Prague Greens smash symbols of global market
Tuesday 19 May 1998
In the wake of the "velvet revolution" of 1989 - the most peaceful of all the east European revolutions, itself partly triggered by indignation at police violence - Prague became the place to be. It was always one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, even when it was locked in the political Stone Age of a hardline communist regime.
After 1989 it underwent a renaissance - politically under its famous playwright president, Vaclav Havel, and economically. It became a magnet for Western youth. What Paris had been to Americans in the 1930s, Prague became in the 1990s.
The once-quiet Charles Bridge, one of the city's most famous and elegant landmarks, became so crowded at all hours of the day with thousands of tourists and temporary residents that it was scarcely possible to glimpse the bridge itself. Backpackers and bus parties kept the place permanently busy.
However, not all Czechs were enthusiastic about the changes. The tourism boom brought millions of pounds in much-needed foreign currency as Prague became a leading destination, but Czechs often found themselves left out of the loop.
Radical economic change brought high unemployment and stark poverty. There was the constant tension, too, between the need to do everything possible to bring foreign money into the city, and the need to preserve the distinctive character of Prague. Some began to feel that the Czechs' own identity was under threat.
The latest demonstration, billed as the "Global Street Party 98" was in protest at the effect of economic globalisation on the environment. The clashes came after crowds gathered for a rock concert-cum-protest timed to coincide with the G8 economic summit in Birmingham. As several thousand left the concert and marched on the city centre, a small group hurled paving stones, breaking the windows of a McDonald's restaurant - the third such attack.
Mainstream environmental groups condemned the violence. Greenpeace regretted that the protest had been described as ecological, "because that damages the image of preserving nature and the environment". The chairman of the environmental pressure group Duha complained: "This is abusing the name of the environmental movement."
Martin Bursik, the environment minister, was equally quick to draw a line between the demonstrators and other environmental groups. He argued: "Nobody can seriously think that the programme of the ecological movement equals looting and stealing salami."
For other politicians, it was an opportunity to sling some mud ahead of parliamentary elections next month. The former Communist Party called on the interior minister to resign. Vaclav Klaus, the former prime minister, attacked ecological groups who "abuse the issue of clean water for their own ends".
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