AFP - Barack Obama flew into Prague on Saturday for a summit with EU leaders, making his first venture behind the erstwhile Iron Curtain on the third leg of his maiden European tour as US president.
Obama will be using his visit to the Czech Republic -- current holder of the rotating EU presidency -- to deliver a keynote speech on nuclear proliferation, as the world awaits a threatened North Korean missile launch.
Together with Poland, the Czech Republic is to host elements of a nuclear missile defence shield, initiated by Obama's predecessor George W. Bush, that Russia regards as a threat to its security.
Obama -- warmly welcomed earlier in Britain, France and Germany -- may expect a somewhat cooler reception from his Czech hosts after Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek branded his economic stimulus plans as a "road to hell".
His energy sapped by a bad cold, Obama planned to have a private evening with his wife Michelle on Saturday following his red-carpet welcome at Prague airport from President Vaclav Klaus.
He was to resume his European charm offensive Sunday in a speech at Prague Castle where he will also be holding talks with both the president and the prime minister.
Obama, who flew in from a NATO summit in Strasbourg and neighbouring German cities, was expected to focus much of his speech on nuclear proliferation, according to US officials.
In Strasbourg on Friday, Obama said reducing the threat of weapons of mass destruction was among the top two goals of his presidency, along with rescuing the US economy from recession.
Although Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said no serious progress was made at his first talks with Obama in London on Wednesday, some Czechs wonder if warmer ties between Washington and Moscow could see the shield plan dropped.
The radar project was officially devised to defend against long-range ballistic missiles that might be fired by "rogue states" such as Iran, but Moscow views it as a threat to its own security.
Hours before Obama's arrival, around 300 people gathered in central Prague to protest the radar base plan.
"I hope Barack Obama will retain the common sense that we all worship," Social Democrat lawmaker Anna Curdova told the crowd of mostly older people.
While Topolanek has chosen his words carefully on missile defence, he has been less diplomatic in his opposition to Obama's spending plans.
In a speech at the European Parliament in Strasbourg last month, Topolanek said "the United States is not on the right path" with its costly plans to jump-start the world's biggest economy.
"All of these steps, their combination and their permanency is a road to hell," he said.
The White House brushed off Topolanek's comments as intended for domestic consumption, as they were made a day after his government was defeated in a no-confidence motion.
Sunday's summit was to have been a highpoint of the Czech EU presidency, but Topolanek's domestic woes have hampered his ability to speak on behalf of the 27-nation bloc.
Topolanek's rivalry with the acerbic Klaus has been at the core of the instability, and thus he will be keen to avoid being upstaged when the EU-US summit begins after Obama's castle address.
Klaus, a staunch eurosceptic, opposes EU efforts to combat climate change, calling them a luxury in a time of economic hardship.
EU member states have agreed to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by 2020 from 1990 levels, rising to 30 percent if the rest of the developed world agrees to do so.
Obama's visit has turned Prague's historic centre into a well-guarded fortress with 4,000 police officers on duty until he leaves Sunday evening for Turkey.