Prague set for arrival of US President George W. Bush

George W. Bush, photo: CTK

Tourists who chose this Monday and Tuesday for quick stopovers in Prague picked the worst possible time if they were hoping to see the area of Prague Castle. To put it bluntly, they won't. The Castle and more immediate surroundings have been closed off as part of intense security in place ahead of the arrival of US President George W. Bush. In terms of security, Prague has rarely seen anything like it (the closest perhaps being a NATO Summit in 2002).

George W. Bush,  photo: CTK
On Monday Czech Gripens and L-159s as well as military helicopters will be on stand-by as Prague awaits the arrival of Air Force One. On the ground, 1,500 police officers as well as members of Czech intelligence will then cooperate with Mr Bush's own security team in terms of guarding the president.

Regarding Mr Bush's visit, Tuesday will see the most important meetings: the US president will meet at the Castle with his counterpart Vaclav Klaus and with Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek. Among issues to be discussed one of the most important will no doubt be US missile defense. The US is negotiating with the Czech government the possibility of deploying an American radar base in the Czech Republic as part of a broader defense shield.

But although the proposal has gotten initial backing from the government opinion polls suggest that around 61 percent of Czechs are against. Monday will also see a demonstration on Hradcanske namesti or square next to Prague Castle. I spoke about that with one of the main organisers, Jan Tamas, of the "No to Bases" initiative:

"We want to make sure that our political leaders hear the message that the majority of Czechs oppose the system and we also want to use the opportunity of Mr Bush's being here to make sure he hears it too. The majority of Czechs oppose the system; we [as an initiative] do not think it is going to make us, or Europe, or the whole world safer. We believe the contrary: that if we want to have a safer world we need to begin disarming."

RP: Given that security around the Castle is so heightened, do you have any concerns that things could get out of hand?

"Well we certainly hope not. None of the demonstrations that we organised in the past were ever violent and there weren't any problems at all. We hope that this one will be in the same spirit. In case there are any problems we will of course cooperate with the police. We are still negotiating with them right now as to how the whole thing will go, making final arrangements. I would say that we are hoping for the best and that it will be non-violent like all the demonstrations that have come before."

US embassy in Prague,  photo: CTK
RP: You mentioned the police: have you been given any special instructions this time?

"It seems that the police are much more heavily prepared and we almost feel that we are going to be 'encircled' in sort of a cage. That's not a good feeling. There have also been reports that some people will not be able to get in because of various streets being closed, but we will do our best for people to get in and hope that the demonstration will be a success."

Organisers say they originally expected a crowd of around 5,000 but now say the number may be smaller given difficulties of getting to the location.