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Prague's Tent City protesters await bankers
PRAGUE, Czech Republic (CNN) -- When the Czech organisers of last year’s World Gold Panning Championships in southern Bohemia needed to shelter 10,000 fortune-hunters, they turned to professional tee-pee maker Tomas Doubek.
This week, Doubek is back on the job with another -- to put a temporary roof over the heads of 16,000 protesters who are flocking to Prague on a self-styled mission to bring the roof down on the largest gathering of global financiers a central European capital has seen.
To legions of breathless admirers, "Golden" Prague is the city of 100 spires -- a place where Gothic castles and gilded cathedrals sprout from the cobblestones.
But from the drabber vantage of Doubek’s workplace, a vast Soviet-era sports stadium now used for drive-in movies, Prague is becoming a city of 100 tents (and then some).
By Monday afternoon, Strahov had already accepted applications for 6,000 sleeping spaces. By next week, when the IMF and World Bank annual meetings are expected to reach a climax, Doubek says the stadium will be functioning like a mini Olympic village, complete with stores, security guards and round-the-clock cashiers.
“Everyone is asking what we will do if all the people can’t fit in,” said a bleary-eyed Doubcek in his command centre, a metal shed at Strahov stadium. Beyond a plastic-sheet window, the clatter of hammering could be heard as teams of workers raced to nail together thousands of metal bed frames.
The entrepreneurial gusto underscores the starkly differing approaches to the banking meeting adopted by Czechs and outside visitors.
Many of the international protesters see the conferences as an opportunity for some world-class rabble-rousing, on a par with recent anti-global protests in Seattle and London.
Czechs officials tend to see the meetings as an opportunity to showcase the strides their country has made since communism collapsed just over 10 years ago in the bloodless Velvet Revolution of November 1989.
“You don’t get a chance every year to bring 200 finance ministers and bank governors to look at you,” said Jiri Pehe, a political analyst and former chief adviser to President Vaclav Havel who now runs New York University’s Prague campus. “The benefits, if this does not get out of hand, will be great for this country."
Pehe said the Czech Republic has experienced rough economic patches since 1996 when the IMF allowed it to host the upcoming meetings. But now, after three years of decline, the Czech economy shows signs of scraping back.
Overseas investment has more than doubled over the last year to around $5 billion, boosted by tax breaks.
What Czechs fear most about the upcoming banking meetings is that the doomsday talk of massive anti-global protests will become a self-fulfilling prophesying. Officials predict more than 10,000 demonstrators will throng the majestic Charles Bridge.
During the summer the vibrant Czech press wrote about little other than the conference, creating a frenzy of speculation.
Primary and secondary schools are being closed and many families have taken holiday to avoid the gridlock and pedestrian barricades that are expected as 11,000 riot police and more than a 1,000 soldiers greet perhaps 20,000 protesters.
One hospital in the capital has gone so far to create separate wards for injured bankers and protesters, so that the skirmishing doesn’t extend into the surgery rooms.
Czech border police, meanwhile, have stepped up border controls, at times blocking those suspected of belligerent intent from crossing.
INPEG (Initiative against Economic Globalisation), a group coordinating the protests, likened the police tactics to communist-era methods.
The apprehension among Czechs is palpable. The capital’s main FM radio station led with a story Monday about a suitcase that had been left unattended on a main Prague thoroughfare, prompting a jittery passers-by to summon the bomb squad. The threatening luggage turned out to contain the clothes of an absent-minded tourist.
Meanwhile, out at a stone cottage in the sleepy village of Dilno Silvo, about 40 kilometres northeast of Prague, one protest group reportedly held a series of "training" exercises over the weekend that included primers on abseiling and peaceful blockading.
'You are not being invaded'
By Monday, however, the group had apparently abandoned its remote training quarters to move on to Prague, leaving behind stacked crates of beer and a few stragglers from Spain and England.
“The main idea is to sort of skill-share,” said a young man from London, who declined to give his name as he granted a short interview from behind a locked enclosure at the cottage. “I don’t want to be violent. One key thing that we want to do is get the message out to the Czech people -- we don’t want them to think they are being invaded.”
A headline-grabbing incident is the last thing the Czechs want to see after all the painstaking preparations to make Prague IMF-friendly.
The Czech government has spent an estimated $60 million converting the decrepit communist-built Palace of Culture into a gleaming white-and-tinted-glass conference centre and millions more on other meeting buildings.
The focus on protests and rabble-rousing has riled some Czechs, who are eager to use the meetings as a chance to promote an informed discussion on the environment and bank finance.
“Protests are OK unless there will be violence,” said Pavel Pribyl, head of BankWatch, a five-year-old organisation that monitors financial institutions worldwide.
“We think Czech society will miss the main reason for the protests, the main reasons that bring people to criticise the activities of the institutions. Czech society doesn’t know much about these institutions, much of the propaganda about them (in the past) was that they were humanitarian organisations.”
From CNN.com Europe
Prague: CNN Travel city guide
International Monetary Fund
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