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Obama comes to Prague

After government collapse, Czechs lament lost opportunity ahead of EU-US summit.

A man talks to two workers sitting on a platform facing St. Nicolas Church for U.S. President Barack Obama's speech during his visit on Sunday at Hradcanske Square in Prague April 3, 2009. (Leonhard Foege/Reuters)

PRAGUE — The Czech Republic that U.S. President Barack Obama will visit today for a one-day summit with the 27 leaders of the European Union countries has undergone dramatic political change in recent weeks. Less than two weeks ago, the Czech government collapsed in a vote of no confidence, leading to uncertainty about the details of Obama's visit.

Mirek Topolanek still remains the prime minister — for now — and he will host the summit. But what, if any, sort of meeting he'll have with Obama is unclear.

Obama arrives today, and is due to give a speech on non-proliferation — in which he will reportedly make a dramatic call for a nuclear-free world — Sunday morning. Shortly thereafter he will attend a meeting with EU leaders.

The government collapse prompted a dwindling of excitement about today's visit, according to Martin Ehl, foreign editor of the country's leading business newspaper, Hospadarsky noviny. Previously, there was palpable anticipation here about the opportunity to welcome the popular U.S. president on behalf of the EU — the Czech Republic is currently hosting the rotating presidency of the EU — and about the prime minister's planned sit-down with Obama for a bilateral tete-a-tete.

But now, the summit has become a bittersweet event for Czechs — with enthusiasm tinged by thoughts of what might have been.

“The main impact is that there is no official U.S.-Czech meeting about topics which we are interested in,” Ehl said. “This government is taken less seriously than a government that has a clear mandate.”

The itinerary — which, as Ehl lamented, seems to change by the day — suggests Obama will informally meet both Prime Minister Topolanek and President Vaclav Klaus at Prague Castle, the seat of the president, after Obama delivers his speech, which will take place in the square in front of the castle.

The uncertainty — which was brought on by the prime minister being reduced to the role of government caretaker — has left officials like spokeswoman Michaela Jelinkova in the position of trying to put a positive spin on the drama.

“It's an exceptional opportunity for all of the EU to see and speak with Mr. Obama about the most current and pressing issues,” she said. Among the issues to be discussed at the summit are energy security, climate change, the Middle East and Afghanistan, she said.

And even though the recently concluded G20 meeting in London ended with an agreement for a $1 trillion stimulus package, Jelinkova said she expects the global economy will also be a topic of discussion in Prague.