Dragoon Ride’s crossing through Czech Republic sparks anti-American protest
By MICHAEL S. DARNELL | Stars and Stripes | Published: March 28, 2015
PRAGUE, Czech Republic – Anti- and pro-American protesters squared off in Wenceslas Square on Saturday, a day before a large convoy of American troops was scheduled to pass through the Czech Republic on its way to Germany.
The crossing will mark the tail end of the U.S. Army’s 2nd Cavalry Regiment Dragoon Ride, an 11-day trek of roughly 120 vehicles across eastern Europe aimed at reassuring allies concerned about Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine.
The stated aim of the exercise rankled members of the Czech Republic’s Communist Party and sparked a series of protests across the country. The largest took place in Prague, the capital, where some 1,000 anti-American demonstrators gathered .
“This definitely won’t contribute to peace in Europe because the situation is very, very dangerous and very tense. We’re of the opinion that steps like this definitely don’t help,” said Lubomir Ledl, a protest organizer and lawyer from Prague.
The anti-American demonstration called forth a response by pro-American Czechs, approximately an equal number of whom came out on Wenceslas Square. Heated debates between the two sides caused police to separate the two sides, and the pro-American demonstrators held their own rally in Peace Square later in the day.
Many of those in the pro-American camp said they would be meeting the U.S. soldiers as they crossed into the country to show that not all Czechs oppose Dragoon Ride.
“It’s a discussion we are all having right now about which way the Czech Republic is going right now,” said pro-American protester Pavel Cerna, a Prague resident. “It’s important that we show the world that it’s not only the communists that are dictating opinions here.”
The Dragoon Ride is the culminating event for the 2nd Cavalry Regiment’s participation in Operation Atlantic Resolve, the ongoing multinational training event now headed up by the 3rd Infantry Division.
The Stryker-heavy convoy will be entering the Czech Republic at Nachod, Harrachov and Vyskov and will eventually m near Prague before heading back to its home base in Vilseck, Germany.
Ledl said the chief concern of those opposing the convoy was that this and other show-of-force exercises would provoke Russia and lead to a further deterioration of the situation in Ukraine, where Russia-backed separatists have been fighting since early last year. Preventing that conflict from spilling over to the Czech Republic is a major concern, he said.
“This topic of peace, calming down the situation and warning against the danger that can come from the Ukraine is bringing the people together,” Ledl said.
Some doubt the sincerity of the protesters’ motives.
Jiri Pehe, a political scientist and director of New York University’s Prague branch, described the protests as political theater organized by the Czech Communist Party. He believes that many of the protestors may be Russian agents or people who are secretly getting money from Russia.
“If you take into account that the Communist Party has about between 10-15 percent in public support, you can see where these protests are coming from,” he said. “So, it’s a very vocal minority.”
Pehe cited a recent poll by the STEM agency that found that Czechs overwhelmingly support the government’s decision to allow the Dragoon Ride within their borders. Of those polled, 82 percent said they supported the convoy, while only 17 percent opposed it.
One of the protest organizers was Jiri Vyvadil, founder of the Friends of Russia activism group. In a statement released earlier, he suggested the United States had ulterior motives in supporting Ukraine.
“American troops who will pass through here are a symbol of the same scenario: Americans cause military tension then intervene to alleviate it,” he said.