Taking It To The Streets

The big economic summit hadn't even started, and already Prague was under something like a state of siege. At border crossings into the Czech Republic, traffic was backed up for miles last week as police and frontier guards tried to weed out troublemakers. In Prague, the authorities advised citizens to stock up on food and then bolt their doors and stay inside. The U.S. State Department warned Americans to avoid unnecessary travel to the Czech capital this week and next. At a still-secret location in the countryside, seasoned activists were preparing a three-day session to train the leaders of some 20,000 demonstrators in protest tactics, media relations and first aid. On the Internet, a Web site called destroyimf.org, run by several left-wing workers' groups, was promising to "turn Prague into Seattle." The organizers vowed to "shut down that summit with the biggest international demo Europe has ever seen."

There's a good chance the protests in Prague will not add up to another "Battle of Seattle," the tumultuous meeting of the World Trade Organization in the United States last December. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the hosts of next week's gathering, have been negotiating with major labor unions and big environmental groups, trying to anticipate their complaints and inviting them to participate in the conference instead of protesting in the streets. And activists who are still on the outside are less organized than they were in Seattle.

The Czech police say they are better prepared than their U.S. counterparts. At camps of their own outside the city, police practiced preparedness and self-restraint; in one drill, officers learned to stay calm while instructors pelted them with garbage. "We will tolerate small disturbances," said Lubomir Kvicala, chief security coordinator for the Czech police. Still, the local outlets of McDonald's and Tesco, both frequent targets of left-wing violence, ordered extra panes of window glass. And the Interior Ministry warned that at least small clashes were unavoidable.

Although avowedly peaceful, more than 200 planned protests could produce at least minor disturbances. The protesters include students, church groups, radical environmentalists, farm and labor activists and human-rights and disarmament workers. They are coordinated by an organization created for the purpose called Initiative Against Economic Globalization, known by its Czech initials, INPEG. Linked mostly by e-mail and Internet manifestoes, the protesters are loosely organized at best. "We have no idea who's coming," says INPEG's Martin Shaw, a British electrician who has campaigned against genetically modified food.

The protests will focus on the Congress Center on the city's outskirts, where the 18,000 delegates will meet. "If we can't keep them out, then we'll lock them in," says Shaw. INPEG argues that the IMF and World Bank should be dissolved. "Their free-market dogma caused the Asian crisis and the Russian meltdown," Shaw maintains. "They cause economies to collapse and bring poverty to millions."

But unlike the demonstrators in Seattle, the Prague protesters are not united. The activists organized by INPEG want nothing to do with communists or communist-dominated unions, which plan their own demonstrations. Some well-known names in the world of protest aren't even coming to Prague, including the environmental group Greenpeace. Perhaps the most famous troublemaker in Europe at the moment, farm activist Jose Bove, is also skipping Prague. Pending an appeal of his conviction last week for trashing a McDonald's in France, Bove plans a trip to India to meet with farmers there.

Labor unions provided many of the protesters in Seattle, but few of them are coming to Prague. Instead, the heads of the IMF and World Bank will meet union leaders for three days of talks next month. "We don't see any reason to protest as long as there's a dialogue going on," says Karl Feldengut, an official of the German Federation of Labor, which sent a delegation to march in Seattle but isn't going to Prague. The World Bank, in particular, is anxious to show it has changed. A spokesman says more than half of the projects it funds are now administered by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), with a new emphasis on environmental and poverty issues, labor standards and community basing. The meeting schedule for Prague reads like an activists' agenda; there are sessions with titles like "Poverty and Inequality" and "The Environment Matters." "We are open to any form of discussion and critical dialogue," says World Bank president James Wolfensohn. "But it needs to be a dialogue and not a diatribe."

Diatribes--and possibly worse--will come from a ragtag collection of hard-line radicals, many of whom are unknown to each other. "We want to make sure that after Prague, no city in the world will ever want to host this meeting again," says Slavomir Tesarek, a Prague activist with Rainbow Keepers, a radical environmentalist group. The more aggressive organizations include Czech skinheads who regard the IMF as a tool of Jewish bankers. Kvicala, the police coordinator, says as many as 20 percent of the demonstrators could be aggressive. "The foreigners are the worst," he says. "We're afraid they're teaching the Czechs their violent methods."

Among the hard-line groups expected in Prague are Red Pepper from Britain, Projekt Interkonti from Germany and the Ruckus Society from the United States. Because the hard-liners are de-centralized, they are more unpredictable than the mainstream protesters. Jan Krecic, 27, who describes himself as an anarchist from Prague, said the driving force behind the protests will be "affinity groups" of five to 20 people who know and trust each other. He won't say what his own group is planning.

The Czech police insist they have learned the lessons of Seattle, where only a few hundred police were deployed at the start of the trouble. In Prague 11,000 officers will be on hand, along with advisers from the American FBI and Britain's Special Branch. They have a lot of ground to cover. In addition to the Congress Center, they have to protect 31 hotels occupied by delegates and journalists, many in Prague's Old Town, a maze of narrow streets. VIPs will stay in five elite hotels--the Hilton, Diplomat, Inter-Continental, Marriott and Corinthia Towers--where there are helicopter pads and multiple escape routes.

The police say they will do everything possible to avoid trouble, but some Czechs aren't sure the restraint will last. "Our police are known to be aggressive, and they have absolutely no experience with large demonstrations," says Petr Kolar, a reporter at Mlada Frenta Dnes, a Prague daily. "It will be chaos."

When they're not acting out, protesters can live in a tent city at Prague's Strahov Stadium, complete with bathrooms and kitchens; for $35 each, they can stay as long as they like. Conservatives in the Czech Parliament accuse the government of coddling extremists. "The protesters were going to come anyway," Kvicala replies. "This way, we know where they are, and we don't have to let them sleep in the parks." The authorities might as well make the best of it. Whether or not Prague matches the disaster in Seattle, it seems clear that mass protest has become an almost inevitable feature of global gatherings.