Czechs Applaud the `Approachable' American President
The visit eased security concerns and boosted entrepreneurial spirit
PRAGUE — MORE than three decades ago, President John Kennedy visited Berlin, seeking to inspire residents confronted with the construction of the Berlin Wall and the threat of Communist encirclement. The president achieved his goal by issuing the now-famous words ``Ich bin ein Berliner,'' signifying America's solidarity with those struggling in the face of adversity.
This week, President Clinton, who has often turned to Kennedy's example for political inspiration, brought a similar message to Prague, but unlike Kennedy, Mr. Clinton relied more on action than words to convey his message.
Whatever the outcome of the president's talks in Moscow today, he left a lasting impression on the Czech Republic, easing Czechs' security concerns and giving a boost to the entrepreneurial spirit.
It was a performance for the 1990s, and perhaps a harbinger of the way the emerging younger generation of world leaders will conduct affairs of state in the future.
Clinton showed off his casual side in a stroll with Czech President Vaclav Havel to a boisterous pub frequented by Czech intellectuals, a brief appearance playing his saxophone at another Prague nightclub, and a panel discussion on policy at the local Kmart store.
``He left an excellent impression,'' says Richard Salzmann, chairman of Komercni bank, the Czech Republic's largest commercial bank. ``He is a young, informal man, and we are used to old leaders who are very formal in their ways.''
Czech officials who are managing the country's economic transition, meanwhile, expressed hope that the Clinton visit will boost trade with the West.
``I have a very good feeling now that there is a special future,'' deputy Czech minister for industry and trade Miroslav Somol told the Monitor.
The prospect of seeing a young, dynamic, and approachable US president brought people out into the streets by the thousands. The sidewalks were jammed with onlookers as Clinton made his introductory pub-crawl and stopped in at Kmart.
``This is a fantastic moment in my life. Bill Clinton is my idol,'' said 17-year-old student Daniel Wagenknecht shortly after shaking hands with the president as the US leader walked across the Charles bridge, one of Prague's best-known landmarks.
Not everyone who got to meet Clinton in Prague was left completely satisfied.
Polish officials, for instance, were somewhat disappointed that the Partnership for Peace program the president announced to help Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary to eventually join the Western NATO security alliance did not offer a clear enough outline on how they could attain membership.
``It's a step in the right direction, but it's a step that wasn't long enough,'' Polish Foreign Minister Andrzej Olechowski told journalists, referring to the Partnership for Peace program. ``This doesn't mean that we have dismantled the political void [in Eastern Europe].''
Some Czechs worry that while they will long remember Clinton's visit, the president's memory may prove to be shorter.
``Today, President Clinton is offering them [Eastern Europe] Partnership for Peace,'' the Czech Lidove Noviny newspaper commented Tuesday. ``Tomorrow, however, he will assure [Russian president Boris] Yeltsin in Moscow that he will do nothing concerning Central European security that would go against the grain with the Kremlin.''
Moscow has long opposed granting eastern European countries membership in NATO because it still sees the countries as a buffer between Russia and the West.
For Dagmar Grafkova, a shopkeeper in downtown Prague, the memory of Yalta, the World War II-era treaty that resulted in Europe's division into communist and capitalist blocs, is still alive.
``If Russia makes noise, I am afraid America would forget us again,'' Ms. Grafkova said.