[Praha] Prague: a view from the inside

Per I. Mathisen Per.Inge.Mathisen at idi.ntnu.no
Tue Oct 10 16:54:25 CEST 2000

En interessant artikkel om hvordan demonstrasjonene opplevdes fra
insiden. Forslaget helt på slutten av artikkelen tror jeg godt vi bør ta
alvorlig, noe til neste gang :) - Per

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Mon, 9 Oct 2000 16:09:58 -0400 (EDT)
From: Robert Weissman <rob at milan.essential.org>
To: stop-imf at venice.essential.org
Subject: [stop-imf] Prague: a view from the inside (fwd)

                  MANILA, PHILIPPINES | Monday, October 9, 2000

                  A World Bank economist's odyssey in Kafka's Prague
                  By ANTONIO ANDRADE

                  (Columnist Walden Bello met an old contact
                  from the World Bank during the World Bank-IMF
                  joint annual meetings in Prague, Czech
                  Republic, on Sept. 26 to 28. The following is his
                  account of the events that unfolded around him
                  during that fateful conference. Antonio Andrade
                  is not his real name.)

                  Coming into Prague was impressive because
                  they had the system all set up.

                  Right at the airport, you were accredited. As soon
                  as you stepped out of the plane, you were
                  fast-tracked out of customs.

                  Everything was so systematic. Everybody got into
                  fast track.

                  And you got escorts. As you know, they closed all
                  universities that week. And one reason was to get
                  students to act as escorts and guides to
                  delegates. For the whole week. Very
                  good-looking escorts. Extremely good looking. In
                  fact, I dated one of them later.

                  I have to say that my impression was there was no
                  inkling -- at least among the people I was in touch
                  with -- what was going to come. In fact, the
                  dominant reaction from IMF-WB delegates was
                  that the police were overreacting.

                  I got there Saturday the 23rd. On the 24th and
                  25th, nothing was happening. Lots of activities,
                  but everybody still felt nothing would happen. I
                  think among the delegates and among the private
                  bankers no one was really expecting anything to
                  happen that coming Tuesday.

                  The debate between (James) Wolfensohn, (Horst)
                  Koehler and the NGOs that President (Vaclav)
                  Havel organized on the 23rd was not well
                  publicized. People I was with had not heard about

                  There was a daily schedule called "Emerging
                  Markets," and it was listed there, but it wasn't
                  played up. Only those like me, who had been
                  tipped off before coming to Prague, understood
                  its significance.

                  I told my boss I wanted to attend, but he said there
                  were more urgent things to pay attention to.
                  Anyway, Saturday and Sunday were so uneventful
                  that everybody felt it would stay this way
                  throughout. Really calm.

                           KAFKAESQUE TUESDAY
                  Then all of a sudden, you had this very dramatic
                  turn of events on Tuesday.

                  Tuesday was the opening day. On Monday, the
                  security system warned something might happen
                  the following day.

                  But even when the security system started issuing
                  flyers to the delegation rooms, no one believed it.
                  We were warned by the flyers that if we were
                  going to the Congress Center on Tuesday, we
                  would have to be prepared to stay there for a
                  while because a protest could lock in delegates at
                  the Center.

                  But even then I had the sense that no one took that
                  seriously. And I believe that because everybody
                  came to the opening ceremonies the next day.

                  Had it been taken seriously, some people would
                  probably not have shown up. I saw ex-World Bank
                  presidents there coming in with their spouses and
                  big-time private bankers, and nobody, it seems,
                  had taken the warnings seriously.

                  Then close to noon, all of a sudden you had this
                  announcement that the transport system was
                  shutting down. Usually you had these shuttle
                  services between the Congress Center to the
                  hotels every 15 minutes, but all of a sudden these
                  services were shut down.

                  The bridge leading to the main entrance was
                  blocked, and the two other entrances to the
                  Congress Center were also blocked by riot police,
                  who were now very visible at the center.

                  But the action was still taking place at quite a
                  distance from the Center.

                  In any case, we couldn't leave. One incident was
                  reported. A young delegate from the Japanese
                  government wanted to go out and he just stepped
                  out and tried to go through one of the side

                  They said he was beaten up and sent to the
                  hospital. All of us were warned not to transit in and
                  out, not to even attempt to walk out.

