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(Un)Civil Societies: July 3, 2007


RFE/RL has released a book-length study entitled "Iraqi Insurgent Media: The War Of Images And Ideas." The study documents the media efforts of the Iraqi insurgency and how global jihadists are using those efforts to spread their destructive message. You can download the complete report here:

Muslim Liberals Steer Course Between Autocrats And Theocrats

Saad Eddin Ibrahim at an RFE/RL panel discussion on June 13

PRAGUE, June 18, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Saad Eddin Ibrahim is one of Egypt's most vocal advocates for democracy and has served time in prison for his efforts. Convicted in 2000 of accepting foreign funds without official permission, he was freed after three years when Egypt's highest appeal court declared his trials improper and cleared his name. Now, as founder and chairman of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies and professor of political sociology at American University in Cairo, he continues to speak out on the problems of reforming autocratic societies. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel spoke with Ibrahim after he took part in a June 13 panel discussion at RFE/RL in Prague.

RFE/RL: You have said that in many nondemocratic Muslim countries, would-be democrats find themselves squeezed between autocrats and theocrats. To help us understand this image more fully, would you describe these three camps and their origins?

Saad Eddin Ibrahim: Well, first of all, the autocrats have been in power [in the Middle East] for nearly 60 years. Shortly after the Second World War, when the first wave of independence did not fulfill its promises, then we had a series of coup d'etats and one party systems prevailing in many of the Muslim-majority countries, including the Arab countries.

All right, they made a lot of promises. They said, "We'll give you social justice; we'll liberate Palestine for you; we will achieve Arab unity; we will assert our authenticity, but just forget about democracy and human rights for a while, until we fulfill all the above." Many people actually believed them, and many people said "yes." However, very soon, not very soon, 10, 15, 20 years later, was the defeat in the Arab world [in the 1967 Six-Day War] of three Arab armies from countries that had made that kind of deal and these kind of promises [Egypt, Syria, and Jordan], and people began to question the social contract -- the populist or autocratic social contract -- that was offered to them. And they began to make noise about democracy.

"So here I was, a liberal democrat, ending up in prison with the Muslim Brothers, with the Jihadists. So in prison a bond is created between all the victims of the autocrats. And to that extent there is some common ground."

So the autocrats began to administer oppressive measures against those who were asking for freedom and for revising the social contract. This is the [Egyptian President Gamal Abdel] Nasser era, or the [Syrian President Hafez] al-Assad era, or the [Libyan President Muammar] Qaddafi era, and so on. [The reformers] did not get very far in this challenge because they did not have the machinery of the state or they could not contest the repressive institutions of the state.

However, some other constituency rose up against the autocrats -- and that is the theocrats. And they, in essence, are a mirror image, because they do not believe in liberal freedoms or in democracy the way democrats do. However, they had a constituency. All of those who had misgivings with the autocrats, all of those who feel, who felt, a little deprivation, began to listen to this autocratic message, varying degrees, varying shades of it. And because they have monopoly over mosques everywhere, they could not be repressed as much as democrats have been repressed.

So what you have, you have a scene now -- especially in the Arab countries -- in which these populist autocratic regimes have repressed the liberals, the democrats, and have not been able fully to overcome or to silence the theocrats. So what you have now is a three-way conflict between these three diverse groups.

RFE/RL: What chances do democrats have to change this situation, to make their drive for reforms felt despite their difficult current position?

Ibrahim: We feel as democrats, speaking for the democrats, that if we have access to free media, if we have access to free organization, we can definitely have a majority in any open contest. Why do I say that? Is this wishful thinking? No. It is based on concrete empirical observation.

And again I'll take Egypt as an example. Now our last parliamentary elections, only 23 percent of the eligible, registered voters turned out. Seventy-seven percent stayed home. These are registered, and they're fairly well educated, either literate or primary school or secondary school or college education. They are not illiterate; they are not the poorest of the poor.

Why did they stay home? Because they did not like the alternative. They did not like to vote for the autocratic regime of [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak, which is perceived by so many as most corrupt and inept. Nor did they want to take risks in voting for the theocrats represented by the Muslim parties. So they stayed home. The phenomena that we know in political sociology as cross-pressure: you don't like either alternative so you stay home. You abstain.

