Democracy's unlikely look

By Fred Hiatt

VILNIUS, Lithuania -- A congressional delegation led by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman today came to one country where democratic revolution has succeeded -- Lithuania -- to put pressure on a neighboring country where a democratic uprising in December was suppressed, Belarus.

But all the while the lessons from both were being considered in light of a third country where such an uprising could still go either way.

Events in Egypt are "very dangerous," McCain told a group of Belarusan students who are attending college here to escape repression at home. "But it's also a very clear lesson that no government can keep its people without their God-given rights forever."

McCain said Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak should have stepped down "a few days ago." But he also said he is "deeply concerned about the scenario where a small group of extremists could hijack this transition."

Lithuania has bravely given sanctuary to Belarusan dissidents, journalists and others, especially since Belarusan dictator Alexander Lukashenko's brutal Dec. 19 crackdown on citizens who rallied in downtown Minsk to protest an election he had just stolen. Ironically, when Lieberman and other members of the delegation urged even stronger sanctions against Lukashenko than the United States and European Union have recently adopted, Lithuanian officials, including its president, were cautious.

Belarus could be decades away from democracy, a couple of officials told me, and most Belarusans are satisfied with their lot and unready to rise up. Belarus lacks the strong sense of national identity that Lithuania and the other Baltic states maintained throughout Soviet occupation, they pointed out, and it spent a generation longer under Soviet rule.

They could be right. But their fatalism reminded me of the Asia experts who said Confucian societies would never embrace democracy -- until, in 1987, Koreans inconveniently forced a rewrite of all those textbooks -- and the many Mideast experts who were sure, until a couple of weeks ago, that Arabs would never take to the streets for democracy.

Dictatorships, including the one that stifled this nation until 1991, almost always seem impregnable, until that unpredictable day when they suddenly become utterly improbable.


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