A Very Quiet G-8 Where Have all the Protesters Gone?

World leaders have had few problems at this week's G-8 summit in Italy. Globalization critics are only present in small numbers -- partly because few dare risk rioting in a city decimated by an earthquake, but also because, they say, the Group of 8 has lost its relevance.
Von Franziska Gerhardt, Julia Walker und Alex Wolf

The G-8 summit in L'Aquila, Italy this week has been accompanied by massive security measures. Around 15,000 military and police have been deployed. But the expected protests have failed to materialize, leading many to ask: what's happened to the G-8? Has it become irrelevant?

L'Aquila, the city in the Abruzzo valley devastated by a massive and deadly earthquake earlier this year, has largely seemed quiet this week. Many businesses, bars and restaurants are closed -- the owners feared they might be devastated again, only this time by protesters.

But the globalization critics from around the world who have descended on every major international summit since 1999 are largely absent this week. And the tents erected in L'Aquila are not the mass campgrounds of protesters that have become a familiar sight at these kinds of summits, they are the temporary domiciles for tens of thousands of local residents who lost their homes in the quake.

The few protests that are taking place are happening in large cities elsewhere in Italy. In Rome on Tuesday, around 150 protesters marched through the streets. Smaller demonstrations were also held in Turin and Bologna.

Partly this is a product of the symbolism of the destroyed Abruzzian city. Rioting and vandalism in a city devastated by a massive earthquake would be extremely difficult to justify. Indeed, some believe it was a cool calculation on the part of Silvio Berlusconi. The Italian prime minister suggested moving the G-8 summit to what he called the "capital of suffering," as an "act of solidarity," on April 23.

But what's a G-8 summit without mass protests? The Italian branch of Europe's best known anti-globalization group, Attac, is present at the summit but is only planning to conduct a march on Friday -- and they have even registered it with local authorities. "Not much is happening in the city yet," Marco Bersani of Attac Italy said. "The protests are currently concentrated on Rome. But we are expecting 5,000 people at the Friday demo in L'Aquila."

It's also unclear whether the protesters will be able to access the city. Here the opinions among Italian organizers vary. Because in general, protests have been very decentralized and organized almost entirely at local level.

Few Want a Repeat of Genoa

A few small actions have taken place in L'Aquila. Marica DiPierri of the protest group "A Sud" said on Wednesday that a silent march in memory of the victims of the earthquake had been held, but that it had been disrupted by the noise of a police helicopter. "On Tuesday, about 500 people attended a discussion forum organized as a counter event to the G-8," DiPierri added. Despite this low key exchange, most residents of the city are still vehemently opposed to Friday's planned protest. "They fear that there could be fighting on the streets with police as has happened in Genoa. In their opinion, that would be counterproductive for the city's image."

In contrast to previous G-8 events, very few German protesters have travelled to L'Aquila. The sluggish mobilization in the city and lack of any serious reasons to protest as well as fear of harsh police measures has kept many away, officials at Germany's domestic intelligence agency said. Anti-globalization protesters also have a busy schedule this year -- in addition to the G-8 in July, there were protests at the NATO summit in April and actions are planned for the global climate change summit in Copenhagen in December. Together, these events are exceeding the capabilities and resources of some of the organizations involved. Berlusconi's short notice on shifting the summit from the island of La Maddalena to L'Aquila also disrupted protesters' planning.

For their part, organizers at Attac deny that Berlusconi's decision to move the summit to the earthquake-plagued city hindered their planning in any way. In an interview with public broadcaster Deutschlandradio, Hendrik Auhagen of Attac Germany, said the real reason his group wouldn't be attending in any number is that the G-8 has lost its political significance. It has been rendered meaningless by the global financial crisis and the role has largely been assumed by the G-20. He said Attac plans to put its energy into the upcoming G-20 summit in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in September. He also blamed low turnout on the poorly organized left wing in Italy, which has fared poorly since suffering major losses in Italy's snap parliamentary elections of 2008.

It was a different story the last time Italy hosted a G-8 summit. In Genoa eight years ago, around 300,000 anti-globalization protesters gathered to demonstrate both loudly, and at times violently, against the summit. The result: During heavy clashes with police, close to 500 people were injured and one G-8 opponent was killed. That seems to have been the high point for the anti-globalization movement, which formed during a 1999 conference of the World Trade Organization in Seattle.

At the time, the left-wing was united like never before. In Italy alone, 700 globalization-critical organizations formed an alliance -- providing motivation for other protesters from around the world to travel to Genoa.

Meanwhile though, items that traditionally languished on the left wing agenda have moved into the political mainstream. And that, argues Dieter Rucht, a political scientist at the Social Science Research Center Berlin, is just one of the many reasons why things are so quiet in L'Aquila. "More and more issues -- like climate protection, poverty and hunger in the developing world, especially in Africa -- have been pushed to the forefront at these kinds of meetings -- at least verbally. Even if they are only discussed and don't result in anything concrete, it is still taking some of the wind out of the protesters' sails."

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