Democracy's Foot Soldiers

WHAT a great way to mark V-E Day plus 50! More than 300 pro-democracy organizers coming together in Washington from around the world.

There were moments of profound human power in this gathering. Gordana Logar, the managing editor of Serbia's beleaguered daily, Nasa Borba, introduced her remarks by asking listeners to remember victims of war in Bosnia and Croatia. A former political prisoner from Azerbaijan underlined that the US State Department's annual report on human rights actually saves people's lives.

This was the Fifth World Conference of the US National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a remarkable forum where women and men from the front lines of the fight to build democracy gather to pool experiences, to receive inspiration from one another, and to gird themselves for the challenges ahead.

There is much more work to do, as numerous speakers emphasized. And this work needs real, and really smart, support from those of us already blessed by democracy.

Real support for global democracy would not shy away from the biggest challenges just because they happen to be tough:

* The rights and aspirations of the Chinese Empire's 1.2 billion people are daily, massively repressed by the authoritarian gerontocrats of Beijing. But the Clinton administration treats China only as a lucrative market, quashing the democratic agenda in the interests of a supposed economic ''quick fix.''

Chinese and Tibetan democrats at the conference stressed that this has harmed rather than helped the growth of democracy in China. They argued that the ''constructive engagement'' the US ought to pursue toward Beijing should be far more constructive for the democrats than current efforts, and far less engaged in cozying up to the regime.

* The eventual triumph of democracy in Russia will be an imperative for global security in the 21st century. But, Russian democrats at the conference stressed, it will be a very long haul.

Sergei Kovalyov spoke truth to, and about, power when he served as President Boris Yeltsin's human rights commissioner. His reaction to Mr. Yeltsin's statements about the slaughter in Chechnya was simply, ''It's impossible to deal with a country whose leader lies.'' His compatriot, Ludmilla Alexeeva, warned that if authoritarianism succeeds in Chechnya, it will overcome all of Russia.

Did President Clinton listen to the advice of sages such as these before he decided to spend V-E Day with Yeltsin?

American support for worldwide democracy needs to be much stronger -- and much smarter.

It was inspiring to hear the seriousness of the NED conference discussions and to see that conferees felt able to express respectful but deep-felt criticisms of official American policy. That kind of openness has to be valued and encouraged.

But Americans need to place value, too, on the contributions that other countries' traditions are making to the global struggle for democracy. If the conference had one fault, it lay in a design that featured only US politicians (presumably role models?) alongside representatives of new or nascent democracies.

But this one shortcoming aside, the conference showed that the NED is a true national asset that enjoys bipartisan support. It costs us just $35 million a year. Compare this with the the $270 billion we're still paying into the yearly defense budget.

Congress should increase its funding for NED considerably. The administration should use the wisdom and commitment that this effort has rallied to strengthen its own role in world affairs.

And then, maybe around 2010 or so, we could have ourselves another celebration: VGD Day -- the Victory for Global Democracy. Let's aim realistically high.

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