EUROPE: Activists to take on the IMF and World Bank


OXFORD, England — Over the past year, European activists have watched large political mobilisations unfold in the United States with keen interest. Although Europe has not recently witnessed a demonstration on the scale of the Seattle anti-World Trade Organisation (WTO) protests last November, or even the April protests in Washington against the International Monetary Fund (IMF), activists have been steadily organising for what is gearing up to be the next big offensive against global financial institutions.

In Prague, in September, 20,000 representatives of global capital (world bankers, economists and financiers) will gather to attend the 55th annual summit of the IMF and World Bank Group (WB). The meeting will discuss further liberalisation of the world's economy by defining new loan priorities and structural adjustment conditions. Activists, on the other hand, are determined to stop the IMF's neo-liberal agenda, which has led to worldwide environmental destruction, growing social inequality and poverty.

Activists have been steadily organising within the Czech Republic and throughout western Europe. Judging by the frenetic pace of networking, the September 26 protest could be the largest mass mobilisation since 1968, a veritable "Prague fall".

The Initiative Against Economic Globalisation (INPEG), a loose coalition of Czech environmental, human rights and anarchist groups, has planned a series of campaigns that will culminate in 10 days of activities starting September 20. A European-wide mobilisation of this magnitude will be difficult to coordinate, but activists, buoyed by a highly productive planning meeting in Prague in June, believe the September protest will complement earlier organising drives in the US and help build a lasting European activist network.

INPEG has set up a web site with a call to action which states: "We do not think that we can oppose [globalisation] ... by lobbying institutions like the IMF and WB. We rather rely upon the movements from below made up from diverse groups like trade-unionists, unemployed, small or landless peasants, environmental initiatives, migrants, radical democratic political organisations, etc.

"However, we do not think that globalisation could be opposed by the protectionist policy of the national state. We believe that the alternative is a society which is based not on profit for a few but on the genuine needs of everybody, on the principles of solidarity, mutual assistance and sustainable development, a society which rejects all forms and systems of domination and discrimination like patriarchy and racism."

In London, veteran Reclaim the Streets activist "Michael" has created the September 26 Collective listserver to mobilise for Prague. On April 29, this group got a big push forward during a May Day planning conference in London.

The conference acted as a kind of convention for all British JOactivists and outside the hall police monitored the situation. Forty or 50 people showed up to a seminar organised by the September 26 Collective at the last minute, and after the conference the S26 Collective listserver jumped to more than 150 people.

Very rapidly, all kinds of people started to join the collective, including activists with Earth First! and Reclaim the Streets, anarchists, students and others interested in IMF and World Bank issues. By May, S26 groups were popping up all over the country: in London, Bristol, Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield. Even in Oxford, a University town not usually known for its radical tradition, a local collective has sprung up and local activists hope to bring scores of trade unionists, anarchists and socialists to the Prague mobilisation.

June planning meeting

In June, a contingent of British activists, including anarchists, some Earth First! members, communists and trade union activists attended a three-day planning meeting in Prague called by INPEG. Others arrived from Italy, from the activist group Ya Basta!; Spain, from Barcelona's Moviment de Resistencia Global; Holland, from the non-government organisation ASEED; as well as from France, the US, Norway, Finland and Germany.

Overall, the crowd (at its height 60 or 70 people from 12 countries) was young, made up of an equal number of men and women and white. Conspicuously absent were other eastern Europeans and Russians, who face visa difficulties getting into the Czech Republic, and labour activists.

Inside a makeshift planning hall, the outreach committee had hung slogans it plans to use, such as: "Democracy does not belong in the castle, it lives in the streets". Most of the activists were strangers to each other. Some were veterans of previous demos, such as the very under-reported action against the WTO in Geneva in 1998, considered by some to be the forerunner of the Seattle action in 1999.

One of the Czechs who attended was Arnost Novak. Novak is a student at Karlova University in Prague and the editor of a bi-monthly newspaper Konfrontace. He says it is important for the Czech people to show the world that they are against the IMF and World Bank.

At first, says Novak, the IMF proceeded cautiously with its agenda in the Czech Republic. The IMF's first structural adjustment program, in 1990, did not lead to unusual unemployment, but that changed in 1996 when the IMF advised the Czech government to start privatising heavy industry, he said.

In the town of Nova hut Vithovice, 2500 steelworkers lost their jobs. Simultaneously, the Czech government complied with IMF doctrine by cutting social spending, health care and education.

Novak comments: "We are supposedly living in a post-Communist regime and lots of people have high expectations for change". However, due to the IMF-driven reforms, this has led to a bleaker outlook amongst the Czech people and "the more things change with unemployment and the like, the more the need for this type of mobilisation [in September]".

