Indonesia spreads a virus called ‘democracy’ - Ratih Hardjono

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At Batumi Airport, Georgia, immigration procedures are managed by police officers. My Georgian immigration officer looks at my Indonesian passport, throws his hands up in the air, and says some beautiful-sounding Georgian words.

I had heard this expression before when I was a foreign correspondent and it means “Wooow, you’re from Indonesia? What am I to do with your passport?” I smile and he panics. Not long afterward, six of his fellow immigration officers appear bringing a book that lists all the countries in the world and the sort of visa that is required. They find Indonesia but cannot locate Mozambique, and my colleague from Mozambique is dismayed.

People from Burundi, Mozambique, Egypt, Tunisia, Georgia, Guatemala and Indonesia had come together in Batumi to talk about Sekolah Demokrasi (Democracy Schools). The idea of the Sekolah Demokrasi began in Indonesia and the first school started operating here in 2006.

Five years later the Sekolah Demokrasi has been replicated in the countries mentioned above, except Egypt, where it will begin next year.

Batumi, with its 180,000 inhabitants, is a lovely little town located on the eastern seaboard of the Black Sea and surrounded by beautiful mountains. It is said that Batumi is one of the oldest towns on earth. Georgia was certainly the right place to talk about democracy. It may be a small country but it has seen it all!

It once belonged to the Roman Empire, but the Persians, Arabs, Turks and Mongols all took their turn in occupying the place.

Finally, in 1918, the Russian Empire took its turn and then, after the Russian Revolution in 1921, Georgia became part of the Soviet Union. It gained its independence in 1991 with the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Not surprisingly, one major theme that runs through the many layers of Georgian history is resilience.

Perhaps a glimpse of the history of democratization of Georgia is reflected in the life of one of its most famous politicians, Eduard Shevardnadze, who was born in Georgia in 1928, just seven years after the Soviet Union invasion.

Being born under Soviet rule meant that, if he wanted to get anywhere, he had to become part of the Soviet Communist Party.

Shevardnadze rose to be a player in the global arena from 1985 to 1991, when he was the Soviet foreign minister. He began his career with Georgia’s komsomol central committee and rose steadily, becoming a member of the central committee of the Communist Party in 1976 and a candidate member of the politburo in 1978. A fresh wind blew across the Soviet Union in 1985, when president Mikhail S. Gorbachev came to power, promoted Shevardnadze to full membership in the ruling politburo and named him minister for foreign affairs.

Most probably unbeknown to Shevardnadze himself at the time, his period as foreign minister marked the start of reform within the Soviet Union and the end of the political supremacy of the Communist Party. Mikhail S. Gorbachev introduced glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring). Shevardnadze was one of Gorbachev’s closest colleagues and one of the most effective advocates of the Soviet reform policies of glasnost and perestroika at the time.

The break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 came after the fall of the Berlin Wall, which had been preceded by the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1989. The global political landscape changed.

Shevardnadze played a role in the fact that he was influential as the first card of the dominoes to fall.

Once reform and democratization commence, it is difficult to halt them, as Shevardnadze learned. He went on to become the president of Georgia in 1995.

In 2003 Georgia held a parliamentary election that was widely denounced as unfair by international election observers, as well as by the UN. There were demonstrations in which protesters broke into parliament. Shevardnadze was forced to resign and protesters called the event the Rose Revolution.

It was ironic that the strong proponent of glasnost and perestroika was pushed out because of allegations of non glasnost behavior.

The point here is that democracy allows the public to participate in how they are to be managed, which is chiefly through direct elections.

Once democratization begins, it cannot be stopped. Oppressive and closed systems, coupled with poverty, will lead to change; it is just a matter of time.

The challenge remains for democratization, if it is to be effective, to ensure the establishment of an open and fair political, economic and social system.

Political reform without economic or social reforms will lead to lop-sided democratization, with a strong possibility of the rich hijacking the process and establishing a “money politics” culture in which money rules. This becomes a serious obstacle to the maturing and deepening of democracy. Hence, legal reforms and the implementation of the rule of law are crucial from the start of democratization.

The discussion in Batumi about the Sekolah Demokrasi was an important step for the countries present, all of which had been experiencing democratization.

Some have been more turbulent than others. The exchange of the experiences of people who were operating Sekolah Demokrasi in these countries and teaching democracy at the grassroots level was inspiring.

Two themes came out of the exchange. One, democratization is not just a difficult process but also a painful one. Two, regardless of their culture, language and educational levels, people instinctively take to democracy because it offers something universal that human beings need.

By: Ratih Hardjono
The writer, a former journalist, is secretary-general of the Indonesian Community for Democracy (KID). She was a recipient of the Nieman Fellowship for journalism at Harvard University — class of 1994.
Source: The Jakarta Post

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