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Prague Protests Heating Up

Given the first few days of demonstrations in the streets of Prague, it seems unlikely that activists will shut down the World Bank and IMF annual meeting here. But as protesters continue to arrive from all over Europe, September 26 promises to be an eventful day of direct action.
 
 
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9.25.2000, Prague -- These are trying times for the Czech Republic. Not just because the Czech government has been besieged by corruption scandals and attempts at rapid privatization have largely failed. But because the country's crown jewel, Prague, home to Kafka and the Velvet Revolution, has been inundated by two radically different -- though symbiotic -- delegations of foreigners.

The first group comprises 15,000 bankers, executives of multinational companies and finance ministers who have come to Prague to attend the 55th Annual Meeting of the World Bank and Board International Monetary Fund. Their suits are crisp. They tend to speak the language of neoliberal economics. And, as the Czech government had hoped, they are giving the city a financial boost by filling its four-star hotels and restaurants -- as well as glossing its reputation as the most cosmopolitan of Central European capitals.

The second group is, to put it mildly, a more motley crew. They are young. They are sleeping on the cheap -- in hostels, living rooms or in tents in the Sakhova Stadium. And besides sharing a romantically bedraggled dress code, they tend to view the world as being under a ruthless capitalist siege, in need of revolutionary antidotes that they intend to bring to fruition. These are the antiglobalization protesters, who Czech authorities are praying will not make their city better known as Seattle II.

But given the first few days of antiglobalization demonstrations and meetings this is unlikely to happen. The seven demonstrations that took place on Saturday and the half dozen that occurred on Sunday have been small in number (ranging from 50-500), peaceful and remarkably free of violent clashes with Prague's specially formed 11,000-member police force. Although there are now anywhere from 2-7,000 antiglobalization protesters in the city, their number is a far cry from the 20-50,000 that had been predicted.

This may well be because the Czech border police have been doing their utmost to bar protesters from the country. All last week and this weekend caravans of protesters from Germany, England and other European countries were detained at the borders, often for ten hours at a time, while police searched their vehicles and checked their passports against a master list of "radical insurgents" culled by the FBI and Canadian and European security agencies.

On Sunday, a 24-hour standoff took place at the Czech-Austrian border when 1,000 Italian activists coming by train from Venice decided to block the tracks rather then leave without three of their comrades who had been labeled "personas non grata," evidently because their names appeared on the list. Thanks to the cell phone, the activists managed to get in touch with the Italian Embassy in Prague, which sent a deputy to negotiate on their behalf with the Czech police. The train only got rolling again after the activists decided by mutual consent to leave the three "personas non grata" with the embassy deputy who promised to help them join their group in Prague.

"I am not at all surprised by this," said Czech legal observer Marek Vesely. "According to our laws, the police do have to explain why you are being detained or what it means that you are a persona non grata." He added: "It now looks like if you attend a demonstration anywhere in the world, your name will be entered on a list and your photograph will be taken."

Although protesters who rallied at the train station and in front of the Ministry of Interior on Sunday, were angered by the Czech border police they did not appear to be in the least defeated.

"This is a unique event," said Miranda, a dreadlocked 22-year-old from Bristol, England. "Never before has the movement been this international. Never before have Americans been able to get together with Europeans, face-to-face, to trade ideas and tales of action."

Indeed the meeting on Saturday at the protesters' "convergence center" -- an abandoned ship hanger on a scruffy island in the middle of Prague -- was truly international. Close to one thousand protesters from Spain, France, Canada, England, Sweden, Finland and the U.S. milled the grounds while the most vigilant gathered around a large map of central Prague to decide their course of action.

Like Seattle, the Prague antiglobalists are organizing themselves in "affinity groups" and making decisions by consensus. They have decided to march without a permit to the Prague Congress Center on Tuesday, September 26, the day that the IMF and World Bank meeting formally begins, with the goal of encircling the massive congress center and preventing the delegates form leaving until they "agree to radical reform or abolish their institutions."

Such a plan is near impossible, logistically let alone politically, as the congress center, a kind of Stalinist era Getty Museum, is ringed by police and difficult to access. The only direct route to the hall is a four-lane road that links the main part of the city to the congress center by an overpass, known locally as "suicide bridge" for the large number of people who leapt to their death during the communist era.

But such details do not seem to bother the youthful protesters. "We are on a fight to be known," said one of them. "We don't care about what's possible and what's not. We want justice and equality for everyone in the world."

Not everyone protesting in Prague this week is as buoyantly idealistic as this group loosely organized by INPEG, the Initiative Against Economic Globalization, a Prague-based coalition of mainly foreign activists. Also in town are representatives from 350 nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations who have been holding lectures on the negative repercussions of globalization and meeting with representatives from the IMF and World Bank.

