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    Battle Won, Eritrean Leader Dons a Tie and Talks Democracy

    By Jennifer Parmelee
    Special to The Washington Post
    Saturday, August 17, 1991; Page A16

    ASMERA, ETHIOPIA -- Wearing a tailored suit and striped tie, Issaias Afwerki slipped easily into the ranks of businessmen and experts gathered here recently to debate how to revive the economy of Eritrea, a strategically placed Red Sea region ravaged by chronic famine and three decades of war for independence.

    There was no sign of the gun he carried through 25 years as a guerrilla fighter, the last 15 as leader of the dominant rebel force that ousted Ethiopian troops from the province in May. He arrived through a back entrance, without bodyguards or fanfare. The plastic name tag on his lapel was an incongruous touch in this partisan provincial capital, where he and his fighters are hometown heroes.

    No voices have been raised in this capital of Eritrea to challenge the provisional government established by Issaias's Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) or its goal of independence from Ethiopia -- to be decided in a U.N.-supervised referendum in Eritrea in two years. In light of the strong public sentiment in favor of independence, the referendum's outcome is all but a foregone conclusion.

    Issaias said he would like to see a variety of political groups emerge.

    "The EPLF . . . is a nationalist front embracing all sectors of societies and many currents of thought," he said. "It would be a mistake to turn this broad front into a political grouping, which would inevitably mean a one-party state in Eritrea. Who would compete against us? We are simply serving as caretakers during the transition."

    In an interview, the 46-year-old EPLF general secretary laid out his ideas for multi-party elections after the referendum, and the formation of a constituent assembly and independent judiciary.

    Issaias champions an economy free from government meddling, calling it the only route to effective reconstruction. He proposed "checks and balances" on central authority -- including himself.

    Issaias's top priority is rebuilding Eritrea, once Ethiopia's industrial heartland, with all available resources. He said the EPLF's tradition of "self-reliance," indispensable in winning the war, was "unrealistic and isolating" in economic terms.

    Issaias said the EPLF had discarded the idea of nationalizing most industry, a concept enshrined in the front's 1987 program. "We've been convinced . . . that it is impossible for the government to own or control the productive sector," he said.

    Such thinking contrasts with policies of the Ethiopian People's Revolution Democratic Front, now guiding the transitional Ethiopian government in Addis Ababa. While endorsing free movement of capital, the Democratic front envisions a strong state role in industry and opposes private land ownership.

    In public and private appearances here, Issaias has seemed to confound the image often drawn by Western analysts of a brilliant but autocratic military leader who still harbors the Marxist ideals he embraced in his youth.

    Many Western relief officials say they still find him a difficult negotiating partner, stubbornly holding out for details in agreements that would tacitly acknowledge Eritrea's distinct status from the interim Ethiopian government installed in Addis Ababa 2 1/2 months ago.

    That government was established by the Democratic front, a coalition group dominated by former guerrillas from northern Tigray province, after its rebels marched into the capital in May. The transitional government, led by Meles Zenawi, has accepted Eritrea's wish for independence, although Zenawi reportedly would prefer that Eritrea remain a part of Ethiopia, which would become landlocked without the province.

    Issaias "pays no attention to diplomatic niceties that could smooth things along and help get his people fed faster," observed one aid official, requesting anonymity. "We feel he is still fighting a war."

    His own aides acknowledge that Issaias is sensitive to any hint of condescension from donors and wants relief on Eritrean terms. "We are begging for food for our people, but we should not be treated like beggars," one EPLF official said.

    Eritrean attitudes toward outsiders appear to be relaxing, however. EPLF officials had expressed anger that the United Nations Children's Fund, following general U.N. policy, refused to deal with the front directly during the civil war. But past grudges were buried when UNICEF agreed to ship $500,000 in medicine and medical equipment to Eritrea.

    One subject that has generated controversy is the deportation from the province of 82,396 former government soldiers and security personnel, as well as 43,527 civilians, according to EPLF figures. The front says most civilians were family members of former Ethiopian army and security employees. Thousands of non-Eritrean civil servants also were removed from their jobs, although the EPLF insists that they could remain in Eritrea if they other "productive work."

    Issaias denied that the former bureaucrats were deported, although some refugees in Ethiopian camps say they were. Other non-Eritreans who were allowed to keep their jobs told reporters that they were leaving anyway because Eritrean neighbors made them feel unwelcome.

    EPLF officials explain these moves in the context of redressing the well-documented policy of the government of then-President Mengistu Haile Mariam to alter Eritrea's demographic balance by sending masses of non-Eritreans to live and work in this region. The front officials also said they could not afford to keep feeding tens of thousands of prisoners of war in a region where more than 80 percent of the about 3.5 million inhabitants receive food aid.

    "Eritreans were second-class citizens in their own country. It was not of our own making, and now these men are out of a job," Issaias said. "Our policy was restrained. We have not been stopping people on the street and asking for passports. . . . We will not be vindictive."

    He conceded that many Eritreans are bitter toward Ethiopians, but said that would not color the "positive" relationship between his EPLF and Ethiopia's transitional government. He said Eritrea's future foreign policy would be strongly oriented toward its Horn of Africa neighbors: "Ethiopia is the first on our list, whether politicians here like it or not . . . because of geographical and cultural ties, mutual security and economic interests."

    The Associated Press reported from Addis Ababa:

    Ethiopia's transitional government says it will permit mass demonstrations, banned for more than half a century, as long as they don't infringe on the rights of others. Ethiopian television said any public gathering will be forbidden whose main purpose is to agitate against any ethnic group, community or nationality, religion, sex or race.


    © Copyright 1991 The Washington Post Company

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