Czechs say ‘no to radar’ during Obama visit

Demonstrators against the deployment of an American radar station have clogged the centre of Prague. It comes as President Obama arrives in the Czech Republic for an informal EU-US summit.

Damaged by the controversial legacy of George W. Bush, the trans-Atlantic relationship is now very much in Barack Obama’s hands, and it appears the political climate is improving. The leaders of NATO have agreed to resume the work of the Russia-NATO Council, suspended by the alliance unilaterally in September last year following Russia's conflict with Georgia.

Speaking at the NATO meeting on April 4, NATO Secretary General Jaap De Hoop Scheffer said the alliance must cooperate with Russia.

“We want to cooperate with Russia, because we share common security interests. And we want to use the NATO-RUSSIA council to its fullest potential to step up a practical cooperation – from Afghanistan to arms control… to anti-piracy. But we must also use it to air out differences”, said the Secretary General.

Many Czechs hope this step towards the normalization of relations between Washington and Moscow will lead to the scrapping of American plans to deploy part of its missile defense shield on Czech territory, which Russia sees as a threat to its security.

Hours before Obama's arrival about 300 people gathered in centre of the Czech capital and headed to the US Embassy to voice their message:

“We don’t want a radar here! We don’t want a military base! We don’t want foreign soldiers here!” people shouted.

There is probably no other country in Europe that has been waiting for US President Barack Obama so eagerly– if not by the politicians, then by the population. Around 70% of Czechs oppose George Bush's plans to build a radar station 90 kilometers southwest of Prague as part of the proposed US anti-missile shield. With Barack Obama reviewing some of his predecessor’s policies, many Czechs now expect the new American president to cancel the construction. According to the latest polls around one third of the Czechs believe he will do so.

“The population in the Czech republic is welcoming Barack Obama because there are really high hopes that with the new American leadership that he talks about – that favors diplomatic solutions rather than military solutions. Now with diplomatic solutions you don’t need new foreign military bases, such as the one planned for the Czech Republic”, says Jan Tamas, activist from the Non Violence movement.

The Czech government signed two agreements on the project with the Bush administration last year. The country’s upper house of parliament had already given the nod, and the lower chamber was due to decide in March, but the government postponed the vote as it was certain it would not get passed.

“I think many expect Obama to change things, but they are waiting for that too passively. You know there is an absolute need to continue campaigning as so far no one has said for sure the radar won’t be installed here in my country”, says local student Jana Jedlichkova.

The mayor of the village close to the potential radar station says everyone knows the dangers of this project due to the campaigning.

“Firstly, such a monster shouldn’t be placed in the center of Europe for simple health reasons – and that is confirmed by the American scientists as much as by our own ones. Secondly, it’s the issue of European, and even international security. Every child now knows that if you develop military bases, other countries are unlikely to start actively disarming”, says Jan Neoral, mayor of Trokavec.

The protesters believe they will succeed, as the government that signed the radar deal with the US has already been defeated in a vote of no-confidence.

Protests against the radar have been a frequent occurrence in Prague in the past few years. The people, who have been regularly coming out onto the streets, hope that now is finally the time when their message will be heard – that the Czech public does not want an American military base on their land.