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Czech Republic: Prague Gears Up For IMF, World Bank Meetings

Preparations are in full swing for the annual meetings in Prague of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The meetings, in late September, are likely to see more of the big-scale demonstrations which have accompanied other recent meetings of the financial institutions. Despite that, most people are hoping for a constructive conference. Breffni O'Rourke reports.

Prague, 16 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- It all sound like the script of a movie from the epic days of Hollywood.

Think what the great director Cecil B. de Mille would have made of numbers like this: 11,000 policemen guarding some 15,000 prominent conference participants, while up to 50,000 demonstrators fill the streets.

The main scene: a congress hall on a hillside linked to the city by a bridge over a wide canyon. Will the demonstrators block the key bridge? Will violence flare? That part of the script is still unwritten. But the sense of drama has been heightened by warnings from the Czech authorities to the Prague citizenry to lay in supplies of food and medicines to cover the conference days.

Why all the fuss over meetings of rather dull bankers and economists? Since demonstrators blockaded a meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle last November, the international financial institutions have in particular been the object of protests by groups and individuals opposed to "globalization" -- that is, the closer integration of the world economy -- which they blame for loss of jobs, environmental damage and cultural disorientation.

The institutions themselves are plowing ahead, seeking to refine the free-market mechanisms which are efficient but seen as indifferent to human situations. Speaking from Washington, IMF spokesman Bill Murray told RFE/RL:

"There is clearly a fundamental debate under way about global economic models, and what is right and what is wrong, and it is not just the demonstrators on the streets debating this, serious people are also debating this as well. And because it is a fundamental debate, I don't think any one event, whether it is Seattle or Prague, will solve all the ills, but it's fundamental and important, and what we continue to hope for is that this debate will continue in a civilized fashion."

The IMF's new managing director, Horst Koehler, is to present in Prague a reform program, which Murray says is essentially a refinement of the IMF's present strategy for fostering world financial stability. Murray describes the process at the IMF as one of evolution rather than sudden change. And he reiterates the IMF's hope that the Prague meeting will be constructive.

That hope also is shared by those opposition groups that take a moderate view of how to express their desire for more drastic change. Petr Hlobil, of the environment group Center for Transport and Energy, told RFE/RL:

"The atmosphere which especially the Ministry of Internal Affairs has created here in the Czech Republic, which is more or less like the expectation of war, is a really stupid, stupid, position, and a stupid policy because that can only attract those who are really interested in violence."

Hlobil says those protesters who are really concerned about the well-being of poor people, for instance in Africa and Asia, don't want to see these conferences beset by violence. He says that only distracts from the real issues, allowing the institutions to "escape debate on substantive issues" because public attention is focused on the violence.

It's the World Bank which has moved farthest in recent years to meet the concerns of alternative groups, at least in attitude. Bank spokeswoman Merrell Tuck-Primdahl told RFE/RL:

"Dialogue is extremely important, and non-governmental organizations have played a very important role in catalyzing the bank to change on the environment front, in debt reduction, so we definitely want to continue our relationship with NGOs even when the going gets tough, even when we are criticized."

She says the message from the bank's side is that it wants to focus on the transfer of resources to developing countries, and to ensure that globalization does not exclude the poorest people. She says:

"If a lot of what the non-government organizations are saying is the same, if they are concerned about the marginalization of poor people, and developing countries needing to have a say in trade reforms and in debt reduction, we agree with some of those, there is some convergence of views."

Tuck-Primdahl notes that the agenda for Prague deals with the burning issues facing the developing world, like debt relief, the spread of AIDS, and global warming.

However, people like Hlobil are skeptical about whether the financial institutions have really developed new sensitivities to human situations. He notes the recent criticism over World Bank participation in a plan to resettle ethnic Chinese on lands which Tibetans consider traditionally their own. The World Bank has now withdrawn from that project.

So the scene is set for the events in Prague, come what may. Let the cameras roll.