Thank you very much, Minister Azubalis, and thank you for your vigorous leadership of the Community of Democracies during the Lithuanian chairmanship. And I especially appreciate the president being here to welcome all of us, and to be joined by so many distinguished representatives of government, civil society, business, young people, and women.
I think it is important that we use this session to take stock of where we are 10 years on, after the Community of Democracies was begun. And it is a perfect place to do that, here in Lithuania. Today the streets outside this hall are peaceful. But 20 years ago they were filled with Soviet tanks. And they rang out with the chants of protestors and the shouts of soldiers. The world held its breath.
Thankfully, those tanks retreated, and the Soviet empire began to crumble. But the future was far from certain. The transitions to democracy in Central and Eastern Europe were fraught with challenges. In the former Yugoslavia, ethnic strife sparked years of war. In some former Soviet republics – including next door in Belarus – authoritarianism retained an iron grip. And in nearly every newly-free nation, wrenching economic and social changes tested the resolve of people.
But today, here in Lithuania and across most of Europe, democracy is thriving. Protesters who helped bring down Communism went on to raise up strong democratic institutions and civil society. Leaders put the needs of their countries and their peoples ahead of their personal interests. So this region has become a model for the world, and its experiences – both the struggles and the successes – have taken on new relevance in recent days, because the world is once again holding its breath.
This year we have seen citizens across the Middle East and North Africa demand the same universal rights, dignity, and opportunity that Eastern and Central Europeans claimed two decades ago. Again, the future is uncertain. It is too soon to tell whether democratic institutions, pluralism, and the rule of law will emerge, or if those hopes will prove little more than a mirage in the desert.
What we do know is the outcome will be determined by the people themselves. And this moment belongs to them, particularly the young people who have inspired the world with their courage.
But I would argue that all of us here in this Community of Democracies have a stake in that outcome and a responsibility to help. We see our own stories in theirs. And we know that, just as any one democracy depends on people working together, a community of democracy depends on all nations, not only working together, but renewing our commitment. And we believe that established democracies have a special duty to help those that are emerging because these new democracies are fighting for their life. There are vicious autocrats clinging to power. There are interest groups pretending to support democracy, and only waiting until they can assume power. This is an hour of need, and every democracy should stand up and be counted.
Unfortunately, there is no playbook that we can pass on to those struggling to form their own democracies with a clear outline of the steps that can be taken and the results that will be assured, like a recipe in the kitchen. Every transition in every country in every era is unique. Here in the Baltics, citizens could draw on centuries of democratic traditions. People in the Middle East and North Africa are, in many ways, navigating uncharted territory.
But for all the differences, there are shared lessons. And we need to be sure we learn them and apply them, to take that hard-earned wisdom and put it to work. Because from Europe to Latin America to Africa to Asia, people have learned the fundamentals of successful democratic transitions: accountable institutions rooted in the rule of law; equal protection and participation for all citizens, especially women; a vibrant civil society; a free press; an independent judiciary and economic opportunity; integration into the international community and its norms and institutions; and leaders who understand that legitimacy flows from consent, not coercion.
Today I want to say a few words about these lessons and how they can help bring new members into the Community of Democracies.
First, we have learned that sustainable democracies are built on the strength of institutions that guarantee the rule of law and universal rights, including freedoms of assembly, association, expression, and religion.
Amid all the graffiti that covers the public spaces in Libya today, one message painted on a wall in the town of Derna stands out. It reads: “We want a country of institutions.” That means, among other things, independent courts, a free press, competitive political parties, and responsive government agencies. And yet, in my conversations with so many who are so eager to help lead the way to democracy in their own countries, these concepts are very difficult to understand and to apply.
But there are examples. In the 1990s, Estonia used cutting-edge technology to deliver unprecedented accountability and transparency. Twenty years on, expenditures from the budget can be tracked online in real time, government archives are paperless and open, investors can register a business in a matter of minutes – the quickest in the world – and citizens can vote online.
So today, Estonians are helping more than 25 countries around the world follow their example, including a number of projects in the Middle East, where in too many places bribery is rampant, institutions are corrupt, and political parties are repressed.
The region’s new democratic transitions can change that. I want to acknowledge Tunisia establishing an independent Electoral Commission, made up of jurists and civil society leaders. And we hope that transitional authorities in Egypt will invite international observers to witness their upcoming elections. Because while democracy is about far more than voting, free and fair elections are essential. And they require a level playing field for political parties, a free press, and transparent voting procedures. That’s the standard that all citizens have a right to expect, whether they are voting in Tunis, Cairo, or Moscow, for that matter.
Now, a second lesson of successful transitions is that democracy only works when there is equal protection and equal participation for every citizen, including women, ethnic and religious minorities and young people, because transitions can be particularly perilous for these groups. They are often the first to be excluded. But when they are included, they enrich and strengthen new democracies. We saw this in Poland, where women kept Solidarity alive when thousands of men were imprisoned. And after the revolution, they kept organizing. They ran for office. And the underground newspaper they started in the Gdansk shipyard became one of the most important publications in a free Poland.
In the Middle East and North Africa, women have marched, blogged, and put their lives on the line. But as I discussed last night, they have seen their participation limited in this transition period. One Egyptian woman recently remarked, “The men were keen for me to be there when we were demanding Mubarak should go. But now that he has gone, they want me to go home.”
