Folsom Monitors Freedom's Future: As President of the International Republican Institute, George A. Folsom Is Optimistic about the Prospects of Democracy in Cambodia, Iran and Even the West Bank. (Picture Profile)

By Nichols, Hans S. | Insight on the News, March 18, 2003 | Go to article overview

Folsom Monitors Freedom's Future: As President of the International Republican Institute, George A. Folsom Is Optimistic about the Prospects of Democracy in Cambodia, Iran and Even the West Bank. (Picture Profile)


Nichols, Hans S., Insight on the News


The International Republican Institute (IRI) plants the seeds of democracy worldwide, then monitors their growth and celebrates their success. Founded in 1983, it is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy group based in Washington that operates in approximately 60 countries, including some widely regarded as the world 's most oppressive and authoritarian regimes.

IRI President George A. Folsom is decidedly enthusiastic about the future of democracy. "We are still very much a `do tank,'not a 'think tank,' "Folsom tells INSIGHT. The institute has program managers stationed across the globe, keeping IRIS headquarters apprised of democracy S ups and downs. Folsom believes he has good reason for optimism. In the era that has followed the Cold War, he claims, "Business is good for democracy,' the world climate is right for democracy."

This reporter saw Folsom and his team in action in Macedonia in the fall of 2002, where IRI observed a successful multiparty election in a Balkan country that had been on the brink of civil war one year earlier INSIGHT recently caught up with Folsom at IRIS Washington headquarters.

INSIGHT: Where are you most optimistic about the chances for democracy today?

GEORGE A. FOLSOM: Cambodia. They have parliamentary elections next July, and we will field a large election-observation mission, as in Macedonia. The

Cambodians have shown the willingness to develop a deep democracy that one day will reach international standards. One of the reasons I am so optimistic is that we have been working with some truly courageous people on the ground there--truly courageous.

Q: In a land where the Khmer Rouge slaughtered an estimated one-third of the country only a generation ago, it must take real courage to fight for democracy.

A: Unfortunately, Cambodia still is a place where assassinations take place with regularity. And it's not just shooting someone in the head with a pistol. What they do is tie a victim's feet and head together behind their back and then hand them over to chop off the head. It's very gruesome.

Yet, in the face of even this kind of intimidation, the Cambodian people have exercised extraordinary courage. For example, we've been working with Kem Sohka, who has just started the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. He is a tree Cambodian patriot, and we're in the business of helping patriots build democracies.

Q: How many countries did you visit in 2002?

A: Let's see: Cambodia, Russia, Ecuador, China, Mongolia, South Korea, Japan, Italy, Macedonia, Turkey, South Africa, Qatar, Ukraine and Thailand. That's 14.

I was just in Russia, met with the chairman of the Foreign Policy Committee at the Duma and came away with the view that when it comes to democracy Russia is a study in contrasts.

As the Russians say, you have many Kremlins "managing" democracy, but at the same time you also have the growth of political parties. What's exciting is that those parties are very interested in relating democracy and free enterprise--tying them together to try to ensure freedom and economic prosperity.

That's something we believe very strongly in as well. You can't be truly free unless you have economic freedom. It's something practical I learned from my father and brother, from their experience running savings and loans: If you have people who own their own homes and finance them, they have a direct, immediate and material interest in local governance and in local schools.

And that's true all across the world.

Q: What's the best way to jump-start democracy in some of these countries, especially those where it has for so long seemed hopeless?

A: I don't believe in one size fits all, either in terms of democracy or economic freedom. Different countries have different histories, customs and traditions. The countries in Latin America, for example, are quite diverse, and you have to tailor your programs accordingly. …

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