Benjamin Geer on 13 Oct 2000 18:28:34 -0000

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[Nettime-bold] A World Banker's Account of Prague

>From Focus on Trade No.55, October 2000 

`A World Bank Staffer's Odyssey in Kafka's Prague'

(The following is an insider's blow-by-blow account of the World
Bank-IMF Annual Meeting in Prague on Oct. 26-28, 2000.  The author, a
senior World Bank staff member who is a long-time contact of Focus on
the Global South, requested anonymity for obvious reasons.)

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.

Deceptive Calm  

I have to say that my impression was there was no inkling at least
among the people I was in touch with of 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 NGO's 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.

A 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 that 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 these 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
visibly 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
busing 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 12 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

Whose Side Are You on?  

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 still 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 sights 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
eighties 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 that 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 and answers.  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 asked Wolfensohn and Koehler that they had been
accused of causing so much misery in the Third World and 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 that the Bank
would actually continue to have annual meetings.  Wolfensohn and
Koehler insisted that they had `gotten through' to the NGOss 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
that 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
that 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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