We are hoping that through exerting pressure on the autocrats by Western powers that have been supporting them for the last several decades, that they will open the public space. They will allow us the kind of access that enables us to stem the flow of the theocrats but also to share power gradually with the autocrats. And here we have been calling on the West, on Western democracies, to adopt the same Helsinki formula that from 1975 until 1985, during 10 years created wonderful things in Europe. [We would like to] have the West, the so-called community of democracies, use the same formula that proved so successful in Europe -- brought down the Soviet Union and the other Eastern and Central European authoritarian and totalitarian regimes down without a bullet, without a war.

And that's what we're calling for. Instead of going on the Iraq model, which has now has more or less given democracy and democracy promotion a la Western-style a bad name. No. Use from your own repertoire, from your own experience, the model that worked, succeeded, and is peaceful. And it engaged or entailed power sharing, not revolutions, not overthrowing, not violence.

RFE/RL: What is the relationship between democrats and theocrats, for example, in Egypt? Is there room for cooperation?

Ibrahim: Well we both, the democrats and the theocrats for the time being, they both detest the autocrats. Because varying times in varying degrees both the democrats and theocrats suffered and are suffering at the hands of the autocrats. I met many of them in prison, for example. So here I was, a liberal democrat, ending up in prison with the Muslim Brothers [i.e., members of the Muslim Brotherhood], with the Jihadists [members of Islamic Jihad]. So in prison a bond is created between all the victims of the autocrats. And to that extent there is some common ground. And it is that common ground that they have used or tried to use to draw them into the democratic fold. And I must say that if prison had any positive aspect to it at all in my case, it was my ability to at least sway some of these hard-line Islamists to come into the democratic process. And now they are competing for power.

During our stay in prison, they revised their thoughts. They issued three volumes revising their older ideas and practices, self criticism, and they were shaken up by [the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001] because they thought the youngsters who committed 9/11 are doing a disservice to Islam.

Now that's a long way from where these guys were 30 years earlier when I studied them. Some of them were still in prison, after 25 years or 30 years, and they felt very angry at the youngsters. However, they felt also partly responsible. "How come?" I asked. It's a dialogue, in prison you have all the time in the world to dialogue with everybody. So I asked them: "How come you feel guilty about that? How come you feel partly responsible for that?" They said: "You know, these youngsters, even though they are unknown to us, may have taken us as role models. May have emulated us. After all, we killed [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat [on October 6, 1981]; we killed prime ministers; we killed a lot of people; we used violence; we exploded things; we bombed things; and they seemed to be going in that same track. And insofar as they may have tried to emulate us, to copy us, we feel partly responsible."

Supporters of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood demonstrate in Cairo in February (epa)

I wasn't sure. This is too good to be true, that they may feel this way. However, when I could ascertain they really mean that, I said: "Why don't you write that up?" So they wrote a fourth volume about 9/11, in prison, critiquing the youngsters who did 9/11, and showing how awful it was, and how much of a disservice it is to Muslims and to Islam. And, of course, at the time they had not even anticipated the war on terror that [U.S. President] George [W.] Bush would declare. But they thought that this is a calamity or a disaster for the Muslim world.

So we have four volumes of revision that these Islamists of varying shades have issued, and to even confirm the way that they have changed, whenever they had an opportunity to compete now for public office, they do so. As testified by what they did in Palestine. Hamas, after many years of shunning and dismissing democracy as a Western ploy and heretical, they came around and endorsed it and started competing and took it very seriously. Same thing with the Muslim Brothers, the Jihadists, and all of the people that I had teamed with in prison so to speak.

RFE/RL: Do you feel Islamist groups can be interested in power sharing?

Ibrahim: Yes, they are. Not all of them, but at least an increasing number of them. There are some who are still very doubtful of what democracy is and see it as a Western ploy. But the leaders and the bulk of the people that I dialogued with in prison, if you come to Egypt you'll meet some of them. Some of them now have been freed, and they are regular visitors to our center, and we engage them in our research, in election monitoring, for example, they participated. There is that kind of willingness for them to explore new things and to get engaged in research and monitoring and debates.

And that is where I made last week and I am making the point again to "The Independent" this morning is that the West should encourage that instead of being afraid of it. And I think if we encourage them to get involved in the mainstream, it will be the great service to democracy. Because they will legitimize democracy. They are known at least to a big bulk of the population, as many as probably 25 to 30 percent, as authentic Muslims. So their Islamic credentials are not in doubt. If they endorse democracy, that will give democracy the kind of popular legitimacy that may still be lacking in some quarters.