                  There was no clear sign or indication of what
                  would happen next. I saw ex-World Bank
                  presidents walking around not knowing what to

                  I asked one former president how he was doing,
                  and he told me that his wife had managed to skip
                  coming to the Center by joining the Prague tour,
                  but he was left behind.

                  He didn't know what was happening. When I told
                  him about the protests, he became totally

                  In any event, what was happening was everyone
                  was waiting to get out. They had long run out of
                  numbers in the program.

                  At around 7:30 p.m., there was a sudden oral
                  announcement. Everybody should go straight to
                  the metro. The metro had been stopped all day.

                  Now, they told us that the metro had been opened
                  and we all had to go, quickly. What happened was
                  they got this special train to get the delegates to
                  the very last station on the line, where buses were
                  waiting to take the delegates to the reception at
                  the exhibition hall.

                  We were brought in to this big exhibition hall -- I
                  don't know what you call it. But when we got there,
                  we were surprised to see that the protesters were
                  already there. This big exhibition hall was
                  supposed to be secure, but to our great surprise
                  the protesters had beaten us to the place. And the
                  authorities had not planned for this.

                  When the reception was over, they just wanted to
                  disperse all the delegates, so they ended up
                  bussing us to different parts of Prague, where we
                  were left to our own devices.

                  Many of the people with me were really, really
                  worried, but I was having fun.

                  We finally got to our hotels around midnight. But
                  we still had not known the extent of the protests,
                  and, of course, once everyone got to the hotel,
                  everyone tuned into CNN and that's when we
                  learned about McDonald's being trashed.

                             PLEASURE OR PAIN?
                  I was staying at the Renaissance near the Old

                  I had this friend who was staying at the Hilton
                  about 10 minutes away who was still with me, and
                  I just wanted to make sure he got to his hotel

                  So I took off my suit and got into my jeans and
                  more comfortable wear. But he was still in this suit
                  and had this bag with a big IMF logo.

                  While we were walking to his hotel which was 10
                  minutes away, we met a group of French
                  protesters who started harassing us. Actually if I
                  was actually threatened with physical harm, I
                  would have called out your name and screamed:
                  "I'm a friend of one of your leaders!"

                  I was ready to do that. The guy I was with comes
                  from a Third World country, but I told him that
                  saying that you're Third World wouldn't work -- not
                  with your IMF badge.

                  Fortunately, there was a restaurant nearby and I
                  shoved him inside. We had a couple of beers and
                  waited till the French protesters went away and we
                  snuck out.

                  On the way back from his hotel, I ran into another
                  problem. Two prostitutes sidled up to me, and the
                  one to the right of me started rubbing my buttocks.
                  I guess they knew I was a delegate.

                  I don't think they were Czechs. They looked like
                  Italians. Maybe they came in with the Italian
                  protesters, since we heard that the Czech security
                  had driven most of the regular prostitutes out of
                  the city.

                  So that evening, it was a question of who got to
                  the delegates first, the prostitutes or the
                  protesters. If you were lucky, you got pleasure. If
                  you were unlucky, you got pain.

                  In any case, we never got to the price. I ran away:
                  who knows, they might have been protesters in

                  The following day, very few people went to the
                  Congress Center. Most stayed away. They just
                  stayed in their hotel rooms. They didn't even want
                  to go out.

                  But those who did went out in their suits. I couldn't
                  figure that out.

                  Those of us who were brave enough to go to the
                  Center had to go by a completely different route.
                  Our bus stayed at the back of a tram and it
                  followed this all the way. This was fine with me
                  because I hadn't seen the sites of Prague, and the
                  city was beautiful.

                  At the conference center, I got to talking to the
                  student guides. They really didn't know what was
                  happening. These kids actually didn't know who to
                  side with -- the protesters or the delegates? They
                  just wished the whole thing would end.

                  By the way, I noted this attitude even with the
                  police. Whenever I asked the police for directions,
                  they very seldom answered me. I had a sense that
                  they were just as wary of the delegates as they
                  were of the protesters.

                  I think one personal dilemma that both the
                  students and the police had was that they were
                  too young to have experienced the protests of late
                  1980s and didn't know what to do about it.

