Radical Czechs

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It isn't easy being a radical marxist these days. Just ask Radim Hladik, a 19-year-old law student at Charles University. There is his family, for one thing. During communist times his father was the director of a sugar factory that was the chief employer in Novy Bydzov, a working-class village 100 km east of Prague; today he runs his own private company, and the Hladiks live in the biggest house in town. It even has a pool. So Radim's frequent participation in anticapitalist marches and labor strikes doesn't sit too well with mom and dad. "Deep down they wish I would grow up and quit this movement," Hladik sighs, sitting under a gazebo in his parents' backyard. "But I'm not a typical bourgeois kid."

Hladik, who goes by the nickname Hadgi, sports an earring, a goatee and a pewter Buddha around his neck. Two round studs pierce the corner of his left eyebrow. Hadgi should be studying for exams, but during the last year he has been preparing for something bigger: the annual meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which convene in Prague next week. Hadgi and a close-knit group of fellow Czech activists hope to recreate the scenes of noisy resistance staged by anti-globalization protesters at last December's World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle and, last week, at a World Economic Forum gathering in Melbourne all part of a snowballing international crusade that brings together anarchists, labor unionists, environmentalists and skinheads. The goal, Hadgi says, is to paralyze Prague and shut down the IMF-World Bank conference altogether. Hadgi pledges nonviolence, but he's bracing for a fight. "Capitalism is a violent system based on the aggressive repression of people," he says. "And you can't fight these capitalist armies by just sitting."

Czech authorities have seized on that brand of bellicose rhetoric to justify the biggest police mobilization in Central Europe since 1989. The 20,000 demonstrators who are expected to descend on Prague this week will be greeted by 11,000 officers dispersed throughout the city, including 1,400 armored riot police. The bulk of the forces will deploy around the Congress Center Prague, the renovated communist-era complex where the meetings will be held. Disturbances could begin as early as Saturday, but the real action is set for Sept. 26, when protesters plan to blockade the center to prevent delegates from getting out. If the inevitable exchanges between police and demonstrators turn into outright confrontation, much of Prague could be engulfed in cobblestone combat. "We recommend that everybody who can do so should leave the city," says Lubomir Kvicala, a police coordinator. To that end, one Prague district's government offered subsidized vacations to pensioners, and 70 accepted. The government has recommended that citizens stockpile food and water; many of Prague's 24 McDonald's restaurants have ordered replacement glass; and at least one bank has instructed its employees to dress casually so as not to blend in with pinstriped delegates.

Protest organizers, who have formed an umbrella group called the Initative Against Economic Globalization (INPEG), say the authorities have bugged their telephones and infiltrated strategy sessions. Though the two sides have reached a few nonbinding agreements to avoid clashes, tensions run high. Outside a Prague metro station last week, Martin Saffek, 27, inveighed against the imf while a dozen other activists solicited signatures for an anti-globalization petition. Within half an hour a platoon of police swept in demanding identification cards and hauled away one British activist who was not carrying her passport. "We're told we live in a democracy, and yet the security preparations are neo-totalitarian," Saffek complains.

Though it expects police provocations, inpeg vows that its "direct actions" will remain nonviolent. Last week the group held an activist retreat on a sheep farm outside the city to instruct novice demonstrators on how to protect against tear gas and administer first aid. More than half of inpeg's full-time volunteers are non-Czech, and many are veterans of previous anti-globalization brouhahas. Chelsea Mozen, a 24-year-old Atlanta native who participated in Washington, D.C. protests earlier this year, moved to Prague after responding to inpeg's Web request for an English-speaking press agent. When she arrived in June, inpeg had just one other international volunteer; today it boasts 50. Scores of others including Greek trade unionists, California longshoremen and Philippine peasants will join the brigade, though some activists on their way to Prague last week were halted at the border. inpeg leaders say they have refused to associate with far-right groups, but a coalition of Czech skinheads plans to enter the fray anyway. "Everyone will be acting autonomously," Mozen says. "And so anything is possible."

Despite the presence of foreigners, next week's demonstrations will be driven by homegrown activists like Saffek, a philosophy student at Charles University who joined a group called Socialist Solidarity three years ago. Saffek says that "the imf and World Bank are only tools in the hands of multinationals to rule over poor countries." But he is most bitter about the impact of free market capitalism on his own country. The imf's post-1989 loans to the former Czechoslovakia, Saffek says, required the government to slash social spending and displace workers. "Now we see the results. People are not richer than they were 10 years ago, and in some places things are even worse," claims Saffek even though real wages in the Czech Republic have risen 5% since 1990. The protesters see the hands of multinationals contributing to every social blight, from an increase in crime to the felling of trees. "There are supermarkets everywhere," says Alice Dvorska, a 21-year-old anarchist from Brno. "Small Czech grocers have trouble surviving. This wasn't a problem when communism was here."

The trouble for Czech globalization opponents and for their allies throughout Central Europe is that, despite widespread dissatisfaction with the transition to capitalism, only inveterate Communist Party members still pine for the old days. "Most young people don't care about these issues. It's the product of a new religion called consumerism," says Viktor Piorecky, 21, an environmental activist who is one of inpeg's spokesmen. Adds Dvorska: "There are a lot of young Czechs who are sitting in pubs saying this is bad or that is bad, but they think they can't do anything." And yet even older Czechs who sympathize with some inpeg principles don't want to see them put into practice. "I realize it's bad for the small shop owners," says Silvie Brkalova, a 49-year-old accountant and part-time cook. "But why should I pay 50 crowns for butter when I can buy it for 20? This is too small a country to be closing itself to globalization."

The members of inpeg distance themselves from Czech communists, who plan their own demonstrations during the capitalist confab. "I'm not for something that resembles the pre-1989 regime," Saffek says. "But I don't think free-trade capitalism is the alternative."

So what is? Saffek calls for a system premised on "socialism from below governed by local institutions." Dvorska favors "decentralized economic power that lets people create their own alternatives." inpeg's members support the abolition of global lending bodies and the evisceration of multinational corporations, but their prescriptions for achieving such goals are murky and far-fetched. Hadgi predicts a workers' revolution once the global economy slips into depression. Piorecky doesn't advocate a similar uprising but says that "there has to be a revolution in the distribution of power. Change can't come from the political process."

But that's where opponents of globalization fail themselves. Many of their criticisms of turbo-charged capitalism that its institutions are not transparent or that it leaves people helpless to the market's whims are shared even by citizens who believe in globalization's virtues. Jiri Pehe, director of New York University in Prague, points out that the failings of capitalism in countries like the Czech Republic are caused more by corrupt leaders and weak laws than by rapacious global corporations. Activists might attract wider support for taming globalization through campaigns for cleaner governments and more open financial institutions than they ever will through spectacles like the one planned for next week. "At some point," admits Mozen, "we have to do something besides protest." They may discover that an alternative exists. It is called politics.

With reporting by Jan Stojaspal/Prague