Fledgling Democracies Perishing at West's Peril
West must buttress civil rights in East with material aid
IN the ecstatic early months after the East bloc revolutions of 1989, even skeptics imagined that the events represented an ultimate triumph of human freedom. Politicians on both sides of the great divide declared that the transparency of the information age had rendered oppression almost obsolete.Skip to next paragraph
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Unfortunately, they may have spoken too soon. A recent report from Freedom House, a New York-based human rights organization, finds that after an initial upsurge of liberating revolutions, the tide has reversed itself and is receding at an alarming rate. Using a set of indices including free elections, freedom from intimidation, and undue governmental interference in the lives of citizens, the report divides the world's 160-plus nations into free, unfree, and partially free. In 1993 the number of countries judged unfree swelled by 17 to 55 - fully one-third of the world's nations. If the Freedom House report is to be believed, 500 million people have lost their liberty in the last 365 days alone, averaging an astonishing 1.3 million a day.
Some dispute particular designations. For example, Thailand, a corrupt but constitutional monarchy, is classified as ``unfree'' along with Albania, a Stalinist police state. But the larger trend seems undeniable. In Eastern Europe, those who witnessed experiments triggered by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika have seen hard-won political freedoms eroded by increasing inequality and insecurity. In Angola, free elections were held but then annulled by an angry Jonas Savimbi, who returned to the slaughter to gain on the battlefield what he couldn't in the voting booth.
Most troubling for the fate of free institutions elsewhere are the rapidly disintegrating reforms in Russia. Its size, history, and residual military power dictate a pivotal place in the planet's affairs, whatever its internal condition. For the past few years, Western leaders have taken for granted that Russia would remain a supine and defeated adversary, treating it alternately with neglect and contempt. A generation of gifted leaders in the East found itself mismatched with timid and uninspired leaders in the West.
Immersed in long-denied domestic difficulties and working with budgets constrained by recession, Western politicians have been loath to ask for public support for reconstruction overseas when so much needs rebuilding at home. Though a thoroughly legitimate stance, it fails to recognize that peace requires just as substantial an investment as war if it is to succeed; if it does not succeed, our own peace and freedom will be substantially diminished. Politicians have proven consummately capable of mustering support for campaigns to conquer other nations but seldom yet to reconstruct them.
The recent victory of ultranationalists and ex-communists in free elections in Russia, civil war in the Balkans, the murderous rise of organized crime and the presence of the old apparat in new regimes of the former Eastern bloc testify to the difficulty of sustaining freedom and reform when there is little native fertility and still less nourishment from abroad. Embittered by the failure of Western nations to deliver on repeated promises of massive material assistance, many Easterners are beginning to support those who offer iron-fisted security in place of personal freedom, and national pride amid the increasing degradation.