In Poland, Clinton pledges support for citizen action worldwide

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visits the Schindler Factory Museum in Krakow, Poland.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visits the Schindler Factory Museum in Krakow, Poland. (Drew Angerer/associated Press)
By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 4, 2010

KRAKOW, POLAND -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed alarm Saturday about what she called a growing crackdown on citizens groups around the world and announced a fund to help them fight back.

In what aides called her most important speech in a four-day swing through former Soviet-bloc countries, Clinton said the repression symbolized by the Iron Curtain had given way to government pressures that were often more subtle.

"We must be wary of the steel vise in which many governments around the world are slowly crushing civil society and the human spirit," Clinton told an international meeting of democracies.

In her speech, Clinton bluntly accused U.S. adversaries such as Cuba, North Korea and Iran of pressuring or outlawing civil-society groups. But she also chided Russia and China, with whom the Obama administration has sought to build closer ties.

Critics have accused the administration of abandoning President George W. Bush's emphasis on democracy. Administration officials deny that, saying they are redefining a democracy policy that had become discredited by such actions as the invasion of Iraq.

Clinton has emphasized that the Obama administration's approach goes beyond pressing for free elections to finding ways to build up democratic institutions and public interest groups that fight corruption and promote environmental causes, women's rights and other goals.

Speaking at the Slowacki Theater, a 19th-century confection of gilt and pink cherubs in downtown Krakow, Clinton held out Poland as a model of democratic and free-market transformation.

The country is scheduled to hold elections Sunday to replace President Lech Kaczynski, who died with his wife and 94 senior officials in a plane crash in April.

"It is a tribute to Poland's political evolution that in the aftermath of that accident, the country's institutions never faltered," Clinton said.

If Poland has been a democratic success story, though, many other former members of the Soviet bloc have not. Of the 12 non-Baltic former Soviet republics, eight are consolidated authoritarian regimes, according to a report released last month by Freedom House.

"Two decades after the collapse of communism, the rulers of these countries are again using brutal security forces, pliant courts and tightly controlled news media to systematically crush political dissent," according to the independent watchdog group.

Clinton traveled to one of them, Azerbaijan, on Saturday night and is also scheduled to visit Armenia, which, according to Freedom House, has a "semi-consolidated authoritarian system."

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