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Democracy domino effect?

By Wolf Blitzer

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Until the late 1980s, very few people seriously believed that the so-called "captive nations" of communist Eastern Europe and the Soviet bloc would ever be free. But the collapse of the Soviet Union a dozen years later set the stage for a new era in Europe. The former Soviet republics are now independent, democratic states.

That is also true of the former Warsaw Pact nations, including Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania and the Czech Republic. Democracy flourishes in that part of the world. For those of us old enough to remember what was for so many decades a fact of life, it is truly a remarkable development.

It's probably not very surprising, therefore, that most of those formerly communist nations are now in the forefront in supporting President Bush's tough stance toward Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. This is how Latvia's President, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, put it to me this week shortly after she emerged from a meeting with President Bush at the White House: "Because we have had experience of loss of liberty. We have experienced tyranny and we know that the Second World War and its sequels were new and large part to not containing, for instance Hitler's ambitions, when there was still time." She added: "This part of Europe was cut off from the rest of it and knew exactly what it means to live under tyranny and the price of appeasement. We paid it. We paid it."

She is not alone, as President Bush and his aides constantly remind us. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, as you may recall, caused a huge stir when he said these newly democratic states are part of the "new Europe," as opposed to France and Germany, which be branded "old Europe." The French and the Germans deeply resented Rumsfeld's comments.

Now, Bush administration officials are taking the initiative in raising questions about spreading democracy through the Arab world. In December, Secretary of State Colin Powell delivered a major speech on the subject -- asking why Arab states, by and large, seem immune from accepting real democratic reforms. The government of Qatar quickly embraced Powell's initiative but most other Arab states either rejected or ignored it.

Many top Bush administration officials seriously believe that could change if Saddam Hussein is removed -- one way or another. They say a new, democratic era might eventually emerge in Baghdad. They say that could then spread to other parts of the Arab world, most of which have failed to create democratic political structures and traditions. We shall see.

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