Clinton savors Prague, but old woes won't die

January 12, 1994|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Staff Writer Writer David Rocks contributed to this article.

PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- President Clinton, on the second leg of his European tour, arrived in this enchanting city of castles, 15th-century bridges and cobblestone streets last night and enjoyed himself before taking on the serious business of reassuring nations that have known almost nothing but strife in this century.

Setting down in the nation whose deliverance to Germany in 1938 came to epitomize wrongheaded appeasement of the Nazis, the President left behind a North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit in Brussels, Belgium, where he orchestrated a go-slow policy on admitting the Czechs and other former Warsaw Pact nations into the Western alliance. He also arrived after joining other NATO leaders in yet another threat to launch air strikes against Serbian aggressors in Bosnia, the bloodiest battlefield in Europe since World War II -- a repeated threat that Serbian leaders have openly defied.

But if the celebrated Czech playwright-turned-president Vaclav Havel had any misgivings about all this, he did not show them. Mr. Havel greeted Mr. Clinton warmly yesterday.

The two men went strolling, dining and nightclubbing together as the U.S. president reminisced about his visit 24 years ago while he was a student in England.

"Twenty-four years ago!" the president said upon seeing 70-year-old Jirina Kopold, a woman who showed him around the city back then. "You can't beat it."

But moments after delighting patrons at the Reduta Jazz Club by playing "Summertime" on the saxophone, Mr. Clinton was hustled out of the club by grim-looking Secret Service agents who were responding, it turned out, to a firecracker that had gone off in the street.

Perhaps more unsettling in the long run, though, was that even before Mr. Clinton's series of meetings with the leaders of Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, there was squabbling and jockeying for position at a time the United States desperately wants the four to present a united front as an example to the rest of the former Soviet empire.

In interviews granted in advance of Mr. Clinton's visit, Polish President Lech Walesa accused Czech Premier Vaclav Klaus of ignoring the partnership and trying to go his own way.

Asked this week to respond to Mr. Walesa's contention that he is putting the interest of the Czech Republic ahead of the partnership's, Mr. Klaus responded, "He's right."

Not everyone believes this is the right course. Jiri Dienstbier, the former Czech foreign minister, said flatly this week that it should be obvious to anyone that the four countries will get a lot more of the kind of positive attention they crave from the West if they act in cooperation.

"There is a tendency in the Czech Republic among politicians to think that the Czechs can make it alone," he said. "But the Czech Republic will be interesting [to the West] only if it will take its responsibility for stability in Central Europe."

But chronic instability is what brings Mr. Clinton to Europe on this eight-day trip, and the reminders were everywhere of how much work remains to be done to overcome centuries of ethnic, religious and racial warfare.

The lovely castle that Mr. Clinton visited -- and which dominates Prague's skyline -- was built by a king who was Polish and who moved into it to protect his own life.

The famous Charles Bridge, which Mr. Clinton and Mr. Havel walked across after leaving the castle, is remembered as much for its martyrs as its architecture. One of the statues Mr. Havel showed Mr. Clinton on the bridge commemorates St. Jan Nepomuk, a 16th-century priest tortured to death and tossed into the Vltava River from the very spot where his statue now stands.

And the cobblestone streets Mr. Clinton walked over on his way to a couple of beers at the Golden Tiger pub were torn up by Soviet and Warsaw Pact tanks sent in August 1968 to crush the reform government of Alexander Dubcek, which had promised the Czechs and Slovaks "socialism with a human face."

The demise of the Soviet Union has once again brought hope to millions of people who once lived behind the Iron Curtain -- thousands of Czechs lined the roads last night for a glimpse of the U.S. president -- but it also has brought disunion and despair roughly a few hundred miles from here in Bosnia.

The NATO summit that concluded yesterday morning was dominated at the end by a discussion of what the Western allies could do to halt Serbian aggression there.

Mr. Clinton suggested -- and other Western leaders concurred -- that he had been instrumental in getting the alliance to expand its warning that NATO is prepared to use air strikes to save Sarajevo.

Yesterday, all 16 NATO powers signed a communique indicating the alliance was also prepared to order air strikes to open up the airport at a town called Tuzla, which is needed for the airlifting of humanitarian )

supplies. It also warned that it would use air power to evacuate Canadian peace-keeping forces if they are cut off at Srebrenica.

NATO has issued such dire warnings before, however, and Mr. Clinton and Secretary-General Manfred Woerner were both asked pointedly if the words carried any sting.

"My resolve is there," replied Mr. Clinton. "We'll see if their resolve is there."

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