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NATO: Prague And Its Residents Gear Up For The Crowds

  • Kathleen Moore

The Czech capital Prague has become what the local papers are calling the "best-guarded city on Earth," as world leaders, diplomats, and demonstrators arrive for this week's NATO summit. It's a huge security and transportation headache for the city, but police and summit organizers say they're ready. And there are benefits too, as RFE/RL reports.

Prague, 19 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Prague has already seen the first events tied in some way to this week's NATO summit, like a pro-peace religious service organized by the For a Just Society and Love Thy Neighbor movement.

The Mass was rather sparsely attended, and its peace-loving congregation caused no trouble, except, perhaps, to bystanders fed up with hearing the old civil rights anthem "We shall overcome" sung in Czech. Likewise, the first anti-NATO protest marches on the weekend passed peacefully.

But authorities in the Czech capital are gearing up for much rowdier gatherings during the two-day summit, which starts on 21 November. And with some 45 heads of state or top officials among the thousands expected to attend, security is a top priority.

Last month, Czech and U.S. air forces held exercises to train for one of the worst-case scenarios, an 11 September-type passenger-plane hijack, and U.S. fighter jets will help guard against any attack during the summit.

Thousands of police officers called in from around the country will join Prague police, as well as snipers, elite antiterrorist forces, and mounted policemen, to bolster city security.

Security has also been stepped up at the borders to prevent many anti-NATO demonstrators from reaching Prague.

Authorities originally said they expect up to 12,000 protesters, but this has since been scaled down to a more modest 5,000.

Czech police last week made their first summit-related arrests: a group of northern Moravian "darkers," youngsters suspected of plotting to cut off electricity to the main summit venue and the city's underground transportation system.

Police say they're better-prepared and -equipped than two years ago, when officers and protesters clashed during the International Monetary Fund and World Bank annual meetings.

Helena Bambasova, one of the summit organizers, said the police are ready. "Of course the security is in the hands of the police, and we are confident that they are professionals. I and my people feel safe [at the summit venue]," Bambasova said.

Playing host has caused Prague other headaches, like deciding what to do with unwanted guests. Last week the Czechs said they would not give a visa to perhaps Europe's most unwanted man, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who has since recalled his ambassador from Prague.

Praguers will also be affected by the summit, including the city's school students.

The lucky ones are getting extra days' vacation. But all of them had to sit through a special NATO educational event, which included a film, a pop song, and some sage advice from the assembled police officers: "Dear children, when you're on your holidays during the summit, please don't go on demonstrations and throw stones."

Three areas in Prague will be closed off for the summit, including a section of the main highway leading into the center of the city from the south. Other roads in the city will be closed at certain times to allow dignitaries' motorcades to arrive from the airport and to get to the summit center on Thursday and Friday mornings.

The restrictions come as Prague's transportation system is already under some strain following summer floods that put many subway stations out of action.

Chief summit organizer Alexander Vondra has advised people to avoid the city center and even suggested that the outlying superstores should put on special offers to lure customers to the city outskirts.

Still, the Czech authorities are trusting that the benefits of holding the summit will outweigh any inconveniences.

First, there's the prestige of being the first former communist country to hold a NATO summit -- and such an important one, too. The Prague meeting should see invitations extended to seven other Central and Eastern European countries. "It is as you know very important for the country, for our people. It's not just that we feel privileged at being chosen as the host country, it's also an opportunity to show that we are able to organize an event like that, to make everything ready and working properly -- at least I hope so. We also believe that it will help us make Prague, our capital, more visible all over the world again and that people in Europe and other countries will see that Prague is not flooded anymore but can offer its hospitality," Bambasova said.

It's also expected to bring much-welcome business to a city still picking up the pieces after the devastating floods.

Hotels will be glad for the extra business -- the U.S. delegation alone is taking up seven floors of the newly reopened Hilton, one of several hotels that were inundated by floodwaters in August.

And other businesses are looking forward to the influx of thousands of foreigners. Igor Salomon runs the Lotos club, what locals refer to euphemistically as a "gentlemen's club," on the south side of the city. "If our experience from the summit two years ago is anything to go by, turnover will be up at least 100 percent," Salomon said.

Salomon said his club has hired extra staff in anticipation, but otherwise, he said, no special preparations have been needed.