Two Norwegian women, Ragnhild Eide Skogseth and Anne-Kathrine Vabo, travelled from their native Bergen, in Norway, to the Prague meeting. Skogseth says, "In Norway, nobody's starving. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't care about what's happening in the world. And if you look at the world you see the IMF and World Bank are one of the leading problems."

Skogseth got involved through the Norwegian environmental organisation Nature and Youth, which is working on local issues such as public transport and urban pollution. Skogseth says, "We can work locally but think globally".

"I got involved", says Vabo, "because two years ago I was writing an article about globalisation for my organisation ... I went to Geneva and spoke to the PGA [People's Global Action, a worldwide network of activists and non-government organisations working against global financial institutions, originally inspired by the Zapatista struggle in Mexico]. After the PGA meeting, I attended a meeting in Paris, organised against the MAI [Multilateral Agreement on Investment]. In December, we went to an encampment in Cologne, where activists were organising against the G8 meeting of industrialised nations. Our objective there was to make the G8 forgive Third World debt."

At the end of the first day of the planning meeting, a group of activists headed to the convention centre where the IMF and World Bank are scheduled to meet in September. The site is daunting: the centre looks as impenetrable as Kafka's castle and stands alone in a huge open space. The Czech government spent £48 million constructing the site.

Right next to the convention site is an enormous bridge — the Czechs call it "Suicide Bridge" — which gives out onto broad boulevards.

It is clear that any attempt to blockade the site will be challenging indeed. Because the site is so open, the authorities may find it easier to control the situation. If 11,000 Czech police and army troops are not enough to do that, (not to mention the NATO troops coincidentally on manoeuvres in the area in September), then the state can also count on the feds: Louis Freeh, the director of the FBI, recently announced he will send an "administrative force" to the Prague meeting.

On several occasions, activists at the planning meeting were under surveillance by the secret police. At one point, a couple walked onto the eco-farm where the meeting was being held dressed as tourists but carrying a video camera.

On another, two British activists were shadowed as they took the train to the town centre. According to Barry, one of the two, every time he stopped and turned around, two men would bend down and tie their shoelaces. "It reminded me of one of those John Le Carre spy novel movies!", he remarked. Not surprisingly, legal rights and police treatment were much discussed issues during meeting.

Action plans

The planning meeting began excruciatingly slowly. English was the official language, but everything needed translating into Czech. As well, the group was too large and unwieldy. It eventually broke up into working groups, which dealt separately with issues such as legal considerations, action planning, media, housing, fundraising and the political arts festival, and reported back to the central group.

By the third and final day there was a slight sense of panic as people realized that the schedule had still not been finalised. The meeting was about to break up and already the Italian delegation had left.

The Czechs and INPEG met in a huddle, while another group of Europeans tried to brainstorm. At long last, it was agreed that activists shall rally at the IMF convention centre on the afternoon of September 26, but during the morning conduct decentralised actions across the city within small, tightly organised "affinity groups".

Actually, the S26 blockade of the convention centre is only the coup de grace of an entire week of activities, to run from September 21 to 28. These will include a counter-summit from September 22 to 24, with lectures and thematic workshops in several locations throughout the city. INPEG has invited philosophers, economists, trade unionists and the like to speak about globalisation.

On September 23, Communist Czech trade unions will hold a rally and on September 25 and 26, non-government organisations will hold a public forum and video festival. There will be a political arts festival running throughout the week featuring local artists, theatre groups, and political singers.

It is a tall order, requiring almost Herculean effort. The Czechs are relatively inexperienced at bringing off a vast international mobilisation and they have no computers, no printers, no money to rent spaces for media or for affinity groups.

As well, involving the Czech people, who, according to Czech activists, are cynical about politics, especially left politics, will be daunting. The deluge of Czech media characterisations of Western activists as dangerous agitators will not help.

Another challenge will be garnering the support of the Czech labour movement, the leadership of which is divided on whether to endorse S26. There is also the matter of the Czech security forces, which are "more violent and more realistic than the British cops", according to Barry.

Still, the activists are optimistic. In Michael's words: "I thought this meeting was a complete success. The people were diverse from many different countries, but they had similar ideas and ways of working. This meeting has affirmed that ... there's some commonality between activists in different countries."

Over the next few months, Barry will be networking in Britain, through the internet and on the phone, trying to get as many people to Prague as possible. In Bergen, Skogseth will talk to organisations and write in magazines such as the Nature and Youth journal. This fall, she adds, she will travel around the country and go to elementary and high schools giving presentations and handing out informational booklets.

Some activists, including Michael, consider the IMF conference in Prague an important target, but also look at the struggle in broader, longer range terms. "The structures for a European activist network have to be more clearly defined", he says. He says S26 will be a success if INPEG manages to capture and channel popular Czech resistance and the Czech working class.

They all hope that Prague will prove the lightning rod for the rebirth of European radicalism, challenging the global financial institutions far beyond September.


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