RFE/RL: There is much talk about Islamic democracy -- a term that is not very well defined in the public discourse, and so, not very well understood. But are we talking here about Islamists becoming Islamic democrats?

Ibrahim: Muslim democrats -- I don't like to use Islamic. I like to use Muslim, because that humanizes it, and they like that as well, and I have used that analogy in prison, and I said initially, "why don't you become like the Christian Democrats in Europe?" And they were a bit -- they took it to heart, but they did not really make up their minds until they saw the Justice and Development party in both Turkey and a month later --interesting, 2002, I'm talking now about the fall of 2002, I'm coming toward the end of my three-year prison sentence, and here we have, for my good fortune the election in Turkey and one month later in Morocco -- and the two elections kind of confirmed my thesis that here are fellow Islamists like you guys here in prison, and they have made that evolution and that transition from shunning and dismissing democracy to endorsing it and using it to get their message across and to get their platform an opportunity to be implemented. And look where they are.

And that helped my argument, and in fact I think the ones who had been dialoguing with me in prison by that time, especially after these two events in Turkey and Morocco, they became -- because after all I was a secularist, so my messages there was always a question mark -- but when these two events happened in Turkey and Morocco, they began to realize there is more to it than just a secularist trying to persuade Islamists to change course.

Kazakhstan: Ethnic Minorities Guaranteed Seats In Parliament

By Bruce Pannier

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev (file photo)

June 27, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Kazakhstan will have parliamentary elections in August, and some of the seats to be filled have been slotted for ethnic minorities in the Assembly of People of Kazakhstan, a little-known body that will send 17 of its members to parliament in August elections.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev accepted a motion on June 19 to dissolve the Mazhilis, or lower house of parliament, and called for new elections to be held on August 18.

"The early elections for deputies for the Mazhilis of Kazakhstan, elected from the Assembly of People of Kazakhstan, is set for August 20, 2007," he said.

"We are all citizens of Kazakhstan and, according to the constitution, we have the right to be elected and to elect."

What Is The Assembly?

The Assembly of People of Kazakhstan was created in March 1995. According to the body's website, it has 350 members who represent the some 100 ethnic groups in Kazakhstan. Its chairman is Nazarbaev.

It will be the first time there will be an election involving the assembly members, who were appointed to their seats.

In August, assembly members will elect other members of the assembly to the nine of the 107 seats in the Mazhilis (lower house) and eight seats in the Senate (upper house).

Zhumatai Aliev, the deputy chairman of the assembly, said he approves of the idea to elect ethnic minority leaders to parliament.

"Representatives of ethnic groups who are in the assembly will speak up for the interests of our government, of our people," he said. "They consider Kazakhstan their homeland and this is their homeland. They will speak up for reforms; they and the chairman of the assembly who is the president of our country."

Giving Minorities Seats

Anatoly Chesnokov is the first deputy chairman of the Association of Russians, Slavs, and Cossacks. He talked to RFE/RL about the assembly.

"The small ethnic groups very rarely have the sufficient means to show off their knowledge," he said. "In a lot of parliaments in many countries, for example Romania, where there are more than 100 nationalities, practically all the groups are represented."

But others are concerned that with more than 100 nationalities present in Kazakhstan, only some of the ethnic groups will fill the 17 seats in parliament and will represent their nationalities there.

Gerold Belger is an ethnic German who translates works into Kazakh. In a conversation with RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, he pointed out some of the problems with the plan to put assembly representatives in the parliament.

"If every nationality would have its own representative in the legislature then the Kazakhs, who are the titular nation, would not have any place," he said. "That means one needs to think here. If we take only representatives from the larger minorities, say the Russians, Koreans, Tatars, and Germans, other groups will be dissatisfied. So I don't see a solution to this problem."

Elected By A Small Group

Kakharman Kozhamberdiev is an activist in Kazakhstan's Uyghur community. He told RFE/RL he is troubled by details that have not been made clear yet.

