Tim Gosling in Prague -
One might consider it superfluous to warn folk against hurling eggs and tomatoes at heavily armed men riding tanks, but that's the kind of advice the Czech government is offering as the country prepares to welcome the 'Dragoon Ride'.
The US troops making up the military convoy have reported that they've felt like movie stars this week as their column has snaked its way through the Baltic states and Poland to a rapturous welcome from the locals. Nato couldn't have hoped for a better response from their parade to win hearts and minds on the EU's eastern flank. The convoy has acted as a concrete demonstration of the military alliance's support for countries that are nervously glancing at what they see as Moscow's renewed imperial ambitions.
However, as the Baltic states and Poland have been the leading hawks on Russia throughout the Ukraine crisis, getting a cheer in the first few stages of the US 2nd Cavalry Regiment's journey from Nato exercises in Estonia to its German home base is shooting fish in a barrel. The Czechs, however, are threatening to spoil the party.
While President Milos Zeman's pro-Moscow stance led him to be pelted and shown the red card in Prague late last year, another group of protesters have threatened the same treatment for the Dragoon Ride. This reflects the greater ambivalence towards the ongoing geopolitical stand-off between Moscow and the West as one steps away from the Russian border and towards the heart of Europe.
The Baltic nations have long been accused by Moscow of abusing the rights of their large ethnic Russian populations. The Kremlin has said its annexation of Crimea a year ago and its support for the insurgents in eastern Ukraine is driven by similar concerns. Little wonder then that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are so keen to see Nato troops on the ground as their airspace is buzzed by Russian planes.
Yet in Central Europe, far from Ukraine and largely free from open Russian politicking, the appeal is less obvious. With large chunks of the political elite having strong links to Moscow since their student days, the likes of the Czech Republic and Slovakia have struggled to come up with a coherent foreign policy stance in the current crisis.
Intensive lobbying by both Brussels and Washington has kept the pair on track with regard to sanctions against Moscow, but only just. To the south in Hungary, PM Viktor Orban's government actively enjoys its role as EU renegade as it openly calls for deeper integration with Putin's Russia.
Slovakia, previously seen as the weakest link
in the region in the face of the Kremlin's well-practiced policy of picking off individual states from EU policy, now looks to have made a definite - if not wholly enthusiastic - choice on who is its real friends are. Prime Minister Robert Fico may compare Nato troops with occupying Warsaw Bloc forces in 1968, but this appears intended for domestic ears only; in Brussels Slovakia now toes the line
Fools on both sides
The Czechs made similar comments last year, but generally are viewed as less problematic and drew less flak. While the issue tops the headlines at home, elsewhere it's understood that much of the pro-Russian banter and ambivalence of state policy is more the result of the usual petty domestic political fight than any wider geopolitical stance.
As a recent report on German views of the Visegrad Four from Vladimir Handl at the Institute of International Relations in Prague suggested, while Poland is seen as too hawkish on Russia, Hungary too close, and Slovakia too pragmatic, in a misguided nod to the country's literary tradition, Czech foreign policy is simply absurd. An ongoing debate over the legacy of humanist former president Vaclav Havel
leaves the country's policy "bizarrely incoherent", the report claims.
The coalition government is clearly embarrassed by Zeman's early and eager acceptance of the invitation to Moscow's WWII ceremony in May. Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka has recently adopted a stronger stance on Russia since shoring up his position at a party congress by stomping on Zeman's allies inside the Social Democrat party. "Zeman's confirmed participation … has clearly displeased Sobotka's cabinet," notes Otilia Dhand at Teneo Intelligence.
Meanwhile, coalition partner Ano - the new party of billionaire Andrej Babis that now leads opinion polls - is supporting the government line also, but will likely do so only whilst it serves its purpose. That has largely left the objections to the Dragoon Ride's three-day jaunt through the country to the Communist Party (KSCM), which took 15% at the last election in October 2013. The KSCM claims a "stay" of foreign soldiers in the Czech Republic requires consent from parliament.
A handful of groups protesting the military parade through the country gathered in central Prague on March 28 to trade barbs with a similar number of supporters of the Nato spectacle. However, opponents were clearly outnumbered by those welcoming the Dragoon Ride as they passed three border crossings the following day. No serious incidents were reported, although one protester reportedly managed to delay the column's entry to the country at Nachod by an hour or so.
Activists have said they plan to protest against the US troops as they pass through the country. The Czech army has been tasked with protecting the Nato convoy, with potential trouble spots already identified, according to local press.
Opening the border to the column "is the least we can do for our allies, and of course we're doing so visibly because the situation requires it", said Czech Defence Minister Martin Stropnicky, an Ano nominee. "Our citizens will be able be to see that we're rightful members of the North Atlantic alliance." The minister claims around 80% of Czechs are happy with the Dragoon Ride's passage.
To be fair, even Zeman has spoken out to condemn the plans to protest against the convoy. "In the past months I have been fighting anti-Russian fools," the president said on March 24, "but most recently I have had to fight anti-American fools as well, since fools are evenly spread on both sides."