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Mapping a New Strategy
Democracy in Former Soviet Areas Needs a Friend

By Ludmila Alexeeva and Gregory Shvedov
Monday, March 30, 2009

Since the end of Soviet Union, an ill-formed foreign policy apparatus has limited the United States' successes in promoting democracy and helping to create civil societies in the former Soviet states. This lack of success has led some to suggest that the United States should stop trying. But those of us on the front lines of this struggle have one message for our American friends: Don't give up.

The 2008 war in Georgia can be seen as a product of the failure to make human rights and democracy the central elements of U.S. policy -- not just in Russia but in Georgia, as well. And this conflict, in turn, has made both countries less democratic and free than they were when it began. In Russia's case, this was not a change in direction. But Georgia's fast retreat from democracy since the riots of November 2007 was an abrupt about-face that generated almost no U.S. reaction. This silence legitimated Georgian authorities for actions that led to the start of the war.

This is the troubling backdrop as President Obama prepares to meet with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Wednesday in advance of the Group of 20 summit in London. Across the former Soviet countries in the recent past, the United States has failed to respond forcefully as the right to dissent and democratic protest has lost ground. There are many examples of this: A year ago in Armenia, 10 people were killed and hundreds hurt during peaceful protests, and the only trial held in the aftermath has been of members of the opposition. At the start of this year, Radio Liberty and Voice of America were thrown out of Azerbaijan, while Russia cut by 90 percent the number of foundations and other donor groups allowed to make grants to nongovernmental organizations, severely curtailing the funding these groups need to operate. On Jan. 19, human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and young journalist Anastasia Baburova were shot on the streets of Moscow; no one has been charged in their murders, just as those responsible for the 2006 assassination of journalist Anna Politkovskaya remain at large.

What can the Obama administration do now to counter this backsliding? We don't have all the answers, but we suggest the following five-point program:

-- First, don't spend all your time working with government officials. Governments in non-free countries tend to monopolize the relationships between states. Deal instead with the leaders of civil society, no matter how weak they may be. New, real dialogues should be formed through annual forums or conferences of independent civil society groups of the United States and Russia. If we are to have a democratic and, hence, peaceful future, these are the leaders who will take us there. Those in power represent the past.

-- Second, focus assistance on the institutions of civil society, working with governments when possible but bypassing them when necessary. This is especially important in the regions facing the gravest crises, such as the Northern Caucasus and South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Don't use the cowardly label "frozen conflicts regions" to avoid working in these difficult places.

-- Third, recognize the importance of the media and make sure that your commitment to the free flow of ideas never falters. Continue to support international broadcasting via Radio Liberty and Voice of America and step in to help independent media, especially Internet outlets. To thrive in these countries, these new media need support, professional development and special security programs for journalists.

-- Fourth, consider forming a single agency to direct democracy and human rights activities, and find new, effective leaders to run it. Now, too many cooks are spoiling the soup; we could accomplish more with less if there were one reliable forum for us to work together. The National Endowment for Democracy, which has helped our organization and other nongovernmental entities in Russia, is the model to follow.

-- And fifth, don't get discouraged when we don't meet our shared goals overnight. Instead, focus on developing long-term social marketing strategies aimed at fostering change in the consciousness, values and social norms of ordinary people. Real change will arise from the people, and so the people should be empowered. Democracy is never built in a day.

Underlying these points, however, is our most important message: Our struggling democratic movements need friends. Throughout the Cold War, we viewed the United States as our best friend. But in recent years we have lost the sense that the United States views us the same way.

Now, President Obama, you have the chance to restore that friendship, extending the healing process that you began in your own country to ours.

With your help, we can build the kind of open, democratic and law-based societies that you have spoken so eloquently about.

We still believe in a fundamental principle: that people are the source of political power. People who want to experience their rights can't be left to illegitimate political leadership. Will the new administration of the United States be silent on the attempt to shut up independent voices?

Ludmila Alexeeva is chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group. Gregory Shvedov is editor in chief of the Web media Caucasian Knot.

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