The (democratic) ties that bind

A lesson from events in Serbia and Zimbabwe is that democratic freedoms matter.

Two countries. Two starkly different events. But one thread ties together this week's arrest in Serbia of war-crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic and, in desperate Zimbabwe, a welcome agreement to start political power-sharing talks. That connection is the fiber of democratic freedoms.

For 13 years, Mr. Karadzic had been in hiding as the world's most wanted war-crimes fugitive. The former Bosnian Serb president and accused architect of ethnic cleansing during the Bosnian war found cover under Serbia's nationalist government.

But the nationalist crowd was recently turned out in elections, and a new pro-Western government took over last month. The chief of secret police, who has the job of arresting war-crime suspects, was replaced, and Mr. Karadzic's arrest followed in short order.

The man who eluded NATO capture for years, and who was allegedly behind the 1995 massacre of 8,000 Muslims in Srebrenica, has finally been nabbed by the Serbs themselves. That testifies to the power of free and fair elections, and to the pull of benefits that will come if Serbia joins the European Union. The EU has made Serb membership in its democratic and economic club contingent on the arrest of Karadzic and former Bosnian Serb military chief Ratko Mladic, who is still at large.

A continent away, representatives of Zimbabwe's polarized parties began talks July 22 on a power-sharing deal. The need is urgent. A country that used to be a prosperous anchor in southern Africa has been leaching millions of refugees into bordering nations as Zimbabweans flee hunger, violence, and a defunct economy.

This week, in an effort to catch up with the official inflation rate of 2.2 million percent, Zimbabwe issued a new Z$100 billion note – enough to buy two loaves of bread, if you can even find bread. A disastrous land redistribution policy under Robert Mugabe, the country's dictator, has produced widespread hunger. The UN warns that up to 5 million Zimbabweans will need food assistance in coming months.

Mr. Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party were decisively rejected in elections in March, but his winning opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai, of the opposition MDC, did not gain enough votes to avoid a runoff election. In the weeks that ensued, Mugabe and his thugs crushed MDC followers in a wave of violence, forcing Mr. Tsvangirai to drop out. Mugabe claimed victory anyway, and a cry of objection went up around the world.

But Mugabe paid no mind until now. That he has agreed to these talks at all is largely due to pressure from other African nations, and that's where the strength of the democratic thread comes in.

Yes, the violence and instability have moved several African leaders to break ranks with Zimbabwe's liberator from white colonial rule.

Since 1990, though, political rights and civil liberties have been slowly increasing in sub-Saharan Africa, according to Freedom House, a group that tracks democratic trends around the world.

This has spawned African leaders with an appreciation for the rule of law and will of the people. Persistent pressure from African countries, including their democratic leaders, may well be the single most important factor in a successful outcome to the talks.

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