Prague Braces for Turbulent Meetings

PRAGUE, Czech Republic Gray clouds loomed ahead Monday as the last of the foreigners tents rose on the cliff overlooking the Vltava River.

Upon its completion, the small encampment being assembled on the grounds of Pragues Strahov Stadium is intended to be the retreat for between 10,000 to 20,000 protesters expected to gather to protest the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank Group annual meetings taking place in the city from Tuesday through Sept. 28.

In the valley below, city residents anxiously awaited the invasion of foreigners the city brought upon itself in 1994 when it won the bid to host the 55th annual event. The bid was made long before the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle last year, and the IMF and World Bank congress in Washington in April both of which featured violent clashes between police and protesters.

Images of those street battles are fresh in the minds of many residents, who are fearful of what may happen to their majestic city, whose endless supply of cobblestones could provide ample fuel for destruction.

"Everybody is afraid, but we dont know what we should be afraid of," said Marcela Pacakova.

Pacakova, 35, and her husband will be taking her 7-year-old son Peter out of the city for the 10 days spanning the meeting. Like nearly every school in the city center, Peters has been closed until the meetings are over.

A number of the citys taxi drivers are likewise jumping ship, sacrificing a potentially lucrative 10 days for the relative safety of their summer homes.

"Most of the drivers have their own cars and wont run the risk of them being wrecked," Reuters quoted a dispatcher at a large Prague taxi firm as saying.

The 20,000-strong delegation of bankers, financiers and economists coming to Prague for the meetings are expected to attract an equal number of anarchists, communists and other anti-globalization protesters from all over the world.

To protect the city, a police force of 11,000 has been mobilized and training for months, but whether they can fare better than they did in May, when a number of local protests were dispersed with what was criticized as disproportionate force remains to be seen.

Bankers were told not to wear ties when the IMF and World Bank are in town.

In the meantime, representatives from both the protest groups and the lending institutions have been cranking up the public relations machine to win the favor of the local populace.

IMF spokespeople address what they call the misperceptions of the bad old days, in which economists in black suits and briefcases snuck into town to secretly decide the fate of the worlds poor. Todays buzz-words are "transparency" and "cooperation" during meetings that should be seen as "clearing houses for information."

The World Bank is also putting its spin on the meetings, with cant-we-all-just-get-along statements from people like Mats Karlsson, vice president for external affairs and United Nations affairs.

"Nobody would be served by having policemen hitting people on the head," Karlsson said.

"People are worried about globalization. They are concerned that institutions are not strong enough to meet the challenges of globalization," Karlsson said. "But they say lets shut it down. What would be the good of that?

"I would hope that this could be something where we could sit down and talk," he said.

But as far as the protesters are concerned, there isnt anything to talk about that is, unless the discussion involves how to eliminate the lending institutions.

"We want these groups to cease to exist," said Chelsea Mozen, a spokeswoman for the Initiative Against Economic Globalization, or INPEG, an umbrella group of Czech protesters.

Mozen, her speech sprinkled with terms like "empowerment" and "moral obligation," is the voice of the protest movement. A 24-year-old from Atlanta, Georgia, Mozen quit her job in the Washington Department of Human Services to come to Prague after being recruited by INPEG to help organize the protest movement.

Mozen said the spotlight on potential violence is alarmist in nature and detracts attention from what she considers the real issues, such as the plight of the worlds poor in the face of economic imperialism dictated by Western corporate interests, and the protesters desire to express their dissatisfaction with the policies of the lending organizations.

"These are normal people with jobs, with families, who came here because they care about the issues," Mozen said.

And while the protesters have gathered in Prague to express their dissatisfaction with the meetings INPEG is holding a "countersummit" from Friday through Sunday, and staging a "Global Day of Action" on Sept. 26 during which they hope to disrupt the meetings they say they plan on doing so in a positive and nonviolent manner.

"We want to do this Prague-style, not Seattle-style," said Mozen, referring to the citys proud history of passive resistance. This is, after all, the home of the Prague Spring of 1968 when the countrys communist leader Alexander Dubcek introduced free speech and freedom of assembly and the Velvet Revolution, the bloodless overthrow of the Czechoslovakian communist regime in 1989.

Meanwhile, the Czech Republic and the city of Prague continue to prepare for Sept. 26 in sometimes strange fashion.

Local bankers have been advised not to wear ties during the entirety of the time the IMF and World Bank are in town, in order to avoid being mistaken for a member of the delegation.

Local skinheads have expressed fears that violence between anti-IMF anarchists and police will inadvertently extend to them during their own scheduled rally. And border crossings have slowed to a bottleneck, as border guards painstakingly interview every person entering the country, leading to talk of a "freedom train" from Germany, where a mass jump could take place upon the trains crossing the border so the activists could be lost in the melee.

Another conflict has erupted as to where the protesters will stay, as many groups are now balking at the thought of staying at Strahov, which would mean living in a place designated by city authorities and paying a total of 1,350 Czech korunas ($32) for the nine nights of the meetings.

"Some [protesters] are calling us up and saying that is exactly the type of thing we are protesting against, you capitalist bastards," said Michael Fanta of FAM, the private company that is organizing the stadium arrangements.

But many Czechs, like Pacakova, have come to terms with the possible disruption the event may cause to their everyday lives, and are confident there will be a peaceful outcome.

And others, like her son Peter, couldnt be happier.

"He doesnt know why, and he really isnt interested," Pacakova said. "He is excited because he has one more week of vacation."