Politics & Policy

Prague’s Republican Publican

If you can find Martin Kotas's "Mill Café," you'll have found big fans of John McCain.

Last week, the Czech Republic and the United States signed an agreement to build a radar station on Czech soil as part of the new U.S. missile defense program. Nearly two-thirds of Czechs oppose the station but in an obscure Prague pub, a pocket of John McCain-loving, missile defense-supporting Bohemians couldn’t be happier. Next to a water mill along a quiet Prague canal, the Mlynská Kavarná, or “Mill Café” is unlike many Czech watering holes. Obscured by foliage, lacking prominent signage, and located in a park rather than on a street, it is hidden from the cheap-drink seeking tourists. And if the clients’ conversations, peppered with references to American politics, were in English, a visitor might think he’d stepped into a Capitol Hill bar in Washington.

As the simple pinewood tables fill up, you can see that a number of customers don small buttons with words you would not expect to find in Europe: “John McCain 2008.” Asked why they sport those buttons, most cite McCain’s support of missile defense. Though the fluffy white cushions on the ceiling, providing noise insulation for the residents upstairs, might give the place a frivolous, postmodern air, the words, in English and Czech, on a plaque near the entrance explain the bar’s true culture:

What happened sixty years ago on 25 February 1948? In the then Czechoslovakia, the forty year Communist terror began. . . . Every period needs its heroes. Let’s recall the heroes from the times lives were really in the balance so that we are not cowardly today, when we live in freedom.

Framed posters line the brightly lit, whitewashed walls, each telling the story of a Czechoslovakian dissident who rose up against the Communist regime. The faces on the wall seem to ensure that the soft, steady hum of conversation remains decorous, even if it is lubricated and enlivened by alcohol. Martin Kotas, the bar’s proprietor, said that the Czech government funded the posters. One of Martin’s friends helped commission the exhibit, meeting with dissidents and recording their stories. The display debuted at the end of May. Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek even attended its dedication ceremony.

Even the McCain supporters limit their public display to the small buttons, rather than t-shirts and banners. The place has an ethos; it’s not just a place to drink and flirt with women, although that certainly happens frequently.

Kotas is probably John McCain’s biggest fan in Prague, and he says that quite a few of his friends at the bar are also McCain fanatics — regulars who show up every night and fill the one-room saloon with lively discussion of current events and politics. They are a younger crowd mostly, in their twenties and thirties — but with a smattering of older people in their forties, fifties, and beyond. Some look like scruffy college students, riding their bikes to the pub and parking them in the entry hall. Others look like distinguished professionals.

While an avid follower of American politics, Kotas speaks broken English — but he jumped at the chance to talk about the crowd. “It’s a special pub,” he said, taking a drag on a cigarette, “people come here who are against Communism. It’s a discussion place.”

Every night, the place hums with civil political debate. Topics range from the U.S. presidential election to the proposed radar system, which the U.S. plans to build in the Czech Republic as part of its Ground-Based Midcourse Defense System to intercept warheads from the Middle East. The radar system has inspired a heated discussion in a country known more for its quiet and complacent nature. (Remember the Munich Agreement of 1938, after which the Nazis invaded the Sudetenland without a shot being fired by the Czechoslovak Army?)

Opponents of the missile defense radar argue that the system will anger the Russians, who supply a substantial amount of oil to the Czech Republic. The specter of foreign troops operating the radar system reeks of the Prague Spring in 1968, when Soviet troops invaded Prague to suppress liberalization. The radar’s supporters cite the system’s ability to align the Czech Republic closer to the U.S. and to the West geopolitically. Many radar proponents tout the security benefits it could provide against a potential attack on the Czech Republic, a NATO ally, by Iran or North Korea.

Kotas is probably one of the most ardent supporters of the radar system in the country. When asked about it, he hurried into the back room and returned with a stack of orange quartercard flyers that read: “Nechceme Radary, Chceme Rakety,” roughly translated as, “We don’t support the radar, we support rockets.” An illustration of a hand flashing a two-fingered peace sign with rockets coming out of both finger tips adorned the center of the card. He smiled and took a sip of his beer.

Kotas and his friends began to back McCain in 2007, when he began his campaign. “He supports the radar system,” Kotas added “He’s a good man.” I get the sense that he is referring to McCain’s personal story, which mirrors those detailed on the walls.

Besides discussing McCain with his friends in the bar, Kotas visits political chatrooms and plugs McCain’s candidacy. He wears the McCain button on his shirt at all times, an act that has started some public confrontations. Kotas said with a grin that “So many people shout at me, Why McCain?! Why McCain?!”

A patron named Jan — who declined to give his full name because he works at an independent news service — cited his “instinctive” support for McCain. “McCain’s line of thinking is my line of thinking,” he said. “You know he has a lot of the right instincts. He was a POW with a very strong will.” Jan described himself as a “liberal Republican in the European sense of the word,” meaning he has a libertarian predilection. He cited McCain’s support for free trade and the WTO as among his strong points.

Speaking about the radar, Jan said, “We want someone who is going to be tough on the Russians, we want a counter-balance.”

A little after one in the morning, a bartender throws a towel over the beer taps to signal closing time. As the lights dim, two long-haired Czech men continue their conversation about President Václav Klaus, while another group sings along to The Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends” on the right side of the bar.

If Obama wins this November, the vast majority of Europe will most likely embrace the new “kinder, gentler” America. But disgruntled conservatives traveling abroad might be able to find refuge in Prague at Mlynská Kavarná, if they can find it.

– Jordan Fabian is a Collegiate Network summer intern at The Hill newspaper.

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