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In Wake of Protests, World Bank, IMF Adjourn a Day Early

September 28, 2000|DAVID HOLLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PRAGUE, Czech Republic — Officials of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, angry and tired after violent protests here disrupted their annual gathering, on Wednesday abruptly ended the formal meetings a day early.

"I share with my colleagues the feeling of distress from the problems that have arisen on the streets," World Bank President James D. Wolfensohn said in his closing speech Wednesday, which was originally scheduled for this morning. "We regret that there were those whose sole purpose was destruction, which colored the currents outside these buildings."

International Monetary Fund and World Bank officials gave mixed signals about how big a role Tuesday's generally peaceful protests by about 12,000 people--and violent clashes between a small number of demonstrators and police--played in the decision to end the meetings after two days.

"They moved more quickly than anticipated; they finished ahead of time," said IMF spokesman David Hawley of the delegates. "It has nothing to do with the protests."

World Bank Vice President Mats Karlsson said delegates had achieved "a consensus on many of the development issues" but added that the decision to end the meeting early "probably is also prompted by the demonstrations yesterday."

Protesters Prompted Focus on Poverty

Leaders of the Initiative Against Economic Globalization, or INPEG, the main umbrella organization that planned the protests, expressed satisfaction nonetheless.

"I don't know whether this is directly our achievement, but we surely contributed to it," said Alice Dvorska, a Czech organizer who on Tuesday stressed that INPEG wanted to disassociate itself from the violence and vandalism.

The protest prompted a greater focus on the issue of reducing global poverty than ever before in the agenda and rhetoric of the institutions' annual meeting. But many delegates were clearly angered by the protesters' methods.

"I stand here on behalf of India, the land of Mahatma Gandhi, who espoused the cause of nonviolence, and I condemn the violence which was unleashed here yesterday," Indian Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha told fellow delegates. "Whether the IMF and the World Bank exist or do not exist is a matter which will be decided by the will of the 182 countries who are represented here, not by a handful of hoodlums in the streets of Prague."

Karlsson said some bilateral meetings, discussions and other events scheduled for today will still take place.

Demonstrators clashed briefly with police outside the Hilton Hotel on Wednesday morning, but officers drove them back and arrested dozens. Later in the day, several hundred protesters demanding the release of comrades arrested Tuesday faced off with more than 500 officers in riot gear. The protest later dissipated.

Many protesters, especially foreigners involved in confrontations with police, headed home late Tuesday and Wednesday.

Police on Wednesday raised by 3,000 their estimate of how many protesters had crowded the streets here the day before. The police said that they had arrested more than 600 demonstrators and that charges had been filed against 17 foreigners and a Czech citizen. Nearly 150 people were injured, including 80 police officers, authorities said. Four officers were still hospitalized Wednesday night.

Most Demonstrators Stressed Nonviolence

Key organizers and most participants in Tuesday's demonstrations had declared that they wanted to nonviolently blockade the financiers' meeting hall, but a more radical minority had thrown rocks and homemade gasoline bombs at police, then rampaged through central Prague, the Czech capital, smashing store windows. Police responded with batons, tear gas and water cannons.

Wolfensohn and IMF Managing Director Horst Koehler said the meeting had made progress in promoting plans to help poor nations by offering debt relief and redesigning loans to be more responsive to the countries' needs.

Masood Ahmed of the IMF announced Wednesday that the fund will start helping countries take into account the social impacts of policy changes that the agency requires in exchange for loans.

Human rights advocates and anti-poverty campaigners often have charged that the two institutions force poor nations to slash spending on social programs to meet conditions attached to loans.

"The theme that has resonated in these meetings is clearly the need to make globalization work for the benefit of all," Koehler said in his closing speech. "We must help our member countries take advantage of the opportunities of the global economy while finding better ways to contain the risks, so that they can achieve sustained growth and reduce poverty."

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