Preparations for NATO summit reaching final stages
In three weeks' time, precisely between November 20 and 22, Prague will become perhaps the closest guarded city in the world. Forty-six heads of state and top officials from around the world will meet in the Czech capital, which is bracing itself for the first NATO summit to be held in a post-communist country. The Prague summit will bring together leading representatives from nineteen NATO member countries and 27 countries participating in the Partnership for Peace programme. The meeting is expected to make a decision on further enlargement of the alliance by addition of up to seven countries.
"Well, I think it's the biggest event that Prague and the Czech Republic ever hosted. It's a NATO meeting on the highest level and NATO is the organisation which we joined three years ago. It's very important, it guarantees our security and I think we are proud that we are going to host this meeting in Prague. We believe that the Prague NATO summit will first of all contribute to the modernisation of the Alliance, that we will be better equipped and better safeguarded against the various threats which are emerging and last but not least NATO will be enlarged because the countries like Slovakia and other countries in Central and Eastern Europe - either our neighbours or close partners will be invited to join the Alliance and it's something that we appreciate very much."
To host such a high-level meeting is a demanding task for any city, if only for the 2,000 delegates and at least as many journalists expected, who will need to be given food and board. Amid the usual preparations, Prague suddenly found itself in a difficult and completely unforeseeable situation, when the devastating floods hit the city in mid-August, closing streets, bridges, hotels and restaurants and destroying a large part of the subway system. Many were sceptical as to whether Prague would be able to recover before the summit and there were also voices demanding that the summit should be called off. Has Prague managed to combine clean-up operations with preparations for the summit, a question I put to Yves Brodeur, a spokesman for NATO, who visited Prague recently.
"What we've seen so far is really impressive. The authorities have done extraordinary work despite the very difficult circumstances. We recognise that and we are even more grateful to the authorities of Prague and the citizens of Prague for their willingness to host the summit. It hasn't been easy for people here, we realise that but so far it's been going remarkably well. As far as we've been able to learn from our discussions to date, we're on track and it's going very well and I don't have any kind of worries at this point."
"Objection number one: it could be dangerous for our citizens. Maybe you can't agree with me. Such a summit can become a target for a potential attack of Al-Quaeda or any other organisation against our territory. Apart from this, the cost of such a summit is more than 1 billion crowns and this money could be much more effectively invested in our flood-damaged country."
After the terrorist attacks from September 11, 2001, fear of terrorism has spread across the world. Analysts say the forthcoming meeting may become an opportunity for another attack, but organisers of the summit say they are prepared for all eventualities. Czech airspace will be patrolled by a special aircraft equipped with the AWACS radar system and US fighters from air bases in Germany will be ready to intervene. Chemical warfare and other army specialists will be on alert, too, and soldiers have even trained an action against plane hijackers. Security and protection of summit delegates and Prague citizens have been a key issue in preparations of the summit, as the summit chief coordinator, Alexandr Vondra, explains.
"Of course, the pictures from September 11 brought us new analysis of the situation. It's related both to the content of the meeting in Prague as well as to the security measures which we have to adopt. We have been preparing for more than a year and I think both the preventive measures from the border to the airport as well as the other measures such as the protection of the airspace and checking various security points will protect the citizens of Prague and the guests of the conference."
Another concern is street security in Prague, where riots broke out among some 10,000 protesters two years ago during a summit of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
This year, protesters from across Europe are planning to converge on Prague in order to disrupt the NATO event. Several thousand demonstrators are expected to stage protests during the summit. However, the chief coordinator of the summit preparations, Alexandr Vondra, is optimistic in this respect.
"I think we shall see how many protesters we will see in Prague at the end of the day. Of course, the security forces have to be prepared because our responsibility as the host country is huge. But NATO has never been the target of those protesters in the past. So I would expect maybe some of them but it is still a very much open question whether we will have any huge protests such as against various economic organisations in the past two to three years. We have to be prepared to guarantee public order in Prague and the security of the delegates but it does not mean that we have to expect or even to be afraid of some huge disruptions."
Not only protesters from abroad but also Czech activists are getting ready for unrest in the streets. The Czech Communist Party, for example, are planning to protest, too. They say that certain human rights will be breached during the summit as free movement will be greatly restricted in the zone around the Congress Centre, the venue of the summit, and parts of Prague will be closed to the public. Communist MP Jaromir Kohlicek.
"Even the Czech personnel of this summit have very limited citizens' rights. That means it is something against the basic laws of our republic and that's why we don't support this summit and that's why we shall be in the first row of protests against this summit. The best way will be very similar to our protests against the meeting of the World Bank in Prague. That means a big rally, a big march through Prague, in calm but very strict."
With the date of the summit approaching, the police and secret services say they do not know about any imminent danger, but the army will be still on alert. Barriers and armoured carriers will be stationed in the streets and snipers will be on the roofs. Some schools will be closed, too, and restrictions will be imposed on Ruzyne airport and some hotels. Some areas will only be accessible to the people who are able to prove they live in them. The Interior Ministry, police and Prague city hall have made it clear that if people want to avoid problems they should avoid travelling into the city centre between November 20 and November 22.
For foreign residents or people travelling to Prague, all the necessary information is available in English on the summit's special website, www.natosummit.cz