Assessing Ethiopia's Democratic Prospects

New leader wants to be judged by deeds, not leftist words

ETHIOPIA'S new leader is a short, wiry, soft-spoken guerrilla fighter who says he was once a Marxist but now wants to guide his country to its first democratic government. Some analysts believe his intentions. Some don't.

The man himself, 36 year-old Meles Zenawi, leader of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), says he wants to be judged by his deeds, not his history of leftist words.

Monitor interviews with experts who know him personally, or have studied his record, provide some clues on the direction Mr. Zenawi may lead Ethiopia.

Analysts relying primarily on Zenawi's words call him a Marxist, or at least a ``hard-line socialist,'' as one British writer describes him. Those who know his deeds in his home province of Tigre say Zenawi is more democratic than Marxist.

But mass demonstrations in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, on Wednesday and Thursday may provide a fresh clue at least on how Zenawi and his followers respond to challenges to their authority.

Defying EPRDF orders to stay inside their homes, thousands of Ethiopians poured into the streets in angry protest shortly after another rebel group, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), announced it intended to establish a provisional government in the northern province of Eritrea.

Many Ethiopians are pro-unity, and do not want Eritrea to break away. For 30 years, the EPLF has fought for the right to hold an internationally-supervised referendum on independence. The former dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam opposed such a referendum. Zenawi says he supports it.

Unity betrayed

Demonstrators see Zenawi - and the United States, which supported a quick entry of the EPRDF this week into the capital - as engaged in ``a sort of betrayal of Ethiopian unity,'' said an Ethiopian contacted in Addis Ababa yesterday.

EPRDF forces - a coalition of rebels organized by Zenawi's Tigre People's Liberation Front (TPLF) - fired on protesters, killing several and wounding others. Some demonstrators reportedly asked why, if the EPRDF believes in democracy, they would use force to stop civilian demonstrations?

EPRDF rebels are also reported to be searching for arms and arresting suspected soldiers. Zenawi said this week that anyone ``tainted'' by close connection with the previous regime would be detained, and tried in public court or granted amnesty.

Zenawi's rebels ``run a pretty tight ship'' concerning discipline and challenge to their authority, says the British writer, who asked not to be named. He says Zenawi set up the Marxist League of Tigre and won a power struggle in Tigre in the mid-1980s over others less committed to Marxism. Zenawi's rebels have not executed many opponents, but have jailed ``a couple of thousand.''

The EPRDF ``so far show very little political ability for compromise or coalition-building,'' says Christopher Clapham, a political scientist at the University of Lancaster in Britain. ``They want to set up puppet organizations rather than negotiate,'' he says of the EPRDF.

``A year ago I thought they [the EPRDF] were a bunch of Marxists, says a US official. ``Now I feel they've given a lot of thought to the transition and realize they can't rule the country by themselves.''

Assistant Secretary of State Herman Cohen goes even further. He says Zenawi is committed to democratic elections.

Mr. Cohen's assessment is ``realistic,'' says Paul Henze, a Rand Corporation expert on Ethiopia. Mr. Henze says that as they gradually took control of Tigre in recent years, the TPLF implemented free trade and abolished central-government controls over farming.

Henze met with Zenawi last year and describes him as ``a chain smoker, intense, easy to talk to, very modest.''

``I think the committment [of the EPRDF] to democracy is firm. No one with any sense would try to set up an authoritarian government today,'' Henze adds.

No precedent for democracy

Mr. Clapham, on the other hand, says ``the EPRDF has always been two-faced, with a hard-lined Marxist military side and a soft-spoken [public side].''

One of the few Westerners who speaks the Tigre language and has had many contacts with Zenawi over a nine-year period, is Gayle Smith, an American who worked for Tigre's relief agency, REST, during the 1985-6 drought.

Ms. Smith, who nows works with a private US development group, says that ``skepticism [about rebel intentions] is always healthy. There really isn't a precedent for democracy in the country.'' Many of Zenawi's leftist statements are part of ``a language that goes along with being a left-of-center guerrilla organization,'' she says.

The TPLF grew out of widespread poverty under years of feudalistic rule, says Smith. Zenawi denationalized housing in Tigre, insisted on paying farmers for surplus grain instead of seizing it for drought victims, and allowed considerable debate in locally-elected councils and elsewhere, including criticism of the TPLF.

The TPLF's land reform involved taking some land from better-off farmers to give to poorer ones, Smith says. Church officials in Tigre were obliged to farm or buy grain rather than get it free from local farmers, she adds. The large number of nonworking church holidays were reduced to allow more farming days.

Zenawi definitely wants the EPRDF to be a key player in Ethiopia's new government, Smith says, but he realizes only a broad-based coalition can govern Ethiopia's diverse ethnic population.

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