"Our government is unitary," Kozhamberdiev said. "The president, obviously, wants representation from this institute that has existed for 12 years. But, in fact, the members of the assembly themselves are not elected, no one elected them. For example, I don't know how these people got there [in the assembly]. Therefore it is necessary to work out a mechanism so that [all of] the members of the assembly will be elected. They need to elect people to the assembly so that qualified people are picked for the [assembly's] quota in parliament."

Malikshah Gasanov is the first vice president of the Kurdish Association of Kazakhstan. He said his group already suffers from being undercounted by authorities.

"I think that it's about time this question was addressed, because if people are elected on a general basis (direct elections by the people) then representatives of the smaller minorities would never be elected to parliament," he said. "But let's understand this correctly. Let's say a Turkish representative wasn't elected in previous elections, he didn't get enough votes. That is a different issue. There are nine seats [in the lower house] given to [the Assembly of People of Kazakhstan]. These nine places will undoubtedly be given to the larger [ethnic] groups in Kazakhstan."

Undercounted And Underrepresented?

Gasanov added that officially there are some 46,000 Kurds in Kazakhstan, but in reality he claims there are more than twice that number. Gasanov said many Kurds deported from Georgia toward the end of World War II were registered in Kazakhstan as Turks and Azerbaijanis.

And Ult Tagdyry (National-Patriotic Movement) leader Dos Koshim said that according to Kazakhstan's Constitution, "there should be no distinctions based on nationality, religion, or race." He said another violation of the constitution is that "according to the elections law we all have an equal opportunity to be elected and there should be equal rights."

Koshim said this right also is being violated since "only representatives of the assembly pick the delegates from the assembly, and not the 9 million registered voters of Kazakhstan."

The head of the Azerbaijani Cultural Center is Asyla Osmanova. She said she did not agree with the representatives from the assembly being elected to the parliament only by the members of the assembly. "We are all citizens of Kazakhstan and, according to the constitution, we have the right to be elected and to elect."

Osmanova also asked: "Tomorrow, will the candidate serve society or his or her own diaspora?"

While the idea of ensuring national minorities have a place in government seems sensible, it does run somewhat counter to the idea of equality for all people that the Kazakh leadership has stressed for so many years.

(Yerzhan Karabekov of the Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)

Afghan Child Laborers Miss School, Face Spiral Of Poverty

By Ron Synovitz

An Afghan child on the streets of Kabul

June 11, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Hasib is a 12-year-old Afghan boy who spends his days working at a bicycle repair shop in Kabul. He says he considers himself lucky because he is learning a trade that he will have for life. But since he started the job at the age of nine, he has had to quit school. And he does not know how to read or write.

I'm fixing this bicycle, so I've just unscrewed these handlebars," Hasib tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan. "I've been working here for the past three years. I had to learn how to do this work. My hands would get hurt very badly at first, until I learned how to do it. I got burned until I learned how. I had to work a lot to learn and become someone."

Like many Afghan children who must work to help their families survive, Hasib says he hopes he will be able to go to school in the future.

Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission warns that the prevalence of child labor is creating a generation of illiterate Afghans.

Opportunity Cost

The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) says economic difficulties in Afghanistan force one in three school-age children to work in order to help their families survive. As a result, many are missing out on a basic education.

School enrollments are up dramatically in Afghanistan since the fundamentalist Taliban regime was ousted in late 2001, but Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission warns that the prevalence of child labor is creating a generation of illiterate Afghans and that many will be trapped in a spiral of poverty.

Roshan Khadivi, a spokeswoman for UNICEF in Afghanistan, tells RFE/RL that Hasib's story is not unusual. She says many Afghan children are being caught in an inescapable spiral of poverty because they are missing out on an education. Khadivi says the issue of child labor in Afghanistan is a complicated one that cannot be separated from the country's economic and security challenges.

"Afghanistan has one of the highest proportions of school-age children -- age seven to 12 -- in the world," Khadivi says. "So despite successes, you obviously have a lot of remote areas in Afghanistan where children do not have access to school. A lot of them have to work to support their families. Also, a lot of these children who go to school face another challenge of staying in school. Because of the economic hardships facing them and their families, some of them are forced to drop out."

Back To School

UNICEF is trying to help impoverished Afghan children get an education. Khadivi says that for children who are forced by poverty to become laborers, the first step is simply to get into a school where they can learn to read and write.

