Prague's No to Star Wars

Observations on Czech protests

The statue in front of the National Museum in Prague's Wenceslas Square has seen many political transitions, including Czechoslovakia's declaration of independence and the velvet revolution. Now it is the focus of demonstrations against the government's plans to allow the United States to site anti-missile radar in the country.

Dubbed the "Son of Star Wars", the initiative is part of America's ambitious plan to defend itself against possible attack from Iran and North Korea - countries President Bush designated as part of an "axis of evil" in 2002. The Bush administration wants to site the tracking system in the Czech Republic, and the intercepting missiles in neighbouring Poland. The two countries are strategically placed in the flight path between the Middle East and the US.

The protests were characteristic of Czech politics. A calm crowd, several hundred strong, listened to speakers, including Petr Uhl, a human-rights activist and founder member of the Charter 77 political movement, before marching through the streets and across the River Vltava to the US embassy. The association organising the march, Ne Základnám ("no to the base"), waved banners and chanted "Army go home", watched over by police who placidly lined the route.

Plans for such a base have been under discussion for the past two years, but the US government's formal request to the Czech Republic was filed only at the end of January.

The timing was measured - the request coming in the wake of a confidence vote that put an end to a period of political stasis resulting from the tied general election result last summer. But citizens in the capital's Pilsner Urquell beer halls hotly debate why Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek has made such a controversial issue one of the first decisions to be taken by his weak coalition.

"Staging a base here would be an echo of Soviet Union military presence," one drinker opposed to the plan told me. "It promotes hostile relations in general and makes us, as the hosts, a target for attacks ourselves." Russia is also in staunch opposition, viewing the moves by the US as a covert threat towards itself rather than a shield against Iranian attacks.

The plans do have their supporters, however. A fellow drinker pointed to indications that Washington will abolish visas for Czech visitors to the US by 2009. the Americans naturally deny any connection between the base and softening of entry requirements, but this is viewed with scepticism, given the arrival in Washington at the end of January of an envoy from the Czech interior ministry to start negotiations with a team from the US department of homeland security.

So far, no Czech party - not even the Social Democrats, believed to be largely against such a move - has come out in unequivocal opposition to part of the missile defence system being located in the country.

But, for work on the base to begin, parliament would have to give its approval. And as the protesters gathered, the leader of the Czech Communist Party, Vojtech Filip, announced his intention to submit a bill requiring a national referendum.

The Prague protesters may yet be granted a more formal way to oppose the Son of Star Wars defence programme being sited in their country.

Additional reporting by Kimberly Ashton