Freedom Under Fire

HAS the world's dramatic explosion of democracy that began in 1989 run out of steam?

We cannot yet write off the trend that started with the freeing of Eastern Europe, the collapse of the Berlin wall, and the breakup of the Soviet Union. But there are some troubling signs.

Each year Freedom House, the respected New York-based human rights organization, monitors the course of freedom around the world. It recently reported bleakly on 1993. Ethnic violence and political repression made it the worst single-year setback for freedom since 1972. During the year, the number of people denied basic freedoms increased by 531 million.

The percentage of people living in free societies now stands at only 19 percent, the lowest level in almost 20 years. How can this be, when the clamor for freedom in recent years has been so strong?

According to Freedom House, the progress of freedom has been thwarted by increased ethnic, religious, economic, cultural, and historical tensions. Most of the decline in freedom is due to the disintegration of multiethnic states, often amid mounting economic difficulties, and growing Islamic fundamentalism.

Even as Freedom House was wrapping up its report, the Russian elections threw up a new would-be dictator, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who we must hope never sits in the Kremlin as Russia's leader. A swaggering, posturing fascist, spouting a crude stream of racism, he is dismissed by some as a buffoon who could not come to power. Some buffoon: He won almost a quarter of the popular vote, much of it from the military, far outpacing his nearest rival. If he should achieve power, Russia would be cast back into the dark ages, and its struggling efforts at reform would be dashed.

And in a country like Iran, serious human rights violations have spurred stinging rebukes in recent days from both Amnesty International and a United Nations panel. The reports condemn not only the gaoling, torture, and execution of political opponents, and religious and ethnic minorities inside Iran, but also the sharp increase in assassinations of Iranian opposition figures outside the country.

Freedom House's 20 worst offending countries are: Afghanistan, Angola, Bhutan, Burma, Burundi, China, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Haiti, Iraq, North Korea, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam.

Particularly unfortunate is the growth of a kind of network among the most repressive dictators. They trade military equipment, collaborate to foil sanctions imposed by the international community, and coordinate against human rights declarations. A few months ago, China led a coalition of Asian and other dictatorships, including Cuba and Syria, to dilute long-standing human rights standards at the UN's Vienna Human Rights Conference.

Some of these tyrants believe they can flout international law and the democratic community and get away with it. The examples of Bosnia, Somalia and Haiti would seem to prove them right.

The Freedom House report finds Western democracies turning inward. Foreign aid spending by the US, Japan, and West European states is under pressure. Germany is focusing more of its resources on reabsorbing eastern Germany. Third-world countries are increasingly neglected.

Meanwhile, the Clinton administration has sharply cut budgets for its democracy-promoting agencies such as the United States Information Agency, the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. The Czech government, which believes the broadcasts of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty are much needed in the newly emerging democracies of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, has offered a cost-cutting scheme that would relocate the radios to Prague from their present headquarters in Munich. The parent board of the radios, which met in Washington Monday, said it was ``pursuing deliberations to make the move to Prague, if possible,'' but came to no conclusion.

It is too early to declare the democracy movement around the world out of gas, but clearly it has faltered.

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