"We are still dealing with a large number of children who are not going to school," Khadivi says. "A lot of them do not have any sort of skills. Some of them obviously were involved in the conflict; they were child soldiers. And now we are trying to reintegrate them. So the problem is huge. But steps are being taken forward. Some of these kids who are former child soldiers are being reintegrated into society through learning how to read and write, through classes where they are learning to do some carpentry work, or also learning other skills. So their drive is there. But the security [conditions] -- and also the economic hardships -- make it difficult for all families to really be involved."

Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission agrees. It calls the situation for child laborers in Afghanistan a grave concern.

The commission says a large number of Afghan children are subjected to the worst forms of labor -- and that the high number of children employed in vehicle repairs and metal workshops represents Afghanistan's harsh reality.

Future Risk

The commission says Afghanistan's next generation is seriously threatened by the trend, which is manifesting itself through an increasing number of street children, groups of children used by adults for begging, and an "inconceivable" number of children exploited in activities ranging from carpet-weaving to the narcotics trade.

A boy in Kabul sells balloons instead of going to school (AFP file photo)

"Thirteen-year-old Wahidullah says the hours he spends making teapots and water containers at a metal shop in Kabul only leave him time for a few hours of school each day.

"I am working in this metal shop," Wahidullah says. "I get a monthly wage of 1,000 afghanis [about $20]. I come to the shop early in the morning and work here until 9:00 a.m., then I go to school. After having lunch at home, I return to the shop. My father is ill. He can't work, and I have to work. My older brother also is ill. My uncle, who was living with us, used to help us a bit; but not anymore because he has moved to another place. There are 11 people in my family. I am 13 years old."

The Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU), an independent research group, says its research shows that most Afghan parents want an education for both their sons and daughters. But it concludes that Afghan families often are constrained by poverty. And in provincial regions, it says social pressures frequently prevent parents from sending young daughters to school. Instead, many children are sent on the streets to help their families survive.

Ten-year-old Amanullah is among them. He spends his days collecting small pieces of wood and blackish seeds that he burns inside a tin can. Walking the streets as an "espandi," Amanullah waves the tin can at passersby in the belief that the smoke will protect them from curses and bring them good luck. In return, some people give Amanullah small amounts of money.

"I make 50 afghanis a day [about $1] and take some bread home," Amanullah says. "I live under a tent along with my father, mother, five sisters, and five brothers. As the eldest son, I do the routine. My father does not have a job. He is capable of doing work. But when he goes to the city seeking a job, people tell him that he is too old to be employed."

Amanullah's younger brothers also work in the streets, begging and selling bottled water, rather than going to school. All say their dream is to someday be able to go to school.

In November, the London-based Oxfam International charity reported that some 7 million Afghan children -- more than half of the country's young people -- do not go to school.

In the same report, titled "Free, Quality Education For Every Afghan Child," Oxfam notes a fivefold increase in school enrollments across Afghanistan since 2001. That means about 5 million Afghan children are now getting an education. But Oxfam warns that "poverty, crippling fees, and huge distances to the nearest schools" prevent many parents from sending their children to get an education.

(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Safia Hasass contributed to this story from Kabul)

Central Asia's Child Workers Shoulder Heavy Burden

By Farangis Najibullah

A boy guides his cart across a street near a Kyrgyz market

June 11, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The day begins early for Dona, a 17-year-old Tajik boy who has already spent five years working in a Dushanbe market. He arrives as early as 6 a.m., seven days a week, to load and cart around the heavy loads of shoppers. Dona says that by the time he finishes at around 8 p.m. -- having earned the equivalent of about $6 for 14 hours of work -- he can hardly walk.

"When I go home, I'm already exhausted," Dona says. "My mom tells me to eat my food, but sometimes I can't eat because I'm too tired and can't manage to stay awake. I fall asleep. My legs hurt. Early in the morning the next day, I go back to the market. When there are no customers, then we play games of tag."

Those few hours -- when Dona and other working children play kids' games -- are the only time of the day when they say they can have fun. They have no vacations, no holidays; for the most part, they get no proper education, and they don't know anything about their rights as minors.

Tens Of Thousands

International labor officials estimate that there are tens of thousands of children throughout Central Asia -- some as young as seven years old -- working to support themselves and their families.

