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Czech Republic: Prague Readies For IMF/WB Meeting In 2000

Hong Kong, 25 September 1997 (RFE/RL) - Michel Camdessus, managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), closed the 52nd annual meeting of the IMF and World Bank in Hong Kong today by noting that, in the year 2000, the meetings will be held in Prague, "the historic capital of the Czech Republic."

Camdessus was secure in the knowledge that the next meeting - outside the U.S. - of the global institutions will be in Prague, because of the signing of a memorandum of understanding with the Czech government this week in Hong Kong.

But officials says that, while Prague was officially chosen as the site more than a year ago, it very nearly lost out to South Africa because of local disputes in Prague and inaction by Czech authorities. The Prague city government refused to come up with any financing of its own for rehabilitating and expanding the Palace of Culture, after the city-owned facility failed to attract any private investors, willing to pay the cost of up to $600 million to help rebuild the 17 year-old facility.

IMF sources tell our correspondent that, once this local dispute became known, South Africa - which had originally bid for the 2000 meeting - tried to persuade the IMF and World Bank to abandon Prague. It was reported that South Africa began asking the IMF/World Bank six months ago if any construction had begun in Prague, and the IMF/World Bank put the question to the Czech government.

Lumira Kafkova, the Czech Finance Ministry official in charge of Prague's planning team at the Hong Kong meeting, said the IMF/World Bank "pressed us to start." Kafkova says preparations for the meeting were held up when the initial financing plan collapsed, and, then, city officials were slow to decide on a plan for the conference center. "They were very slow in decision-making, they are very hesitant," Kafkova says of Prague officials.

Significantly, there were no Prague city officials among the 20-member Czech planning team in Hong Kong, exploring every aspect of how the Chinese handled the preparations, planning and organization of the meetings.

The Czech Finance Ministry finally stepped in to break the financing deadlock this month, when it agreed to guarantee a $600 million loan that will be used to renovate the Prague complex, and construct an annex with 20,000 square meters of office space required for the meetings. Czech Finance Minister Ivan Pilip said, "we will do whatever is necessary to make sure this meeting takes place."

Also this month, the Czech government announced it had selected a consortium of three companies to act as conference organizers for the Czech planning team.

The annual IMF/World Bank meeting draws nearly 20,000 direct participants from the 181-member countries. The meeting also draws another 10,000- to 20,000 private bankers, financiers and business people, anxious for the opportunity to find so many other like-minded people in one place.

Hong Kong officials have not estimated how much business the meetings brought to the city, but did not hesitate to set a preliminary budget of $63 million paid from the city's budget, just to operate the meetings. The cost of building the huge harbor-side convention center where the meetings were held, was written off as part of the expense associated with the return of Hong Kong to China from Britain in July.

Still, Hong Kong says it was well worth whatever the cost. Hong Kong hotels, which have seen a decline in tourism after the British hand over, were filled, at prices that shocked even seasoned world travelers. And local businesses, from restaurants to shops, reported a significant increase in business.

One of the top managers of the Czech planning team, Finance Ministry official Milan Vodicka, told reporters that Prague did have one problem that would have to be dealt with - its notorious taxis. Vodicka called the deregulated taxi business "a very big shame of Prague," and said that Parliament and the city are currently considering regulatory and legislative options.

Meantime, Michel Camdessus says he is confident about the Prague meetings, and where the world economy will be by the time that meeting takes place.

"One thing of which I am certain, the country where we will be meeting - and a number of others between Vladivostok and Bratislava - will, by that time, be well advanced in their journeys toward modernity and cooperative, orderly market economies," Camdessus said from Hong Kong.

He said the IMF is proud to be "accompanying the countries of this part of the world from their 'miracle times' to their maturity."