New on Obama's itinerary: Political unrest in Prague

McClatchy NewspapersApril 2, 2009 

PRAGUE, Czech Republic — When U.S. President Barack Obama touches down in Prague Saturday evening, Czech President Vaclav Klaus will be on hand to welcome him to a country whose government is in the throes of a political defenestration.

That wasn't part of the plan for Obama's visit nor for the European summit he'll attend here. Protests were expected, and police are deploying 4,000 extra officers for added security.

Obama announced he would give a major speech on nuclear nonproliferation at the Prague Castle. To introduce him to the storied capital, Klaus had invited Obama to dinner, and Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek invited him to quaff beer in a Czech pub, the Czech news agency reported.

Then, in an embarrassing display of political infighting and backstabbing, the Czech government went down to defeat in a no-confidence vote on March 24 by 101-96. Two days later, Topolanek handed his resignation to Klaus. Though they are both members of the conservative Civic Democratic Party, they are known to disagree, and there are rumors that Klaus may have had a hand in Topolanek's downfall.

On the day before he resigned, the generally pro-American Topolanek, who was also the acting president of the European Union, made things worse by going before the European Parliament to denounce Obama's economic stimulus plan as the "road to hell."

So Obama will not be dining with Klaus nor drinking beer with the fiery Topolanek, and U.S.-Czech relations will take a back seat during the visit.

"The situation has dampened Obama's visit a bit because there is uncertainty," said Erik Best, publisher of an English-language news bulletin in Prague.

The U.S. is not alone in its uncertainty about the Czech government. The government's collapse has potentially serious implications for the European Union and its Lisbon Treaty, whose aim is to centralize European power and "streamline" the EU decision-making process by establishing a permanent EU president and foreign minister.

The Czech Republic is the only country in the union that hasn't completed parliamentary action on the treaty, and failure here could seriously delay its implementation. It would be a major insult to the EU, heightened by the fact that the Czech Republic currently holds the EU presidency, which rotates among EU member nations every six months.

Jiri Pehe, a political analyst based in Prague, said that if the governing coalition and the opposition party are not able to agree on an interim government, then the responsibility for choosing a government falls to Klaus, a vehement adversary of the Lisbon Treaty.

If this came to pass, then, like the unfortunate Czechs who were defenestrated to start the Thirty Years' War in 1618, the Lisbon Treaty will be out the window.

"If the agreement between the two parties goes through, the Lisbon Treaty will go through. If it is (Klaus's) government, they will withdraw Lisbon," and it will fail, Pehe said.

Also affected by the government collapse is the controversial U.S. missile defense system that the Bush administration intended would be installed in Central Europe.

The very unpopular treaties for the system, pushed by Topolanek and signed last summer, would place a radar base in the Czech Republic and a missile base in Poland. Obama is expected to address this issue during his visit, as the Russians oppose the plan, along with 70 percent of Czech citizens, according to a CVVM news agency poll. Obama's administration has shown signs that it may reconsider the deployment.

On March 17, the Czech government withdrew the treaties from the parliamentary agenda due to a lack of support, and the decision was the "last drop" before the government's collapse and a contributing factor to its demise, according to Jan Majicek, spokesperson for the No Bases Initiative, an anti-missile defense system organization in Prague.

At their demonstration on Sunday, Majicek is expecting a few thousand protesters to march under the slogan "Obama in Prague! Tell him we don't want the radar here!"

For the Czechs, the government collapse is more than a political mess. It's an embarrassment.

Honza Vojtisek, 20, a graphic designer based in Prague, is pessimistic about the situation.

"It's mostly about the bad image it makes for the country at this time, when the whole world sees us — because we've been used to (scandal) here already for years," he said.

(Asher is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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