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A Post-Bloc Party for Democracy

On the second anniversary of the revolution he led, Georgia's leader calls for change in the former Soviet state of Belarus.

November 24, 2005|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

TBILISI, Georgia — The grainy videotape footage shows masked gunmen with semiautomatic rifles firing in the air and toward protesters during this nation's Rose Revolution. A young woman tries to wrestle away a gun from one of the men. He hangs on but, apparently startled by her audacity, doesn't shoot her.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who led that largely peaceful uprising, showed the video Wednesday as part of two days of high-powered meetings and celebrations intended to mark the second anniversary of the upheaval and to promote democracy in other post-Soviet states.

Flanked by President Viktor Yushchenko of Ukraine, who a year ago led that country's Orange Revolution, Saakashvili presented the woman in the video, Manana Sturua, with an award honoring her courage. Saakashvili later referred back to her -- and leveled sharp criticism at Belarusian President Alexander G. Lukashenko, a strongman who still rules in one post-Soviet nation -- while discussing the impact of these events.

His message echoed the conference's theme: Europe's new wave of liberation.

"Every leader comprehended in their own way what should be their reaction to the Ukrainian revolution and our revolution. Some leaders in the region, and I have to commend them on that, understood that they should reform," Saakashvili said. "The problem in Belarus is that unfortunately for us, the reaction to the revolution was that 'We should be tougher and more brutal in order to avoid this.'

"I think this video shows that no brutality works," he continued. "I mean, brutality works to a certain point, and after that a young lady like this would emerge somewhere, or a young man, or lots of young ladies or men, or old men, it doesn't matter.

"And they will no longer be afraid, because fear has its limits. This is something which I think is a good lesson for everybody. Freedom and liberty is an alternative also in Belarus."

Saakashvili was speaking on a panel that also included Yushchenko, Estonian President Arnold Ruutel and Romanian President Traian Basescu, and which was moderated by former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky.

Earlier in the day, on a panel addressing democratic development in the region, Russian pro-democracy figure Boris Nemtsov criticized President Vladimir V. Putin for placing tight controls on Russian media. Irina Krasovskaya, a prominent Belarusian dissident, pleaded for greater international pressure against Lukashenko, who was denounced by President Bush in May for running "the last dictatorship in Europe."

The two-day event -- a combination of self-congratulation, regional pro-democracy networking and serious policy discussions -- culminated with a televised song, dance and music extravaganza staged in front of the parliament building Saakashvili and his supporters stormed in 2003 to protest alleged electoral fraud.

The discussion part of the anniversary event, which was attended by more than 100 politicians, policymakers, academics and activists from Georgia, other former communist states, the European Union and the United States, touched on a sweeping range of issues.

Two major themes with potential diplomatic ramifications for the governments represented here were support for democratic change in Belarus and criticism of Russia's rollback of democratic reforms and alleged human rights violations in its war against separatist rebels in the republic of Chechnya.

At an evening news conference, Saakashvili argued that however angered the Kremlin might be by such criticism or by international efforts to promote democracy in neighboring nations such as Belarus, in the long run Russia would also benefit from greater democracy in the region.

"Some people in Russia did see the Rose Revolution and the Orange Revolution as some kind of challenge, which I think was kind of shortsighted," he said. "I think what is important for Russia is to have a democratic neighborhood. Democracies are much more peaceful, much more constructive, much more rational. And that's good for Russia."

Krasovskaya, who heads the We Remember Foundation, a Belarusian human rights organization, said in an interview that she saw the events in Georgia and Ukraine as part of "a new wave of revolution."

"It's really important for us, because we've had a dictatorship for 11 years," she said. "The Rose Revolution was the first step that had a very big impact for our moral support.... We just felt, if it happened in Georgia, why can't it happen in Belarus?"

In her panel discussion comments, Krasovskaya noted that Lukashenko would be running for reelection in July. She expressed hope that the electoral contest, however undemocratic it may be, could be the trigger for his fall.

"The regime of Lukashenko seems strong and cruel, but it's not more than a towering colossus on legs of clay," she said. "It can fall apart under pressure from the world outside and from civic society within.

"I have the greatest hope that next year I will be invited to speak here again," she added, "and I will tell you how together with you we overthrew the last dictatorship [in Europe] and freed 10 million people."

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