His 2005 book, "The Case For Democracy: The Power Of Freedom To Overcome Tyranny And Terror," is credited with having a major influence on U.S. foreign policy. Today he serves as chairman of the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies at the Shalem Center. RFE/RL correspondent Brian Whitmore spoke to him on the sidelines of today's conference.
RFE/RL: Conference participants have issued a ten-point "Prague Document" which urges Western governments to isolate regimes that suppress human rights. But many accuse the West of double standards and say Europe and the United States are doing the opposite in their relations with China, Saudi Arabia, and many other nondemocratic regimes, putting economic interest ahead of human rights. What is your reaction?
Natan Sharansky: This duality has existed practically all the time. It never stopped. The question is about the proportion: whether the main emphasis in your relations with [such] countries is made on demanding that they improve their human rights record and release dissidents or whether that is the last point in all your relations and the first point is, of course, how to have more profits. And that's what our struggle is about, how to make the question of human rights and the fate of dissidents the top of the agenda in international relations. We've definitely had some retreat in the last years. President Bush brought back the democratic agenda to the center of the world's attention and we now have to do everything so the other leaders of the free world will do the same.
RFE/RL: You say President Bush brought back the democratic agenda. But has America's credibility not been damaged abroad due to the Iraq crisis, the Abu Ghraib scandal, and Guantanamo?
Sharansky: It's not that in the free world you don't have violations of human rights. It's that in the free world, the most powerful people are not free from being checked, controlled, and pressed to correct violations of human rights. America is a leading democracy, which also has its problems, knows how to deal with these problems and it's built to deal with these problems. We're talking about countries where there are no problems of human rights because human rights don't exist at all.
RFE/RL: Is democracy always the answer? What happens when democratic elections bring to power governments that don't share our liberal values like Hamas? Do we have a right to ostracize them?
Sharansky: It's not democracy which brought Hamas to power. It's elections in a nondemocratic society. Elections are not equal to democracy. Free elections in a free society -- that's democracy. That's why instead of supporting the corrupt dictatorship of [former Palestinian Authority President] Yasser Arafat, the free world should have fought this corrupt dictatorship, to insist on building civil society in the Palestinian Authority. Here at the Prague conference we have at least three Palestinians who believe in civil society. If they had been the allies of the free world, then we wouldn't have had this awful, corrupt dictatorship of Yasser Arafat and then there would have been no coming of Hamas to power.
RFE/RL: Explicitly and implicitly, comparisons have been made between the former communist states of Eastern Europe and the ex-USSR and the attempts to democraticize the Middle East. Looking at both the successes and the failures in the former communist world, what lessons can they teach us about the possibilities for the Middle East?
Sharansky: I think that the main lesson is that you cannot impose freedom on anybody, but you can impose on them dictatorship by supporting dictators. And the policy of detente or appeasement of dictators by the free world was leaving no hope to the people of the former Soviet Union to live in freedom. And when this policy was stopped, the opportunity for developing democracy and for fighting for democracy became real.
I believe that with all the differences, the same is true for the Middle East. This policy of hundreds of years of appeasement of dictators -- believing that is the only option for the Middle East -- that was the policy of the free world.
Now...at least there are [the] first signs that the free world understands that supporting dictators in the long run is against your own interests.
RFE/RL: What does this mean in practice? Does this mean the West should distance itself from Saudi Arabia and from other states?
Sharansky: I think it is almost impossible to promote a democratic agenda and put Saudi Arabia as the chief promoter of it.
Definitely, of course, sometimes there can be mutual interests. Like, for example, today Saudi Arabia sees Iranian nuclear bomb as a big threat to itself, so it's natural partner of the West.
But the fact that Stalin was a natural partner for Churchill and Roosevelt to fight Hitler didn't mean that immediately after this he could be a partner for building democracy. That's something that has to be understood.
RFE/RL: Some say there has been a resurgence of Jewish life in Ukraine.... They say there is a distinctive Russian character to it.... Can you assess what you know of the resurgence of Jewish life in Ukraine, since you are from Ukraine originally?
Sharansky: Well, it's good to see that with all the ups and downs of democratic problems in the former Soviet Union, including Russia, there is a clear resurgence of Jewish life -- and the Jewish communities for the first time after many years can develop and build themselves. And that's especially true about Ukraine, where the general democratic situation is becoming better and where Jews have [the] freedom to build their communities.
It's true that the anti-Semitism [has] proved that it's rather strong. That new [forms of] anti-Semitism which [became] typical for Western Europe -- where the demonization of Israel is replacing very often the demonization of Jews -- is [starting] to come also to Ukraine.
But overall, the tendency is that Jews, [the] Jewish community, is becoming really free and Jewish schools are prospering and, in fact, Jewish businessmen are supporting and building the life of Jewish communities -- something that was not existing for 100 years.
RFE/RL: Why do you think the Russian language is dominant in this resurgence, and not the Ukrainian language?
Sharansky: Well look, the policy of assimilation was very strong in the times of the Soviet Union. [When I was a child growing up] in Ukraine, Donbass, it was practically fully Russified, so of course the most discriminated were Jews. But even we could not ignore the fact that Ukrainian culture was undermined.
So for most of the people it was clear that the main language which could give them equal opportunities for life was Russian. And definitely for Jews, who were moving from [one place to another], Russian was the only language of protecting themselves. So that's why.
I have to say at the same time I see now a number of Jews -- mainly from Western Ukraine -- who even in Jewish schools are speaking Ukrainian.
RFE/RL Russia Report
SUBSCRIBE For news and analysis on Russia by e-mail, subscribe to "RFE/RL Russia Report."