Last Word: Natan Sharansky

Article excerpt

Byline: Zvika Krieger

Talking Softly Won't Work

Few people know more about dissidence than Natan Sharansky. Charged with treason in the Soviet Union in 1978--he denied the accusations of spying for the United States--he served nine years in a gulag. In 1988, he was elected president of the Zionist Forum, a group of former Soviet dissidents. Even as an authority figure--he became a member of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel

Sharon's cabinet in 2003--Sharansky remained defiant, resigning in 2005 over its withdrawal plans from Gaza. Now he has adopted a new controversial role as a key neoconservative ideologue--President George W. Bush called Sharansky's 2004 book, "The Case for Democracy," "part of my presidential DNA." This week, Sharansky is hosting a conference in Prague dubbed "The Davos of Dissidents." Among the dozens of democracy advocates from Iran to North Korea will be cohosts Vaclav Havel, the former Czech president, former Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznar and a VIP visitor, Bush himself. (The U.S. president is slated to stop by and address the conference on his way to the G8 summit in Germany.) With the Bush administration's democracy drive in the Middle East failing to win hearts and minds, NEWSWEEK's Zvika Krieger quizzed Sharansky on the concept of democracy promotion. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How does the current struggle of dissidents around the world compare to the fight of those who fought communism?

SHARANSKY: The debate that is going on in the West now is almost the same. Our message as dissidents was that you cannot impose democracy. Nobody can force anybody to be free. But you don't have to help impose dictatorship on these people by cooperating with [dictators] and financing these efforts. Today, the debate is more or less the same. There are those who believe democracy is not for everybody, and that when it comes to the Arab world, there are no democratic regimes, and that it is wishful thinking to try to push for it, so let's have good relations with dictators who help bring stability. There are dissidents in those countries who are very upset with the free world. They are not saying, "Go and fight," but saying, "Stop supporting them."

Many dissidents in the Middle East have made it clear that they don't want U.S. support. Appearing pro-Western can be the kiss of death for them.

I've heard this argument all my life and I don't know one dissident who believes it. Dissidents are risking their lives and the lives of their families, risking everything in order to speak the truth, and their only way of survival--the best guarantee of a chance to succeed--is that the authorities know that the free world is watching them, and that they will have to pay a big price for persecuting them. …