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World: Protesters Challenge Economic Forum's Globalization Efforts

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The World Economic Forum is about to convene its annual meeting in the Swiss resort of Davos (25-30 January), just as it does every winter. Scores of international political leaders, top business figures, celebrities, and economists will attend the debates. Davos is also now squarely on the calendar of activists opposed to economic globalization -- that is, the increasing integration of the world economy. As a result, Swiss authorities are bracing for trouble. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke reports.

Prague, 22 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- What do the cities of Prague, Nice, and Melbourne have in common? And what do they have to do with the Swiss mountain resort of Davos?

Each of the three cities was the scene during the past year of large and violent demonstrations directed against international economic policies such as globalization, which protestors blame for loss of jobs and ecological degradation. And now it appears to be Davos' turn.

The World Economic Forum held annually in Davos has always been an important platform for theories on how to advance globalization. Because of its isolation in the Graubunden mountains, it largely escaped attention from demonstrators. That changed last year, however, when hundreds of protesters defied a police ban and rampaged through the town's streets.

This year, the Swiss police expect worse. Cantonal police spokesman Alois Hafner tells RFE/RL that despite a renewed police ban, radical groups have been using the Internet to urge a big presence in Davos. Hafner says:

"On the Internet a lot of propaganda is being produced, Europe-wide, calling people to Davos [to demonstrate], and a lot of them will come."

Hafner says his office has been in contact with authorities in Prague, Nice and Melbourne, to ask about details of the protests held there against international conferences. The identities of ringleaders were undoubtedly discussed, and some 300 activists have subsequently been banned from entering Switzerland. In his remarks, Hafner appeals for calm:

"We will try [to avoid trouble], we hope and we appeal to all [to understand] that expressing one's opinion has nothing to do with the use of violence."

In case of trouble, special police units will be on hand in Davos to reinforce local police, and Swiss federal troops will be available to back them up.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the World Economic Forum organization, Charles McLean, defends the work of the forum as positive and useful. He tells our correspondent the forum is not committed to globalization for its own sake.

"There are positive and negative sides to globalization, and I think most thoughtful people would agree that the important thing to do is to enhance the positive aspects, and mitigate the negative aspects. And it is forum like the one we have in Davos where discussions can take place and thoughtful people can gather and hopefully find better solutions to the world's problems."

McLean describes this year's program as "terrific." Its main theme will be how to "bridge the divide" between the developed and developing worlds, the latter of which may fall even further behind because of lack of access to new technology.

As usual, there is an impressive list of attendees. A strong Balkan contingent includes Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, Croatian President Stipe Mesic, Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski and Bulgarian President Petar Stoyanov.

Other East European presidents include Poland's Aleksander Kwasniewski and Hungary's Ferenc Madl, plus the three Baltic states' presidents -- Estonia's Lennart Meri, Latvia's Vaira Vike-Freiburga and Lithuania's Valdas Adamkus.

Ukraine's President Leonid Kuchma will also be present, as will Slovak Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda and Czech parliament Speaker Vaclav Klaus. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer will be there, too, as will several members of the European Union's Executive Commission, headed by Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen.

In fact, Europe is a sub-theme of this year's forum, with debates on subjects such as the impact of the EU's planned eastward enlargement and whether there should be a "United States of Europe" or a "United Europe of States."

Also among the participants will be UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and Carla Del Ponte, chief prosecutor of the UN war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Businessmen like Microsoft's Bill Gates and Volkswagen Chairman Ferdinand Piech are also expected to be on hand. U.S. participants are fewer this year, partly because of the change in administrations, as George W. Bush begins his presidency.

Forum spokesman McLean says Davos is not just a get-together of the rich and famous who chat about problems and then go home. He argues the forum is increasingly seeking to turn words into action.

"When you have the ability to convene the caliber of leadership that the World Economic Forum routinely brings to Davos and to regional meeting, it is beholden upon us to leverage that leadership in new and effective ways. We are looking to try to find ways to go beyond just holding events and just passing out business cards and talking, to moving in directions which will be ongoing, where we can convene a task force."

A concrete example of this was the creation last year of a task force to bridge the so-called "digital divide" -- the gap between those who have and who do not have ready access to new information technology. The group drew up a framework for action, which was later largely adopted at a summit meeting of the G-7 leading industrial nations plus Russia.

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