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NATO: Despite Security Checks, Protesters Flow Into Prague

  • Ron Synovitz

Activists and self-declared anarchists have been passing through tightened security at the Czech borders to travel to the capital Prague to protest at this week's NATO summit.

Prague, 19 November 2002 (RFE/RL)-- Despite increased security on the borders of the Czech Republic aimed at keeping demonstrators away from this week's NATO summit in Prague, hundreds of foreign activists have been slipping into the country in small groups and are converging in the Czech capital.

Small groups of newly arriving activists can be seen in pubs, youth centers, and squats across the city. An initial protest on 17 November drew about 300 demonstrators -- many of them Czechs. Many more demonstrators are expected to gather for the main protests, expected later this week.

Among them is Erik, a 23-year-old self-declared anarchist from Slovenia, one of the seven countries expecting to receive an invitation to join NATO at this week's summit.

Erik, who agreed to be interviewed on condition that his last name not be used, told RFE/RL what can be expected from the demonstrations. "We will peacefully march in the streets and demonstrate against the militarization of the world, capitalist exploitation, and NATO's imperialistic wars," Erik said.

Czech security officials say they have made preparations to control crowds as large as 12,000 people, about the same number as authorities say gathered to protest the IMF and World Bank meetings in Prague two years ago.

But some Czech officials say that despite the enormous number of police and soldiers on the streets of the capital, they don't expect more than a few thousand demonstrators.

Czech Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Vondra, the government's commissioner for the NATO summit, told reporters today he does not think the protest rallies this week will reach the size of those seen at the IMF and World Bank meetings.

Those meetings were cut short by one day after demonstrators blockaded Prague's Congress Center and temporarily prevented high-ranking delegates from leaving.

Vondra said he doesn't expect anyone to threaten the summit "in a way that would seriously impair the course of events. There will be protests, but I personally don't think they will be as big as they were two years ago in Prague during the IMF and the World Bank meeting."

Indeed, many of the more mainstream activist groups that were in Prague two years ago to protest against globalization have said that they will not join this week's demonstrations.

The true extent of this week's protests will start to become apparent tomorrow evening, when scattered groups of demonstrators converge in central Prague, where senior officials from NATO states will be attending a state-sponsored dinner.

Events tomorrow also will be an indicator as to whether there will be a repeat of the widespread vandalism and violence seen two years ago.

Organizers say they hope to carry out a "creative occupation" of Prague. They won't elaborate on what they mean by "creative occupation," other than to say that the tone of events is up to each individual protester.

The anti-NATO organizers also say their largest and "loudest" protests will be on 21 November, the day of key summit events.

But like the demonstrations seen two years ago, all plans for now are being called "a draft" and are subject to last-minute changes in order to disrupt police.

The location of an anti-NATO "convergence center" that is dispersing instructions on where and when the demonstrators should gather was announced only yesterday. Authorities raided a similar convergence center two years ago near the end of the demonstrations.

Last night, more than 100 activists -- most of them males under the age of 30 and many of them from abroad -- gathered at an arts center on the west side of Prague for the screening of a film called "Prague 2000: Rebel Colors." The film, which was produced by the Independent Media Center of Prague, documented violence between police and protesters at Prague's IMF and World Bank meetings.

After the screening, members of the audience spoke informally with each other about their plans and expectations for this week.

Many complained about what they see as collusion between Czech authorities and the mainstream Czech media to discredit their demonstrations, in particular, by stoking fear among ordinary Czechs with warnings about radicals bent on vandalism and violence.

Erik, the Slovenian protester, said he does not anticipate that the protests will turn violent, but added that he is prepared for any eventuality. "I am an anarchist. I am not here to be violent. I am here as an activist concerned about the situation in the world today. I cannot sit or stand by and let these things happen. So I am here to protest peacefully. But if necessary, we will protect ourselves. We have information about police provocateurs," Erik said.

Erik said he arrived in Prague 10 days ago in order to enter the country before border security was stepped up. He and others at last night's screening say they were able to enter the Czech Republic by traveling in small groups rather than with large, organized tours. "Many activist groups are trying to find a way into the Czech Republic, to get across the border. We thought of an idea about how to get in because we are known activists, at least in Slovenia, and we expected trouble at the borders. We took a local train because we heard that [trains between major European] cities are checked more than the local trains," Erik said.

Still, Erik admitted that it was necessary for him to lie to the Czech border police before being allowed into the country. "The border police asked us if we were going to Prague and we said: 'No. We are going to Krakow.' The border police made no problems for us. They said: 'OK. Go,'" Erik said.

Since arriving in Prague, Erik has been joined by more than a dozen friends from his native Slovenia. He said Slovenian anarchists are determined to protest the Prague summit because their country is among the seven NATO candidate states expected to be formally invited to join the alliance.

The chief NATO spokesman, Yves Brodeur, said today that the Prague summit should be a time for celebration rather than protests. "This organization has been able to guarantee security and maintain peace in this part of the world, and in other areas, for more than 50 years. All these leaders are coming together here to make sure that it can continue to do that excellent job. So I think there is a lot more to be happy about than sad about," Brodeur said.

But anarchists like Ondrej Slacalek are not happy. Slacalek is the editor of the Prague-based publication "A Kontra." It is an information bulletin of two local groups planning protests this week: the Czechoslovak Anarchist Association and the Czechoslovak Anarchist Federation.

Slacalek said he does not personally endorse violent demonstrations. But he insisted that street violence is a legitimate tool of protest. "It seems to me a bit like a double standard. Here one can hold a session of a military alliance, which is really responsible for wars. But if there is any violence in the streets, it is immediately condemned, even though in most cases the violence is against property. Certainly in the antiglobalization demonstrations [in Prague two years ago], there was no instance of beating police, at the most there was a case of the police beating a demonstrator. I haven't claimed here to be an advocate of violent acts, but on the other hand, I think [the demonstrators] have their reasons and legitimacy," Slacalek said.

Czech human rights activist and newspaper commentator Petr Uhl said he finds Slacalek's stance disturbing. "The fact that here [in Prague] there will be people who are responsible for unleashing wars or other conflicts still doesn't justify anyone's use of violence in the streets of Prague. In no case can violence be legitimized," Uhl said.

For now at least, anti-NATO organizers say they do not plan to march on the Congress Center, where the main summit events will be held.

For their part, Czech authorities say they will be far less lenient toward any march on the Congress Center than they were two years ago.

(RFE/RL correspondents Jolyon Naegele and Ahto Lobjakas contributed to this report.)