This is not just a problem for women. It’s a problem for men too. It's a problem for every citizen. And it's a problem for the community of democracies. I hope that what we will do is make it very clear that, as parties are organized, as platforms are written, as campaigns are waged, and elections are won, no one can claim to be representing the democratic will if their intention is to marginalize women. We are watching closely the parties that are forming in countries like Tunisia and Egypt, and we have said we are, in the United States, willing to engage with parties that are pledged to non-violence and the political process. But we expect every party in a democracy to recognize the rights of women.
We are also watching closely to make sure that what happened in the Balkans in the 1990s does not reoccur. Ethnic and religious minorities are at risk. I remember talking with a group of Bosnians shortly after the Dayton Accords were agreed to. It was a group of Serbs, Croats, and Muslims. And one woman said that when the violence started she asked a friend, “How could this be happening? We’ve known each other for so long. We’ve been at each other’s families' weddings and funerals. Why is this happening?” And her friend replied, “We were told that if we didn't do this to you, you would do it to us.” That’s what they read in the newspaper, and that's what they heard on the radio. It’s what extremists whispered in the night.
Today, the people of North Africa and the Middle East need to resist those whispers. This year, violent attacks from Egypt to Iraq to Pakistan have killed scores of religious and ethnic minorities. These fault lines cannot be permitted to open up. They will swallow the hopes for a better future for all.
And finally, young people cannot be left behind when the action moves from the streets to the parliaments. In many of these countries today, young people actually represent a majority. And transitional authorities must work with them to meet their aspirations. But young people themselves must enter the political process. When I visited Cairo this spring and met with young activists, they were still searching for unity and for their next goal. They need to organize and be part of politics, if they expect to see change take hold and be sustainable.
It also takes far-sighted leadership for this to work. And that is the obvious third lesson. We have seen great examples of leadership in transitions. Nelson Mandela is certainly the prime example. But too often we see leaders who derail the transitions, who put their own interests or the interests of their group ahead of the national interest, leaders who think democracy is one election, one time, or who rig elections to favor those already in power. That is not democracy. That is the path back to dictatorship. And we have seen revolution give way to repression in places like Iran.
So we need leaders to be held accountable. And we need to ensure that they know what is expected of them in a democracy. We saw it here in Central and Eastern Europe, as poets and professors rose to become presidents and prime ministers, and then stepped aside for other statesmen to take their place.
Fourthly, healthy democracies depend on healthy civil societies. We see it here in the Baltic States, where journalists are exposing official corruption and helping bring accountability to government. We see it in the Middle East and North Africa, in so many examples of people who are putting everything on the line.
But we have to protect civil society. And I thank the Community of Democracies for establishing a new alert system to galvanize a global response when governments propose laws that would restrict civil society. Five times we have raised the alarm, and five times the law has not passed. We have also worked with partners to establish a fund to help NGOs resist repression. We call it the Lifeline. And I thank all of the countries who are supporting this effort.
We think that engaging with civil society, as the United States is doing in our new strategic dialogue with civil society, helps us know better about how to help them. They are the ones going to prison, they are the ones being beaten up, they are the ones on the front lines of democracy.
And the fifth lesson is that democracy has to deliver for people a sense of dignity -- intangible, but essential -- and economic opportunities. In post-Communist Europe, governments made difficult decisions as they refashioned the social safety net and opened their markets. They knew that painful though it was, free markets unleashed human potential. Today, in so many of those places struggling to become democracies, the economies are stunted by cronyism and corruption. So we have to also work for economic reform.
We are hoping to launch Enterprise Funds to invest in Tunisia and Egypt, as we did in the Baltics at the beginning of their transitions. We are working with our European partners to refocus the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to support economic modernization in the Middle East and North Africa. And we join with the EU and the G8 to offer a new vision for regional trade and economic integration.
Democracies flourish when they are connected to and supported by other democracies. That is why this organization is as important as it has ever been. It was created almost as a looking back at how much had been accomplished in 2000. But now it needs to be vibrant and responsive to what lies ahead. And I applaud the Lithuanian chairmanship for the reforms that the community has adopted under its leadership. And we need to be doing more to prepare for the next meeting under the chairmanship of Mongolia.
I think it's critical that the new partnership challenge formed by the community will include, as the first two participants, Tunisia and Moldova, who each will be paired with an international task force of activists and experts. And we thank the Dutch and the Slovaks for taking the lead in Tunisia. And Poland and the United States will co-chair the task force for Moldova. We will contribute $5 million from USAID to support this new initiative.
So, as we look forward to help those who are emerging, let us also be clear that we must prevent any setbacks to democracy in our own countries and regions. We should speak out when countries like Belarus brutally repress the rights of its citizens, or where we see opposition figures facing politically-motivated prosecution, or governments refusing to register political parties.
So, we have a very healthy agenda. But I don't know of any more important work that could be done in the world today. Let us be sure that we support these new democracies, and we keep moving ourselves toward perfecting our own democracies. I think we are up to the challenge, but it does need a community of democracies to make sure we meet it.
Thank you all very much. (Applause.)