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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Prague Hosts the World

In a setting rich with metaphorical imagery, the leisurely, medieval city of Prague will play host this month to the international movers and shakers of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank; it will be the Czech Republic’s most decisive international event since its recent founding. But accommodation is sure to be tight since an estimated 20,000 demonstrators will be converging upon the fair city to voice diverse grievances against financial institutions they believe breach democratic values.

Czech President Vaclav Havel, whose last great crusade resulted in the shaking off of Czechoslovakia’s communist chains in 1989, now finds himself in the middle of a new riddle (wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, if you will), which the poet in him must certainly appreciate. With all the fervor reminiscent of his prerevolutionary days, Havel must brace his nation for protests against the unlikely opponents of Western institutions that were originally designed to promote free markets and democratic values. Amid the intensifying security measures leading up to the event, he candidly remarked, "It is as if we are bracing ourselves for civil war and are looking forward to the moment when it is over." That’s certainly not what Prague had in mind when it was nominated for the venue back in 1996.

Since the momentous coming-out party against the World Trade Organization in Seattle last year, protesters have not given these international institutions — nor the hosting localities — much peace. Labor organizations, environmental activists and even religious denominations have found a convenient target in these powerful and secretive groups and are initiating mass protests on a scale not witnessed since the psychedelic 1960s. And, ironically, some of the harshest critics of these institutions have been the very capitalist nations they have assisted in the not-so-distant past; the alleged damage its policies did to emerging economies in Asia, Latin America, Russia and West Africa have not been easily forgotten.

But why so much fear and trepidation, especially when much of the world is now cruising through a period of robust economic growth? And why are we confronting institutions that purport to be promoting economic prosperity through free-market mechanisms?

One seemingly legitimate argument emanating from the colorful chorus of critics is that these institutions have developed outside of conventional democratic procedure. The influential members of these financial "clubs" meet in secret behind closed doors to draft measures that ultimately have tremendous impact — both good and bad — on society.

How can democracy remain a vital force in the global community when business now possesses so much brute strength?Furthermore, it has been convincingly argued that the representatives of these organizations are not democratically elected by the people, but rather selected beyond public scrutiny. Therefore, there is a disturbing, growing consensus, albeit still safely on the fringes, that these institutions are not representing the rights of individuals at all, but rather the global rights of the multinational corporations.

Thankfully, the protesters’ concerns are not falling on deaf ears. During the recent annual economic conference in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, these sensitive issues were discussed openly. Alan Greenspan, chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, suggested that, should the economy weaken, global opposition against the financial institutions could increase significantly. Stanley Fischer, managing director of the IMF, seemed to agree when he stated that "not all of the protesters are opposed to globalization, and it is important that we listen to their concerns."

The city of Prague is doing its best to accommodate the protesters as well and does not want to repeat the same tactical mistakes as Seattle. The Stahov stadium, a massive relic left over from communist days, has been designated as a visitor campsite, while demonstrations will be relegated to Namesti Miru (in what city officials truly hope remains "Peace Square"). The occasionally overzealous police have been advised on appropriate riot etiquette. Representatives of the protesters have even been granted a formal meeting, which is to be held inside of the famed Czech Palace overlooking the city.

While it certainly is encouraging to see the opposing sides acknowledge the rights of the other, what kind of an agreement can we hope for? How can the relentless drive of globalization be tamed without businesses losing the freedom they demand in order to remain competitive? And, inversely, how can democracy remain a vital force in the global community when business now possesses so much brute strength? And where does the state fit into this scenario?

While these questions are probably no less daunting than the answers, it can be stated with some confidence that, while business may be prepared for globalization, society is not: Many workers have been "downsized" or find themselves without adequate representation due to the new conditions of "flexibility" that the fast-paced knowledge economy requires from its participants; the environment has been under great strain due to our quest for more of everything; while even democracy, it could be argued, has been stretched beyond acceptable limits.

This does not mean that globalization cannot work — only that it should be coordinated under specific written guidelines, perhaps in the form of a global constitution, which will make the pursuit of profits a pleasurable experience for all parties involved.

Who knows? It could even protect globalization from itself.

Robert Bridge is a freelance writer living in Moscow. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.