Czech Republic: A World Bank Economist's Odyssey in Kafka's Prague

(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 it.

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 openings.

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 do.

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 disoriented.

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 Town.

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 safely.

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 disguise!

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 uninspired.

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 WTO.

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 there.

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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