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World: Peaceful NGOs Distance Themselves From Prague Violence

The targets of violent anti-globalization demonstrations yesterday in Prague were meant to be the World Bank and IMF, but the groups that probably stand to lose most are legitimate NGOs and peaceful protest organizations. Leaders of these groups say they do not support violence and that their groups are often lumped together unfavorably with more radical organizations. RFE/RL's Tony Wesolowsky speaks with NGO leaders to gauge their reaction to the protests.

Prague, 27 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- International groups working to focus attention on environmental problems and poverty have denounced yesterday's violent clashes in Prague between radical groups and police.

Organizers had vowed that their protests would be peaceful during the IMF and World Bank meetings, being held this year in the Czech capital.

And most of the several thousand demonstrators taking part in the protests were peaceful.

But a few hundred protesters hurled stones and Molotov cocktails at riot police around the site of the meetings and later smashed windows at businesses of several global multinationals, such as McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken. One Czech newspaper called it the worst street violence in the country since the fall of communism in 1989.

Police arrested about 400 hundred demonstrators and were bracing for more violence. More than 80 people were injured, including 60 police officers and two delegates to the meetings.

The NGO -- non-governmental organization -- community is now taking pains to distance itself from what it regards as a rogue element at the demonstrations.

Tamas Tozicka is a spokesman for Jubilee 2000, an NGO calling for debt relief for third-world nations.

"Jubilee 2000 is strongly opposed to violence. All the protests we've had in Prague or elsewhere -- for example in Birmingham [England] -- were always non-violent, and we consider it unlucky. It's unfortunate that such people join in the demonstrations, and de-legitimize the activity we carry out to try to reform these institutions and the world system, which is causing catastrophic poverty in the third world."

Tozicka says part of the problem was a lack of will by both police and protesters to sit down and talk before yesterday's demonstration:

"I think if the police had cooperated -- the police did cooperate, but I think the they didn't show enough willingness to meet with the demonstrators. And, I have to say, on the side of some of the organizers, [this willingness] was small and not very credible."

Johan Frijns of the non-governmental environmental group "Friends of the Earth International," says groups like his took every precaution to ensure things stayed peaceful:

"We've been preparing our activities in Prague for over the last year. I myself have been five times to Prague in nine months. And I knew that these things were being planned. We went to several meetings, especially with the INPEG people, the original organizers of the demonstration, trying to ensure that all the demonstrations would be non-violent."

INPEG, the Czech acronym for Initiative Against Economic Globalization, one of the main organizers of the demonstrations, has also condemned the violence.

INPEG says that the demonstrations that it organized at a bridge near the IMF and World Bank meetings went off peacefully for the most part. About 3,000 marchers yesterday headed for the bridge after gathering at a central square earlier in the day. The atmosphere there was truly festive.

After the march got under way, however, the demonstrators branched out into three groups, with one group, the so-called "Blue Group," committing most of the violence. The Czech daily Pravo says many of these demonstrators came from Italy and Spain. Some reports described them as professional troublemakers, well-versed in the art of violent protest.

Frijns says people need to distinguish between his organization and hardcore violent protesters:

"We know that at any demonstration they show up and we live with it. Once again, people who think we're all one group -- people should understand the differences between these groups. If people all lump [the protesters] up into one big group, then I think they make a mistake."

What happened in Prague yesterday is becoming increasingly commonplace at demonstrations across Europe and North America.

Protesters say yesterday's mayhem paled in comparison to what happened last year in the U.S. city of Seattle during a meeting of the World Trade Organization. Just before this week's World Bank and IMF meetings in Prague, anti-globalization protesters clashed with police in Melbourne, Australia.

As protesters gathered to march yesterday, it was obvious some had extreme agendas. The Italian activist group, Ya Basta!, while generally conducting themselves peacefully, didn't help their cause by distributing flyers boasting they had come to Prague with bombs and pistols.

Even INPEG, which today is distancing itself from the violence, had earlier said its main aim was to trap officials from the IMF and World Bank in the Congress Center until they agreed to dissolve the two institutions.

Frijns says the NGOs do not have an answer as to how to keep the radical elements away from their protests and to stop radicals from hijacking their work, saying that all that legitimate NGOs can do is to continue to distance themselves from groups advocating violence.

Frijns: "As everyone else in this city, we have been debating the demonstration for the whole week and especially yesterday, and the only sensible way forward for NGOs -- and our kind of organizations -- is to make very clear who we are and who we are not. So, we are not members of that violent demonstration. This is what we have to repeat time and time again -- that the NGOs here in Prague together with some of the protest groups together we try to achieve something of change in the bank and the fund."

After yesterday's mayhem in Prague, it looks like they'll have to keep repeating that message time and time again.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.