Czech citizens wary of US missile system

Updated: 2007-06-05 15:37

PRAGUE, Czech Republic - Russia isn't alone in disliking the idea of basing a US missile defense system in the Czech Republic and other countries on its doorstep.

US President George W. Bush, left, and his wife Laura wave on their arrival in Prague, Czech Republic, Monday, June 4, 2007. Bush arrived in Czech Republic for a two-day working visit. [AP]
Most Czechs aren't happy about the proposal, either. Recent polls in this former Soviet satellite, now a democratic NATO ally, show more than 60 percent of the public in opposition.

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President Bush arrived Monday evening in the stately old European capital of Prague for a day of meetings with Czech leaders.

The White House has billed a speech Bush will deliver from the local headquarters of Radio Free Europe on democracy as the highlight of his visit here. His Czech counterparts have complaints with Washington to discuss, such as a two-tiered visa system for European nations that leaves their citizens out in the cold.

However, the international debate over the missile defense system likely will drown out everything else during Bush's stay in Prague. The US plan calls for an anti-missile radar base to be built at the Brdy military zone southwest of the capital.

For their part, Czech leaders have brushed off Russia's objections, remaining receptive to the project. Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek called it "a necessary step which will significantly increase our security and also the security of our European allies and neighbors."

Most Czech citizens, though, worry about Russian threats to embark on a new arms race in response, and they fear that the installation could make the tiny country a terrorist target.

In Prague last weekend, more than 1,000 people protested the plan. Demonstrators planned to show their displeasure again Tuesday outside medieval Prague Castle, where Bush was to meet with Topolanek and President Vaclev Klaus.

Over the weekend, Russian President Vladimir Putin stepped up already incendiary remarks about the US and its intentions with the shield, warning that Moscow could take "retaliatory steps" including aiming nuclear weapons at US military bases in Europe.

Russia believes the shield in Eastern Europe is meant for it, and says it has no choice to boost its own military potential in response.

Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, called this sort of talk "not helpful."

Still, he, the president and other US officials have sought to cool down the situation - to no avail. They insist the network is meant to protect NATO allies against a missile launch from Iran, not Russia.

The president's speech in Prague could stoke the fires further.

As part of taking stock of "the freedom agenda," Bush plans to mention Russia as a difficult area, Hadley told reporters traveling Monday with Bush to Europe on Air Force One.

"He'll talk a little bit about the challenge of promoting democracy in countries, big countries in particular, where we have a complex relationship and a number of interests, places like Russia," Hadley said.

He said the speech was not aimed at Russia, and that Bush would handle that bit of it "in a very responsible way."

Still, the remarks were not likely to be well-received by Putin, with whom Bush was scheduled to meet two days later in Germany on the sidelines of the Group of Eight summit.

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