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Spreading Democracy Abroad: Political Interference or Vital Help


Thousands of people poured onto the streets of Kiev in November to protest a presidential election they considered rigged. This led to a subsequent vote that overturned the earlier one and installed Viktor Yushchenko as president of Ukraine.

Was this mass demonstration spontaneous, as it seemed, or was it stealthily organized by outside interests, as skeptics claim?

That is the dilemma behind U.S. and western efforts to bring democratic practices to parts of the world where they have been absent. Some say any intrusion of this kind, however well intended, leads to interference in the political process and inevitably favors one faction or candidate over another.

"It has become particularly tricky to walk a very thin line," says Leslie McCuaig in an article in the New York Times. She is a project director of the Institute for Sustainable Communities, which has an 11 million dollar U.S. Government contract to help create a thriving democracy in Ukraine.

U.S. Congressman Ron Paul says American taxpayers have provided millions of dollars to influence an election abroad. He asks for a Congressional investigation of the matter.

Ken Wollach is president of the National Democratic Institute, which has been active in Ukraine. He concedes his group's efforts tend to benefit the political opposition in countries struggling toward democracy:

"In many cases, groups that are in the opposition perhaps seek international linkages more ardently than ruling parties that have operated more in isolation. But over time I think that will change. In a growing interdependent world people recognize that those international linkage and relationships are important."

Mr. Wollach stresses that democratic rights are available to all. The goal is to build an open civic society in which various groups can fairly compete:

"The citizens in these countries are demanding these types of freedom, these types of rights. The international community generally can play a small supporting role to assist those efforts. This is not about seeking a particular outcome of an election but rather supporting a political process that reflects the will of the people in these countries."

In partial democracies like Ukraine, say observers, outside organizations work quite easily with those inside. It is another matter in more repressive regimes, where western groups are unwelcome, watched and often thrown out.

Uzbekistan in Central Asia is an example. It held parliamentary elections on the same day, December 26, as the Ukranian vote. But there was no doubt about the outcome. All candidates represented the government since opposition is forbidden.

Allison Gill is a researcher for Human Rights Watch in Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan. She insists her efforts are non-partisan and consistent with those in other countries:

"We monitor Uzbekistan's compliance with its international human rights commitments. We document cases of human rights abuses. We issue reports on our findings, and we conduct advocacy with local officials and with the international community to try to accomplish a better human rights climate in Uzbekistan."

In Uzbekistan, NGOs must deal with some of the toughest issues, says Allison Gill. Fraudulent voting is a lesser worry:

"One issue that we work on consistently and that we have worked on since the inception of our office here is torture. Torture is a serious problem in Uzbekistan. The use of torture is systematic, which means it happens throughout the country in many, many contexts."

Allison Gill says a major concern of western groups is to preserve what civil society exists in Uzbekistan:

"And we see that space shrinking and shrinking all the time. Activists and NGO workers are harassed, are investigated. They face bureaucratic hurdles. They face personal security risks. They face registration problems."

Allison Gill and other western activists abroad say their work must be handled with care. To take political sides is asking for trouble. But as long as democracy is lacking, they want to continue building it.