Prague Prepares for Siege

The Czech capital is bracing for next week's IMF/World Bank protests with the biggest military buildup since the Soviets crushed the Prague Spring in 1969.

| Fri Sep. 22, 2000 3:00 AM EDT

On the eve of the 55th annual meeting of the IMF and World Bank next week, the jeweled Czech capitol of Prague has been transformed into a militarized zone -- 11,000 police are at the ready and 5,000 Czech army troops are on stand-by -- in preparation for an face off with an estimated 20,000 protesters expected to descend on the city over the next few days.

Long billed as the "sequel to Seattle," the gathering (also dubbed "S26" for the planned mass demonstration on Sept. 26) will be the first truly international test of the movement against corporate globalization that emerged on the streets of Seattle last November during the annual meeting of the World Trade Organization. In addition to the direct actions on Tuesday, solidarity marches and demonstrations will take place in more than 40 other countries -- from Brazil to Bangladesh -- and 59 cities in the US.

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"This is the first global day of action which has encompassed so many different countries taking actions all on the same day, with the same message," says Robin Denburg, a 27-year-old activist with the Seattle-based Asia Pacific Environmental Exchange who is helping to organize the Prague protests. "People around the world are uniting to oppose the policies and lending practices of the IMF and World Bank, which hurt the environment, workers' rights, and human rights. We're calling for these institutions to be dramatically reformed, or they need to be abolished altogether."

The intense police buildup is a measure of how forceful this movement for global democracy has become. Although the Czech government lobbied vociferously to host the IMF/World Bank back in 1993 as a way to showcase its newly capitalist country, defending this meeting is proving to be a logistical nightmare. The 18,000 officials and delegates will convene inside the Congress Center -- a vast, Soviet-era building located in the southern outskirts of the center city across a moat-like ravine. Activists will likely try to block the delegates from exiting the Congress Center via its large road bridge, and tie up the entrances to delegates' hotels on Prague's narrow, cobble-stoned streets.

Police, who have set up security zones around the Congress Center and the delegates' hotels, have amassed an arsenal of gear -- so much that President Vaclav Havel complained, "It seems as if we are preparing for civil war." Besides German-made tear gas launchers, police will have armored cars, helicopters, dogs, and water cannon at their disposal. Some cops are reportedly scouring military surplus stores in the Czech Republic for extra equipment -- spending their own money to buy special utility vests to hold tear gas canisters and fire extinguishers, and thigh holsters for their guns.

Schools have been ordered closed for the week, and Prague residents are reportedly being offered "financial incentives" to leave the city. Those who stay are required to carry identity papers and are being encouraged to stockpile food and medicines. Theaters have been shuttered and multinational targets like McDonald's are boarding up their windows.

Authorities have even canceled all scheduled court proceedings in order to make way for processing the expected masses of arrested protesters. They have also instructed hospitals to prepare for large numbers of injuries, and to lay in supplies in case of chemical- or biological-weapon attacks.

In what looks to be a concerted effort by authorities to quell the size of protests, on Wednesday, local authorities banned all demonstrations on Sept. 26 in Prague, citing concerns of "traffic safety." Meanwhile, the BBC reports that since Sept. 8 more than 600 people have been denied entry to the Czech Republic by police, who are using so-called "blacklists" of suspected activists culled from files and photographs provided by the FBI and European police forces.

Border officials contend that most were turned away due to the "poor technical condition" of their cars, or because they lacked valid documentation. But many among those turned away are activists -- including at least two Americans from Seattle and five members of the Italian Zapatista-sympathetic group Ya Basta who are, as of this writing, still trapped on the German side of the border. Police also sought to bar an American and three Dutch cooks from the Dutch vegan collective Rampenpaln who had "anarchist flags and stickers" on their car. That group did eventually gain entry.

Police deny that they are systematically suppressing the right to demonstrate. "We can't prevent someone from entering the country just because he has colored hair and announces he's here to protest," Interior Minister Stanislav Gross (at 30, the youngest member of the Czech Cabinet) told the Czech News Agency last week. "But with specific persons who we have concrete information about, who are clearly coming here to break the law, we will prevent them from entering the country."

Last week Gross pledged to resign if the meetings do not go off as planned. "I expect to be criticized whatever happens," he told the Prague Post. "Our approach has been to prepare for the worst scenarios, and I hope the only thing we will be criticized for is that we exaggerated these preparations."

Organizers with INPEG (Initiative Against Economic Globalization), the umbrella group of peaceful anarchists, environmentalists, and human rights activists that is coordinating much of the protests, say that the police response is "hysterical" and insist that the vast majority of the protesters coming to Prague are peaceful.

"We're preparing street actions that are creative and colorful, but which carry a strong sense of nonviolence," says Denburg. "Our goal is not to shut down the beginning of the meeting, but we definitely intend to disrupt it using a variety of direct-action techniques."

But there are reports of possible demonstrations by neo-Nazi skinheads and hard-line communists -- groups with long histories of clashing with both anarchists and police. Last week, city authorities revoked several march permits awarded to the United Front, a hard-line communist group led by Ludvic Zifcak, a former secret service agent who helped ignite the protests that toppled Prague's Soviet regime in 1989. Zifcak has vowed to march anyway.

In addition, several extreme right-wing groups, including the National Alliance, National Resistance, the Patriotic Republican Party, and Defense of the Nation, have banded together and plan to march on the Congress Center.

In an effort to defuse tensions, President Havel, who helped lead the uprising to overthrow his country's Soviet regime in 1989, has offered to host a debate of 300 IMF and World Bank officials and their leading critics at Hradcany Castle on Saturday. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, IMF Managing Director Horst Koehler, and World Bank President James Wolfensohn will face off with members of nongovernmental organizations as well as "alternative" economists and union representatives.

Whatever the outcome of the street battles in Prague, this grassroots movement has already succeeded in shifting the debate inside the once-secretive halls of the IMF and World Bank. Instead of singing the praises of globalization, much of this year's summit will focus on curbing the social and environmental ills brought by economic privatization, and narrowing the widening gap between the rich and poor.

"In the next 25 years, we're going to add 2 billion more people to the globe, and practically all of them go to the developing world," said the World Bank's Wolfensohn in the Prague Post last week. "Unless you solve the issue of poverty, you're not going to have a peaceful world."

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