Czech Republic

IMF Stage Fright

The Sept. 26-28 World Bank/International Monetary Fund (IMF) annual meeting in Prague was meant to be a showcase for the Czech Republic. The gathering was intended to provide an opportunity for the world to see how far the country had come on the path from communism to prosperity and global respect. In the weeks leading up to the meeting, however, many Czechs instead seemed inclined to run for cover, following threats of mass demonstrations, anticipated clashes with the police—as happened at the recent World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle—and official statements warning the public to expect the worst. “Prague is seeking help, and rightly so,” wrote Erik Tabery in Prague’s  independent weekly Respekt (Sept. 9-14).

“The event that was supposed to put the Czech Republic into the spotlight of the world has turned into a nightmare. In the past few weeks, the media had been cautioning [Czechs] to avoid visiting Prague or…if they live in the city, to stay put at home with enough food and medicine supplies to await the end of this war.”

Reports put the number of demonstrators expected to march in the streets and potentially disrupt public life in the city from 15,000 to 50,000, with a good 10,000 or more expected to come from abroad. Officials mobilized 11,000 police and 200 soldiers, laid in extra tear-gas supplies, and doubled the number of available ambulances. Emergency shelters were set up to accommodate residents whose homes could be damaged in street battles. Prague’s tab for hosting the gathering is expected to reach US$96 million.

Writing in Prague’s independent Lidové Noviny (Sept. 4), Jan Kubita predicted that Prague’s fiscal hangover from the World Bank/IMF party may get worse. “Very few are aware that on Sept. 23, only three days before the IMF meeting, the German embassy in Prague plans to host the G-7 [Group of Industrialized Nations] meeting.” But, says Kubita, “the G-7 finance ministers are afraid of the thousands of opponents of economic globalization, who are gathering at the same time in [Prague].…There is a good possibility of transferring the meeting to one of the large hotels in Berlin.”

Not everyone expects outcomes of apocalyptic dimensions. The Hungarian daily Népszabadsàg (Sept.7) quotes Cyril Svoboda, vice president of the Czech Christian Democratic Party, as saying that the meeting “will be one of the most important points of modern Czech history.” And in the independent Prague Post (Aug. 30), Czech President Vaclav Havel said that he sees in the upcoming meeting “an opportunity to discuss the future of human existence and the metaphysical order of the universe.”

However, Havel admitted to the Post’s Laura T. Coffey  that he is worried “that his fellow Czechs may “wrap themselves in a cloak of pro- vincialism and fail to participate in a vital debate about the future of the world’s financial order....It’s the human dimension that needs to be taken into account,” Havel added. “The two institutions should listen more to the voices of the people” who are affected by their loans and development projects.

Prague has spent two years preparing for this “public-relations hurricane,” said the English-language Prague Tribune (Sept. 5). “Many have noted that the city’s infrastructure will experience some positive side effects..., and thousands of tourists will still come to Prague, not knowing the IMF meeting is taking place....Nearly everyone involved agrees that… the meeting may be the only storm in history to leave an aftermath of prosperity.”

If all goes well. Ctirad Svitak of the rightist Slovo (Sept. 18) informed his readers about the Initiative Against Economic Globalization, which has set up its action camp near Prague. Trainees learn how to protect their fingers so the police will not be able to break them with their nightsticks. Concluded Svitak: “The camp participants plan to rehearse samba rhythms. They can be very effective…for disrupting the meeting—applying a certain rhythm.”