As I've told President Putin - Russia's not our enemy."

U.S. officials have begun formal talks on stationing a radar base some 70 km southwest of Prague, and an interceptor base in neighbouring Poland. The Czech government insists that only by maintaining a strong alliance with the United States can European security be guaranteed, and that participating in the missile defence system naturally follows on from that.

The Czech President, Vaclav Klaus, said Czechs wanted a Europe that would work with - not compete against - the U.S. But he urged the Americans to do all they could to explain to Russia their intentions over the missile defence shield. And he also touched on the real burning issue for many ordinary Czechs and Poles - visas.

George W. Bush and Vaclav Klaus,  photo: CTK
Unlike western Europeans, EU citizens from the former communist east need visas to enter the U.S. It's a source of genuine irritation in this part of the world, especially for two countries which could soon become America's first line of defence against incoming missiles. If we're such great allies of the U.S., ask ordinary Czechs and Poles, why should we have to queue up outside the U.S. embassy? George Bush said he understood their concerns:

"I see that contradiction. And therefore I'm a strong supporter of changing our visa waiver policy. I will work with Congress to come up with a policy that of course meets their needs, security needs for example, but that also treats the people of the Czech Republic with respect, and listens to those cries. I know this is a frustrating issue for your leadership. People in the Czech Republic say - get it down now, you know - we're tired of waiting. I know that, Mr President. I just want to assure you I'll work as hard as I possibly can. We're involved in a very important immigration debate here. The visa waiver is a part of this important dialogue, and the only thing I can do is assure the people I'll work with Congress to get something done in a constructive fashion."

George W. Bush and Mirek Topolanek,  photo: CTK
Local officials strenuously deny a quid pro quo deal is in the offing, but they do say lifting visas would make the radar base much more palatable to their citizens. That might help swing the public mood in their favour, ahead of a parliamentary vote some time next year.

But for some Czechs neither visas nor anything else will make missile defence acceptable. Several hours before the U.S. President arrived in Prague, a crowd of around a thousand demonstrators chanting anti-Bush and anti-NATO slogans gathered in a square near Prague Castle. The views of this young man were typical:

"It's our territory. They can build it somewhere in the ocean for example, but why here? We had Russian military bases for thirty years, and we don't want more strange countries' bases."

The demonstration was a small one, perhaps suggesting few feel strongly enough about missile defence to go out onto the streets. But that doesn't mean there is widespread support among the Czech public for the plan- there is not. A lightning poll taken after Mr Bush left Prague suggested the visit had made almost no dent in public opposition. For now, opponents of the radar base prevail. The government is hoping that will soon change.