PRAGUE (Reuters) - When President George W. Bush flies into Prague on Monday to try to persuade Czechs to accept a U.S. radar base on their soil, he will find a nation that knows what dealing with, and crossing, a superpower can mean.
One of Prague’s main intersections has a memorial to Jan Palach, who immolated himself in protest at renewed suppression of free speech after Soviet tanks invaded in 1968 to crush the brief period of liberal reforms dubbed “the Prague Spring”.
Czechs can’t help but have a sense of déjà vu as Bush prepares to visit this crossroads nation of central Europe for two days, in part to persuade them to approve a plan to build a radar base about 50 km (30 miles) southwest of Prague.
“Soviet tanks — it was an occupation,” said a woman who gave her name as Jana, boarding a tram on a rainy morning the day before Bush’s arrival.
“We don’t see the USA interest in the Czech Republic as an occupation. It is really very, very different but we prefer ... if the United States would work more with NATO.”
Russia has denounced the proposed U.S. installation of a non-NATO radar base in the Czech Republic, and 10 missile interceptors in Poland, from 2012 as a threat to its national security. President Vladimir Putin has threatened to aim Russian missiles at targets in Europe if the U.S. missile shield goes ahead.
The whiff of renewed Cold War-style sparring has touched off lively debate in Prague, a city acutely attuned to the nuances of superpower politics.
Czechoslovakia was forced to cede 10,000 square miles
of its territory to Germany in 1938 after a meeting in Munich between the leaders of Germany, Britain, France and Italy, an agreement that staved off the outbreak of war for a year.
When American tanks rolled into western Czechoslovakia in 1945, the country assumed it would be released from Hitler’s grip by U.S. forces.
Instead, the Americans stopped well short of Prague, allowing Russian soldiers to free the capital and eventually pull the country into its sphere of influence.
After the fall of Communism in the bloodless Velvet Revolution of 1989 Czechs made major sacrifices through rapid reforms to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the European Union.
Both goals have been achieved, but the past still lurks.
“We want to be on the right side of the potential future Iron Curtain. We prefer ‘Pax Americana’ to ‘Pax Sovietica’,” said Roman Belor, director of a music festival held in Prague.
But Belor might get an argument from some of his compatriots, more than 60 percent of whom, according to opinion polls, have misgivings about the radar plan.
“We had German soldiers here, then we had Russian soldiers here and now we are to have American soldiers here? We don’t want them,” said Jan Tamas, spokesman for “No to Bases”.
The group will stage another in a series of protests outside Prague Castle, where the Czech presidency is located, on Monday, to coincide with the Bush visit.
Conceptual artist David Cerny, although he once painted a Soviet tank pink and has a sculpture of the Czech King Wenceslas astride an upside-down dead horse hanging in one of Prague’s commercial arcades, feels differently.
He describes himself as “more a pacifist than a supporter of building more weapons”, but he wants the radar.
“I am not pro-Bush administration but I am pro the United States being involved in Europe. And I am strongly for it because if you look at the history, especially this country, it is seriously suffering from the great power nations.”