On Saturday morning, Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright turned Czech president, held a forum at the Palace for leaders from environmental, human rights and interfaith groups with world financial leaders. World Bank President James Wolfensohn was there, as was IMF Managing Director Horst Kohler and the billionaire financier George Soros, to discuss "the responsibility of humankind for the development of the poorest areas of the world," as the forum flyer put it. The meeting went smoothly and inconclusively. And although Havel did not make any critical comments on the Bank or the global economic system that many had hoped for, his gesture was not perceived as a failure.

What angered activists were comments made by James Wolfensohn at another NGO-Bank session on Friday. "Understand we are not the world government," said Wolfensohn. "Very often people blame us for the politics in a country when they should really blame themselves. It is not me who has the vote. It is you."

Such reasoning is unacceptable to veteran anti-IMF and -World Bank activists, who have spent years painstakingly researching the impact of the lending institutions' policies -- particularly the IMF's structural economic policies (SAPs) -- on poor nations. Activists argue that World Bank loans for such large scale projects as dams and oil pipelines enrich the Bank and line the coffers of corporations, while causing havoc on poor economies' social infrastructure and environment. They point out that the World Bank has $30 billion in reserves, but refuses to use this money to cancel the debt.

In the case of the IMF, there is now close to uniform agreement among critics that macroeconomic remedies, such as currency devaluations, high interest rates and budget cuts, may bring poor countries into global markets but at the expense of instability and further debt. Even insiders like Joseph Stiglitz, former chief economist of the World Bank, and Jeffrey Sachs, the Harvard economist who has advised the governments of Russia and Poland on privatization, argue that the IMF helped cause the Asian financial crisis of 1997 which spread to Russia a year later.

The World Bank and the IMF are thus finding themselves in a tight spot. Their recently released World Development Report is a much-publicized effort to recast themselves as fighters of poverty. To prove this, they are putting an emphasis on the projects that give people the basic tools to benefit from a global economy: education, access to technology and encouragement of stock ownership. But the very statistics they use -- that half the world's population lives on $2 a day, that one fifth of the world's people living in the highest income countries have 86 percent of the world GDP -- seem to call into question their development economics.

Although the leaders of the IMF and World Bank are making dialogue with their critics a priority -- inviting representatives from such organizations as the Environmental Rights Action Group of Nigeria and the Public Interest Center of India -- activist groups so far are not overly impressed.

"Globalized economics is nothing but global apartheid," said Sam Koba, a Kenyan from the World Council of Churches.

Perhaps the most successful group campaigning against the IMF and the World Bank in Prague is Jubilee 2000, an interfaith group that is calling for the cancellation of third world debt. Unlike the jumble of issues that many antiglobalization groups are airing, Jubilee's goal is clear -- correct global economic imbalances through debt forgiveness -- which is probably why it is one of the few organizations in the movement that has members in the countries it is fighting for. Jubilee has 20 million members in 150 countries.

"We get our message not necessarily through NGOs but through the power of faith and religion," said Liana Cisneros, Jubilee's 2000's coordinator for the Caribbean and Latin America. "In the places I work people understand debt even if they don't have access to the Internet."

Cisneros' comment raises one of the thorniest problems for the antiglobalization movement: How to become truly global? At INPEG's convergence center there were almost no African or Asian faces and few activists from Prague. This small number of Czechs, especially among young activists, worries some who realize that the Czech Republic has had its share of economic instability due in part to the IMF's economic recommendations.

"You must realize that the Czech people have a tradition of being obedient," said Arnost Novak, a 22-year-old organizer for INPEG and resident of Prague. "It is true that they are less idealistic about capitalism since the 1997 financial crisis. But not enough to be political. Young people here have lots of new entertainment: clubs, cafes, restaurants."

Novak adds that the police have been very efficient in disseminating "anti-protester propaganda." For three months alarmist announcements have been made in Czech newspapers and on television to stay clear of protesters, obey cops, and, if possible, leave the city. The city's 1,000 public schools are closed. McDonalds in boarded up. And residents of Prague, no matter how much they admire the nonviolent protests that toppled the communists in 1989, seem to be unmoved by the demands of the antiglobalists.

Tuesday is the big day for the antiglobalization demonstrators. INPEG's march to the conference center will be joined by almost all groups in attendance. What this will mean for the success of S26, as the day of the march is called, is unknown. But what is certain is that most Czechs, especially in the government, are hoping the day passes without incident.

"Vaclav Klaus wanted the meetings here," said Tereza Brdeckova, a novelist and newspaper critic referring to the former prime minister who was ousted after the 1997 corruption scandal. "Everyone else would have preferred the meetings be canceled."