                  As you know, the meeting got cut by a day.

                  During the press conference the next day, they
                  denied the protests were the reason. They actually
                  said the reason was that things had run so
                  efficiently that they were able to compress
                  everything into two days.

                  The press laughed at this.

                             END OF THE AFFAIR
                  The real conclusion was the press conference the
                  following day, the 28th.

                  At this press conference, both Wolfensohn and
                  Koehler were there to field questions. There was a
                  corps of press reporters keen to pounce on them.

                  The questions from the first were quite pointed.
                  Ranging from very specific to very basic. For
                  instance, one reporter from India told Wolfensohn
                  and Koehler they had been accused of causing so
                  much misery in the Third World and asked what
                  did they have to say about that. Wolfensohn said,
                  "I don't think I am responsible for all that, and if you
                  think so, you're misinformed."

                  But the whole conference was dominated by
                  questions about the protest and not issues. Which
                  means -- at least from my perspective -- that the
                  objective of the protests had been achieved. They
                  had really distracted the proceedings.

                  A number of the press people said the annual
                  meeting was obsolete and out of control and what
                  did the IMF and WB want to do about this?

                  Wolfensohn responded that although they could
                  have virtual meetings, the personal interaction
                  was still quite important.

                  So, the Bank would actually continue to have
                  annual meetings. Wolfensohn and Koehler
                  insisted they had "gotten through" to the NGOs
                  and pictured the Saturday debate at Prague
                  Castle as a big success for them.

                  On the other hand, from my experience watching
                  Wolfensohn for several years, he appeared to be
                  very tired. It seems he had run out of things to say
                  and even his statements to the press were very

                  He didn't look like the "Elvis" Bono described him
                  to be.

                  He appeared to be much less enthusiastic. He
                  was repeating many of the old formulas. Maybe
                  the futility of it all had finally gotten to him.

                  As for Koehler, he was upbeat and very light.

                  No, light is not the word. He appeared to be very
                  naive, that's what I want to say.

                  I don't think it's just his lack of mastery of English.
                  He was talking like a college student about the
                  issues, repeating the same line about him not
                  being a banker but somebody with a heart.

                  Both of them said the violence had come from a
                  very, very small minority, and that the majority of
                  the protesters were really there because they had
                  something to say. And there were a lot of
                  legitimate arguments being made by them. And
                  that the WB and the IMF would now pay greater
                  focus to their concerns.

                  It was very difficult for me to distinguish between
                  reality and rhetoric because all the time
                  Wolfensohn was playing with his watch.

                  From my vantage point, in the end, the agenda
                  had been taken over by the protesters.

                  I think Prague created quite an impression with
                  the World Bank-IMF bureaucracy, although this is
                  a much more entrenched bureaucracy than the

                  I sensed that after Prague, the words of civil
                  society will be taken much more seriously, but
                  whether this will mean real dialogue we still have
                  to find out.

                           THE DESERT BECKONS
                  The next two annual meetings will be in
                  Washington and the third one will be in Dubai.

                  And the head of the Dubai organizing committee
                  said the temperature would be higher in Dubai
                  than in Prague!

                  He was saying basically that prior to the Prague
                  proceedings, he didn't foresee problems in Dubai,
                  but after this, there has to be some rethinking.

                  So it's three years away, but the impact is already

                  I have a feeling that when the WB-IMF
                  bureaucracy assesses Prague they will wind down
                  the annual meetings. Because their only function
                  is for governors to deliver their speeches, and
                  more and more governors now simply submit
                  written speeches.

                  So, I think more and more they will turn it into a
                  virtual meeting.

                  And they will probably try to separate the unofficial
                  events from the official meeting.

                  Because what is most significant about these
                  meetings are the informal business parties. There
                  were at least 15 lavish parties given by the
                  commercial banks for the delegates. Very, very
                  lavish. For many delegates, those were the prime
                  events of the conference. The actual official
                  functions were just pro forma.

                  If I were a protester, by the way, I would have gone
                  to these venues because they were not secured at
                  all. These were the events that everyone went to in
                  the evenings. These were very open venues. And
                  they were listed in the schedule.

                  Now, that would really have stopped the real
                  business of the conference.


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