Many of them are employed in unskilled jobs -- pushing carts, washing cars, or selling plastic bags, vegetables, or other goods in markets or on the street. In rural areas, many children work alongside their parents in cotton fields or vegetable farms, helping them tend and harvest crops.

Some Kyrgyz families take their underage children with them for seasonal work on tobacco farms in neighboring Kazakhstan.

See our photo gallery from RFE/RL's Central Asian services on child workers in the region

Twelve-year-old Ulukbek was sent by his family to make a living in the big city. Ulukbek is from Kyrgyzstan's southern Osh region, but now he sells shoes in a Bishkek market.

"I earn about 50 soms [$1.50] a day," Ulukbek tells RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. "Sometimes what I earn during the day is barely enough for my own food. I save 25 soms a day and send it to my village in Osh. I have hard times during the hot season and also during winter. Sometimes customers refuse to pay -- they argue, steal, or cheat me. I live in such hardship. I miss Osh."

In Uzbekistan, the authorities close secondary schools in the fall so they can send children to harvest the country's massive cotton crop.

Legislation And Reality

In most of Central Asia, the legal working age is 18. But children are allowed to work at part-time jobs -- with parental consent -- at the age of 16.

Tajik and Turkmen labor laws in some circumstances allow children as young as 14 or 15 years old to work.

The laws clearly state that children may only be given jobs that help "broaden their knowledge" and do not harm their health or development. Children are prohibited from working long hours or night shifts. And employers are not supposed to expose their workforce to "hazardous jobs" or excessive lifting.

Legislation across the region also requires that all children get a formal education. But the reality is different.

It is virtually impossible to get reliable estimates of the number of Central Asia's children who leave school in their early teens for low-paying jobs in which they are frequently overworked.

Governments and nongovernmental groups in the region say they have been trying to tackle the problem in a number of ways.

The Turkmen government recently opened a summer camp in Gekdere, a mountainous resort outside the capital, Ashgabat, where about 1,300 children can spend the holidays. But in a country of more than 4 million, demand for the camp's swimming pool, sports and entertainment centers, and Internet connections is likely to outstrip supply.

In Tajikistan, dozens of Soviet-era leisure camps have been renovated. Labor unions have sought to help, contributing up to 70 percent of the price to help bridge the gap between the cost of those camps and the means of poor families who want to send their children there. Some nongovernmental groups organize special leisure and educational summer centers, where orphans and children from deprived families can stay free of charge.

Similar summer centers operate in Kazakhstan, Kyrgzystan, and Uzbekistan.

Finding A Way Forward

Judita Reichenberg is regional adviser on child protection for the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF). She emphasizes that summer camps alone cannot solve the problem.

"Schooling, education, making sure that every child has access to quality [and] good education, and that after school there is a possibility also for creativity, for activities that are stimulating for child development, in addition to helping those families that are falling under the poverty line -- a combination of these three minimum aspects might be a way forward in addressing child labor," Reichenberg says.

It might take some time for governments in the region to tackle the problems associated child workers.

In the meantime, thousands of young boys and girls -- with little or no say in the matter -- will spend their childhoods on farms and in markets, trying to help their parents to make the ends meet.

(RFE/RL's Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Turkmen, and Uzbek services contributed to this report)

Prague Conference Shines Spotlight On Democracy's Heroes

By Jeffrey Donovan

Former dissidents Vaclav Havel (left) and Natan Sharansky

PRAGUE, June 6, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Rarely do world leaders, past or present, come together to shine a spotlight on political dissidents -- the persecuted heroes of human rights and democracy.

But that’s what happened this week in Prague. And the Baroque Czernin Palace that houses the Czech Foreign Ministry could not have been a more emblematic venue for the two-day gathering.

It was from a top window here, in 1948, that communist revolutionaries are believed to have pushed to his death Jan Masaryk, democratic Czechoslovakia’s last foreign minister before the communists took power.

Yet where the Soviet darkness symbolically descended, it also lifted. In 1991, the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet military grouping, was formally dissolved in this palace near Prague Castle.

The June 5-6 conference took place in the very hall where that happened.

Rising Concerns Over Russia

Still, amid rising concern, particularly in Eastern Europe over Russian backsliding on democracy and human rights, there was more on offer here than mere symbolism of past struggles between freedom and tyranny.

