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Poland: World Conference To Consider Principles Of Democracy

Foreign ministers and senior officials from more than 100 democracies will meet in Warsaw next Monday and Tuesday (June 26-27) for an unprecedented conference devoted to the issue of democracy. If all goes according to plan, the ministers are expected to adopt a working declaration of democratic principles, which will serve as a type of charter. RFE/RL's Jeremy Bransten reports that a less formal but equally interesting gathering will be taking place at the same time in the Polish capital, on the sidelines of the ministerial conference.

Prague, 23 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- World thinkers and politicians will gather in Warsaw to discuss the nitty-gritty of what makes democracy work and how it can be encouraged in various parts of the world. The gathering, called the World Forum on Democracy, is sponsored by the U.S.-based Freedom House think-tank and George Soros's Stefan Batory Foundation.

The guiding philosophy behind this meeting is that a dynamic civil society and private sector are essential components to maintaining democracy.

The three-day forum will start on Sunday, a day ahead of the ministerial meeting, and will be organized around a series of panel discussions. Interestingly, the forum will include non-governmental representatives from several states whose ministers have not been invited to the formal conference. Among those participating will be democracy advocates and academics from China and Iran. Both states were judged too undemocratic to be included in the ministerial meeting -- Iran, say organizers, at U.S. insistence.

Forum participants will address topics such as how to measure democracy and which factors play the most important roles. For example, does democracy boil down to holding fair elections, or does it also involve a more complex mechanism of balance of power between the government and those it governs? Participants will also look at how to manage a multiethnic state as a democracy, the role that local culture or religion plays in adapting democratic norms, and how to deal with such crippling phenomena as corruption.

The forum will include participants from a range of cultures, whose countries are at different stages in their democratic development, in an attempt to distill practical experience. The contribution that NGOs and private citizens can make to strengthening democracy will be particularly emphasized.

Both the forum and the ministerial conference assume that democracy is the most desirable form of government for any nation, regardless of its culture. This is not a universally shared idea. Plus, many countries disagree on the exact meaning of democracy.

So vigorous debate can be expected at the forum. For example: Is a country that is democratic but poor better off than one whose citizens are socially secure but unfree to express their opinions?

The decision to hold the forum and conference in Poland -- a country which has undergone tremendous changes over the past decade in its transition from totalitarianism to democracy -- is especially fitting. Poland's Solidarity opposition movement helped launch the collapse of communism, eventually bringing many of its founders into government. But like all post-communist states, Poland continues to experience social upheaval in its drive to modernize, and its leaders must often make difficult choices on where to allocate slim finances. While surveys say the majority of Poles welcome the changes, a significant minority note that democracy has come at the price of increasing poverty and uncertainty for them.

Polish Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek, the conference and forum host, faces uncertainty of his own after both events conclude next week. Due to a coalition crisis in the Polish government, he will likely step down and leave the government, to make room for a new administration. Perhaps there is no better example of democracy at work.