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Havel appeals for peaceful IMF protest
PRAGUE, Czech Republic (CNN) -- As his country began the final countdown to next week’s expected anti-global protest, Czech President Vaclav Havel, a man who knows a thing or two about facing down authority, gave a ringing moral endorsement to those who would peacefully defy the world’s most powerful financiers at their annual meetings.
As many as 20,000 protesters are expected to throng the squares and bridges of Prague when the International Monetary Fund and World Bank hold their annual joint meetings over three days in the former Communist-era Palace of Culture, recently refurbished at a cost of $100 million.
“Of course, it can happen that people may come who will want to thwart the event or manifest their opposition,” Havel told CNN in an interview at Prague Castle, the ornate ninth-century palace overlooking the Vltava river that once served as the seat of Bohemian princes.
“So long as they do not threaten human life or human property, I would welcome it -- provided their protest is marked by a spirit of dialogue and debate.”
The protesters will be met by up to 11,000 riot police and 1,600 soldiers, many of them veterans of a rougher brand of Communist-era crowd control.
Havel, a playwright who was imprisoned three times for his dissident views by the Communist regime he ultimately helped to topple in the Velvet Revolution of 1989, said it was the job of the police, and not the president, to prevent the demonstrations from veering into violence.
Concerns over agitation
The president said he had not heard reports, circulated in the Czech press, that the city’s hospitals were stocking up on antidotes to counter possible low-level chemical warfare in the streets. But he promised to check into it.
Havel’s remarks came just two days after he complained to the Israeli President, Yitzhak Navon, that Czech authorities – and not the demonstrators themselves – were “provoking agitation” ahead of the meetings by informing the press about their preparations for the anticipated protests.
Havel and other Czech officials are eager to use next week's meetings -- which come at a crucial juncture, as the country embarks on the final phases of talks on entering the EU -- as a showcase for the Czech Republic’s recent successes.
These include a turnaround in the economy after three years of decline -- Czech officials are forecasting growth of 3.5 percent this year, up from a previous estimate of three percent -- the country’s admission last year into the NATO alliance, and its status as a favoured candidate for fast-track entry to the European Union.
Globalisation: A ‘morally neutral’ trend
Asked why he thinks "globalisation" has become such a contentious issue, Havel became pensive. One of his most famous pieces of writing, a 1978 essay entitled "The Power of the Powerless", explored the pernicious effects of totalitarian regimes on civic society.
Cradling his chin in his hand, Havel, speaking in a soft voice made slightly raspy by decades of chain smoking, said he empathised with those who might have misgivings about global trends.
“Globalisation is only an expression of a certain face of human civilisation,” Havel said. “It’s a logical part of a major process in human civilisation which culminated in the 20th century. The movement itself is morally neutral, but it can be filled with various content and often it is dangerous content.
“I think that probably a lot of people feel vulnerable,” he said. “They know why they feel like that – it’s because something is being done to them.”
Havel also counted himself among the sceptical.
“I am one of those who is thinking about (globalisation) and who gives thought to the long-term trends it might generate.”
Turning to the controversial issue of European enlargement, Havel called the current round of expansion talks “an unprecedented attempt by a political entity called Europe to establish principles on the basis of equality, cooperation and democracy”. He said it is a process “that gradually should encompass all of the European continent.”
A warning about EU dithering
Havel expressed his conviction that the Czech Republic -- one of six frontrunning candidates for early entry to the EU -- would enter the club “if not in 2003, as we would like, then somewhat later -- though not too much later.”
He frowned on the notion, advocated most forcefully by French President Jacques Chirac, whose country currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU, of a "two-speed" Europe in which some core members move at a faster rate than others.
“I am not much of a friend of this kind of differentiation,” Havel said.
The president warned that too much tarrying on the part of the EU’s 15 member states could play into the hands of critics of enlargement.
“I do not think there would be a fundamental threat,” he said. “But certainly it would lead to a substantial delay in economic progress and it would add ammunition to democratic nationalists or chauvinists who would then say, ‘Look, you always want to be part of Europe, but Europe doesn’t want you.’”
While he said he thought Europe’s leaders were acting in good faith on enlargement, he cautioned that good intentions could never substitute for firm commitments.
“It’s always better to work on projects when you have a deadline for completion.”
*This article is based on an interview with President Vaclav Havel conducted by CNN correspondent Walter Rodgers and monitored by CNN.com Europe.
Can cops in Prague keep their cool?
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