The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are about to start their annual series of meetings this year in the Czech capital Prague. Recent gatherings of top international financial bodies have become flashpoints for large-scale demonstrations against economic globalization, and Czech authorities say they are expecting tens of thousands of demonstrators to take to the streets. Leaders of the mainstream protest movement say they want only peaceful dialogue with the IMF and World Bank, but thousands of Czech police are providing tight security in case violence flares. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke reports.
Prague, 18 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Prague, better known as a tourist mecca than a war zone, is about to undergo a new experience. Schools in the Czech capital will close next week, hospitals are readying for casualties, riot police are deploying, and army units are on call.
All because of the World Bank and IMF annual meetings and seminars that begin tomorrow and will run for the next two weeks.
No one can say yet whether the authorities' precautions are excessive -- as the mainstream anti-globalization protest groups claim -- or whether the full strength of the police will be needed to control violence from extremist elements.
Certainly events last week in the Australian city of Melbourne show that the international protest wave against globalization is undiminished in its vigor. There were violent clashes between Australian police and demonstrators who managed to disrupt a regional meeting of the World Economic Forum.
For the Czech Republic's young democracy, which is only a decade away from repressive communist rule, the issue of how to handle large-scale street protests is a sensitive one. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation has been training the Czech forces in modern crowd control techniques -- that is, how to keep order while avoiding brutality. The world's media are expected to cover events in the streets and judge them as they unfold.
But the preoccupation with possible violence or even riots can distract from the serious issues on both sides of the debate: namely, the efforts of the two big international financial institutions to advance global well-being and, on the other hand, the criticism leveled at those efforts by sober non-governmental groups.
The subjects for discussion at the IMF/World Bank sessions in Prague include most of the key social and economic issues of our time. As World Bank spokeswoman Merrell Tuck Primdahl put it:
"Items on the agenda include the discussion of global public issues, such as tackling HIV, AIDS, global warming, communicable diseases and other issues that spread across borders. Also on the agenda will be debt relief for the poorest countries, and how to try to continue to ensure financial stability in an increasingly integrated world. So all of these are important issues."
Tuck Primdahl says the World Bank is encouraged that the mainstream opposition groups, led by the umbrella organization known as INPEG, have disavowed violence in Prague. She argues that the opportunity provided to the world community by the annual meetings must not be lost through disruption.
"We will have representatives from 181 nations, and so it is a big chance for the developing nations to come and advocate the transfer of resources to their countries."
The World Bank, which habitually takes a more conciliatory line toward anti-globalists than the IMF, has reiterated that it's ready for dialogue with constructive opposition.
But many leaders of those opposition groups say the bank's stance is mainly a public-relations exercise, and that it is continuing with policies that serve to degrade the environment or inadvertently take away the livelihood of poor people.
A spokesman for the opposition "Bankwatch" group, Petr Hlobil, notes that criticism of the bank's performance -- on various grounds -- comes not from one direction but from many.
"This criticism is coming from the political scene, from non-governmental organizations, from religious groups, it comes from [a spectrum reaching from] right-wing members of the U.S. congress through to leftist European governments. So you have really a large group of politicians and non-governmental organizations who are criticizing the bank, and the bank has no good arguments to react to this criticism."
As an example, Hlobil refers to plans by officials in one of the Baltic states -- Lithuania -- to use money acquired from the World Bank to build an airstrip in a nature park. He says that despite protests by environmentalists, the bank at first said it had no control over how its funds were being spent. Only later, because of the outcry, did the bank agree that it must exercise tighter control in such cases.
Hlobil also says Bankwatch is bringing to Prague activists from all over Eastern Europe, the Caucasus (including Georgia and Azerbaijan) and from Central Asia (including Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan) to review the impact of IMF and World Bank' policies in their regions.
Like other alternative groups, Bankwatch will be holding a series of meetings in the Czech capital to tell the public what it believes needs to be done better by the big international financial institutions.
The formal Board of Governors meetings do not begin until Sept. 26. A complete schedule of events can be found on the internet at http://www.imf.org/external/am/2000/schedule.htm)