Published on Saturday, August 12, 2000 in the New York Times
Czech Police and Army Get Ready for Protests at I.M.F. World Bank Meeting
by Steven Erlanger
PRAGUE - Kentucky
Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut have
already ordered replacement glass.
So has Tesco, a British supermarket
chain, and it is thinking of shutting
down for the duration. McDonald's
talks hopefully of its local ownership
and wants to keep its outlets open.
The Interior Ministry will have 11,000 police officers on duty, with several thousand troops in reserve. Schools and theaters will close. The ministry has even opened a Web site, warning young people: "The police will have a lot of work on their hands, so they cannot be too tolerant of various childish pranks." It adds, "Do not provoke the police."
It advises older people to stock up on food and medicine, and to "relax and trust the authorities."
One might think that these are preparations for the battle in Central Europe that NATO war-gamed for so many years. But it is only the annual autumn meeting of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, a conference that the Czech Republic eagerly sought in 1993 as a millennial symbol of the country's return to capitalism and the West.
The 10-day meeting, which is expected at attract up to 18,000 officials and delegates, opens on Sept. 19. The Communists' old Palace of Culture has been renovated for the meeting at a cost of $60 million and renamed the Congress Center.
But since Prague sought this honor, the monetary fund and the World Bank have become targets of rage against globalization and indifferent capitalism. The fund in particular has for some the same negative connotations that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has for far-right groups in the United States.
Already, on various Web sites critical of the fund and its policies, like www.destroyimf.org -- "a Web resource for all those mobilizing to end the poverty and injustice inflicted by global capitalism" -- there is the cry: "Turn Prague into Seattle!" There, late last November, 40,000 demonstrators paralyzed the city, damaged businesses, clashed with the police and tied up a meeting of the World Trade Organization.
Organizers and Czech officials expect 20,000 to 50,000 protesters -- some peaceful, some not -- to come here. The protests will certainly be the largest here since 1989, and perhaps the largest invasion of foreigners since the Soviets dropped by with their tanks in 1968.
President Vaclav Havel has tried to satisfy and perhaps co-opt some of the more well-mannered groups by offering to meet with them at Prague Castle.
The government has offered designated areas for protest and arranged for a private company, FAM, to equip the old Strahov sports stadium with tents, portable lavatories and food so the protesters will have a relatively clean and safe place to stay.
The tent city will open on Sept. 21, and anyone may stay there for the duration for $37, said Tomas Doubek of FAM. There will be private security guards but no policemen, unless there is significant trouble.
But the conservative party of former Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus objected to the arrangements, saying they looked as if the Czechs "are collaborating with extremists," Mr. Doubek said.
"Some legislators said, 'Let the protesters get a doctorate in finance, learn two foreign languages, work in a bank for a few years, and then they will be qualified to discuss I.M.F. issues,' " he said. "Surprisingly, nobody laughed at this stupidity."
Alice Dvorska, an organizer with the Czech umbrella group Initiative against Economic Globalization, says she is worried about how the Czech police, with a history of aggressive crowd control, will behave.
In May 1998 the police were taken by surprise by protests against the automobile industry and globalization. The police beat some protesters and some bystanders as well.
"We're afraid of violence on the part of the police," Ms. Dvorska said. "The Interior Ministry is purposely demonizing us. If you look at protests around the world, it is always the police who cause most of the violence."
Chelsea Mozen is a 25-year-old American who quit a job in Washington to help organize the initiative's program of nonviolent demonstrations, dance and street theater intended to educate citizens.
"It's not our main aim to shut the meeting down, although we think the I.M.F. and World Bank should be dissolved," Ms. Mozen said. "We want a grass-roots display of our disagreement."
But she says the police have been monitoring the group and its planning, including a meeting outside Prague last month. "We're definitely under surveillance," she said.
On Aug. 2 the group handed out fliers and performed a bit of street theater in Old Town Square, holding a symbolic soccer match between multinational corporations and representatives of the world's poor. The corporations won by bribing the referee, who represented the I.M.F. and the World Bank.
Chuck Reinhardt, a high school teacher from New York, played the part of McDonald's during the match. "The World Bank is not accountable," he said. "They give out loans but don't bear responsibility for what is being done with the money, and most people around the world get no benefits from it at all."
Ragnhild Eide Skogseth, 18, a Norwegian student who played Shell Oil, said the fund and the bank "always say they want to help the poor, but the results are always the opposite."
The Czech police have been training for the meeting and have worked with the American police and with the F.B.I., which has opened an office in Prague, mostly to monitor organized crime.
The F.B.I. trained 24 Czech police officers in crowd control in the United States, said an Interior Ministry spokesman, Stanislav Gross, and the police have paid particular attention to the way the Washington, D.C., police handled the spring meeting of the fund and the bank in April. Hundreds of protesters were arrested there, but there was much less violence than in Seattle.
Still, for the designers of the Web site, the meeting "will be protected by a Czech police operation run by the F.B.I." It says, "The challenge to the workers' movement is to shut down that summit with the biggest international demo Europe has ever seen."
One problem for the police is the location of the old Palace of Culture. The main access from the city center, where most delegates will stay, is by a bridge over a valley that could be blocked by protest.
The two closest hotels, the Corinthia Forum and the Panorama, are on the right side of the bridge, but because they have Libyan ownership, an American embargo would bar Americans from staying there.
Horst Köhler, the fund's executive director, says he has "full confidence" in Prague's ability to handle the meeting. Emphasizing a need for "internal reform," he said the fund was "open for discussions and dialogue."
"We're not hiding" from the protesters, he said.
Mr. Havel emphasizes the symbolism of Prague as the host of the post-Communist world's first annual meeting of the fund and bank. He said he would try to have discussions with the demonstrators as well as the bankers.
The media attention given to security issues "pains me," he said. "It seems as if we are preparing for civil war. We should take this more positively."
Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company