Next Protest Stop, Prague



Not so long ago, the annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank might have gone unnoticed by the general public -- just a bunch of champagne-drunk economists prattling on about arcane currency theories and deciding the financial fate of the developing world.

But that was before Seattle, when the anti-globalization movement was born among angry sea turtles and clouds of tear gas. The raucous events at the World Trade Organization meeting last November set off a wave of protests from Argentina to Taiwan to Washington. Now the IMF/World Bank annual meeting, set for September 21 to 28 in Prague, is being billed by some protest organizers as "the next Seattle."

The Internet is buzzing with exhortations for mass protests in Prague, drawing the participation of a sprawling galaxy of groups, including labor unions, Zapatistas, Tibetan monks and Maori tribes. Several Eastern European organizations, including INPEG, a coalition of Earth First!ers and peaceful anarchists, and Central and Eastern European Bankwatch, a watchdog group against global usury, are spearheading the coalition.

The week will involve a number of events -- including a "countersummit" on development policy, a cultural festival featuring dancers and performance artists, and workshops on nonviolence and consensus building -- all building up to a "day of action" on September 26, when thousands of protesters will march in Prague and in satellite protests around the world.

While the collection of protest groups is numerous and motley, such prominent organizations as Friends of the Earth International and debt relief advocates Jubilee 2000 are planning a strong showing. The Czech Interior Ministry estimates protesters will number from 20,000 to 25,000, but organizers are expecting as many as 50,000 people.

Numbers aside, Czech authorities and bank officials are bracing for the worst. They have pointed fingers at Web sites like DestroyIMF.org, sponsored by a Czech Trotskyist organization, which refers to the Seattle protests as a "passive, ideological showpiece" and vows to amass thousands to descend on Prague and "smash the IMF and World Bank."

Last spring World Bank President James Wolfensohn stirred the paranoia pot when he warned that he was "very afraid for Prague" and accused the Berkeley-based Ruckus Society of teaching people how to make Molotov cocktails and other violent protest tactics. Ruckus organizer Han Shan calls the remarks "beyond irresponsible" and says the group is committed to nonviolence. Ruckus, incidentally, is opting out of Prague to concentrate on organizing in the United States.

Officials admit they don't know exactly what to expect. But they are allocating 5,000 military personnel to back up the 11,000 police on hand for the event. Czech police were trained by the Washington Police Department at IMF protests in April, and the FBI's newly opened legal attaché office in Prague, established for the purpose of "cooperative law enforcement efforts and information sharing," will assist Czech officials, according to a Czech government spokeswoman.

The Czech Interior Ministry is closing all surrounding theaters to prevent any indoor organizing, and schools in the city have been given a long holiday that week to keep kids away from the protesters. Local McDonald's franchises and other multinationals are also beefing up security.

It is the protesters, not fast food joints or school kids, who will be in the most danger. This year's May Day demonstration in Prague was met by truncheons and kicks to the ribs, a police response later characterized by the Czech government's human rights commissioner as "inappropriately brutal." (Although the demonstration was deemed illegal because of a late permit application, the participants were peaceful.)

Fear of a violent crackdown may limit the scope of the protests, says Soren Ambrose of the U.S.-based group 50 Years Is Enough, who attended a meeting of organizers in Prague in May. He adds that there is no plan to shut down the meetings, as in Seattle. "Organizers feel that announcing such a radical goal would cause a harsh reaction," Ambrose adds. "There is a history with the Czech police."

Still, protesters may not be entirely unwelcome in Prague. Czech President Vaclav Havel, who has been known to make his own remarks against the global financial potentates, has invited protest leaders to meet with him in the Presidential Palace to voice their concerns. And the mayor of Prague has even allocated the city's soccer stadium to provide low-cost accommodations for the protesters.

Adrian Lovett of Jubilee 2000 says that officials at the World Bank and IMF also have promised to highlight their issues and have made a welcome effort to establish lines of communication with advocacy groups. But, Lovett adds, "I still don't know if they are really listening to us."

"We're going to keep the pressure on," adds Jubilee 2000's Marlene Barrett, "so they'll have no choice but to listen."

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