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The Front Line of Democracy

BENGHAZI – This week, I flew to Benghazi to meet Libya’s Transitional National Council (TNC), a visit coordinated with European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton and NATO allies. I was the first Western foreign minister to travel to Libya since the crisis began. What I saw reminded me of my country 20 years ago, just after Poland’s first free elections, which, together with the fall of the Berlin Wall barely six months later, came to symbolize the Cold War’s end.

Peoples in transition from authoritarian rule – peaceful in Poland in 1989, bloody in Libya today – grapple with decisions that determine their fate for decades. How should the former regime’s worst wrongdoers and security police, with their insidious archives, be treated? Should the former ruling party be banned? How can civilian, democratic control of the army and police be secured? What role should religion play in public affairs? Should the constitution establish a presidential or parliamentary system?

The former communist world made those choices 20 years ago. But very different choices – for better and for worse – were made in Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, in the Baltic states, across the former Soviet Union, in Central Asia, and in East Germany. The results form a crucial database of experience. Today’s Arab reformers thus can draw on our successes – and avoid our mistakes.

We central Europeans knew the misery of communism. Yet we knew what we wanted to replace it with – a system based on modern European democratic market values. Building democratic structures requires time, discipline, pain, and patience. But it pays off. In July, Poland will assume the EU presidency for the first time; we have earned this responsibility to lead European affairs over the next six months.