Dissidents from Belarus to Syria, and from Cuba to China, confirmed that political persecution is alive and thriving. Joining them were past and present leaders, including former dissident playwright Vaclav Havel, former Spanish premier Jose Maria Aznar, and former Israeli minister Natan Sharansky, himself a former Soviet dissident born in Ukraine.

But it was U.S. President George W. Bush who set the tone with one of his strongest criticisms yet of Russia under President Vladimir Putin.

“In Russia, reforms that were once promised to empower citizens have been derailed, with troubling implications for democratic development," Bush said in his address to the conference. "Part of a good relationship is the ability to talk openly about our disagreements. So, the United States will continue to build our relationships with these countries, and we will do it without abandoning our principles or our values.”

Bush addressed the conference on June 5 (AFP)
Bush's criticism of Russian backsliding on democracy came as Western relations with Moscow have frayed in recent weeks, amid strident opposition by Putin to U.S. plans to install a missile-defense system in Eastern Europe.

Dissidents here were clearly emboldened by Bush’s presence and message. And in a final, 10-point statement issued today called the ‘Prague Document,’ the gathering’s participants urged greater Western support for dissidents and human rights.

The non-official document also calls on democratic states to help build free societies by “isolating and ostracizing governments” that suppress their domestic opponents by force, violence, or intimidation.

West 'Should Back Words With Actions'

Yet some dissidents taking part in the Prague talks had concerns that the West isn’t living up to its democratic rhetoric by truly backing them in their often-dangerous battle for freedom.

Former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, a key Russian opposition leader, told RFE/RL on the sidelines of the conference that despite Bush’s strong words on Russia and democracy, he offered no serious criticism of Washington’s non-democratic allies in the war on terrorism, including Pakistan, Egypt, or Saudi Arabia.

Kasparov also said Bush’s recent invitation to Putin to visit him early next month at his former U.S. president father’s residence in the United States hardly benefits Russian democrats, who are gearing up for next year’s presidential elections:

Garry Kasparov (RFE/RL)

"We are not asking for any help for ourselves," Kasparov said. "We are asking for an end to this de facto unspoken, informal support for Putin. It is clear that receiving him at his personal ranch -- that is support. In one way or another, these are the contacts that allow Putin to strengthen his domestic position in Russia."

Making a similar point was President Toomas Henrik Ilves of Estonia, who spoke after Putin this week threatened that Russia could point its nuclear arsenal at European capitals in response to U.S. plans for the missile-defense system.

Relations between Estonia and Moscow deteriorated this spring, after a row and riots over the removal of a Soviet-era World War II monument from central Tallinn. In the following weeks, Estonia accused Russia of attacking its government websites.

Ilves said Estonia -- like Ukraine, Georgia, and Latvia before it -- had become the latest neighbor of Russia to suffer its wrath. To applause from the audience, he pointedly asked why the free world continued to allow Moscow to be part of the Group of Eight.

"If it is true that democracies do not go to war with each other," Ilves said, "then what the hell is a country that threatens to target its nuclear missiles at Europe doing in the G8, the club of industrial democracies?"

Bush, for his part, will be talking directly Putin at the G8 summit that began today in Germany and runs through June 8.

The U.S. missile-defense system is likely to figure in the talks.

While in Prague, Bush discussed with Czech leaders plans for the system, which call for a radar station in the Czech Republic and interceptors in Poland. Washington says the system is only designed to defend against future threats from rogue states such as Iran, and has offered Russia to cooperate in its development.

The U.S. antimissile plans were recently called the “joke of the year” by senior Iranian diplomat Ali Larijani. RFE/RL on June 5 asked former Czech President Havel, one of the most respected European leaders of the last 15 years, about Larijani’s remark.

“I think that we live in a world that we have to be prepared for violence," Havel said. "It would have been perfect, if no weapons were needed -- neither for attack, nor for defense. We don’t live in a such a world now, and that’s why that each state has to be respected as it protects its own security and builds its defense in its own way.”

Respect, in a word, sums up what the message this week from Prague: respect for human rights, respect for democratic norms.

Participants won’t be holding their breath that regimes in Iran or Uzbekistan, to name just two, will heed that message any time soon.

Instead, they are more concerned that Washington and the West follow through on their lofty rhetoric here with action, so that the darkness of dictatorship can someday be lifted as it was here almost two decades ago.

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