AFTER decades of living under the repressive regime of Saddam Hussein, Iraqis now face the challenge of building a functioning democracy. The Slovak branch of the International Republican Institute (IRI), based in Washington, DC, is one of an array of international groups that works with Iraqis to define their future with active participation from their side.
In cooperation with the Pontis Foundation in Slovakia, IRI devised the Young Iraqi Leader programme in 2004. Iraqi representatives from political and non-governmental organisations are being invited to Slovakia to study the country's recent shift to democracy.
"The political leadership in this country has a lot to offer to the leadership in Iraq, because the transition from the authoritarian to the democratic system is so recent here. Nevertheless, the two countries are very different," said Patrick Egan, the IRI's director of the regional programme for Central and Eastern Europe.
The project is now in its second stage, and is drawing on the experience of Slovak NGOs in the transformation period after the 1989 Velvet Revolution.
"We saw that NGOs were the group of people to whom we could offer the most, and who in turn could bring the most to their countries," explained Jamil al-Sbenaty, Pontis' programme officer for Iraq.
IRI started to work in Iraq in November 2003. It assists the Transitional National Assembly in developing a legislative research department, works with the government on communications, and trains political parties in organizational and campaign skills. The Institute also does extensive public opinion research in the form of polling and focus groups, the results of which are given to Iraqi decision-makers to improve their accountability and responsibility. The IRI program also supports civic groups to increase their role in the political process.
IRI's people have trained thousands of Iraqis, holding dozens of seminars and workshops since the Institute began working in Iraq.
Egan said it was important to understand that there is more to the story of Iraq than tragic violence and the terrorist attacks that are tearing the country apart. A large number of Iraqi citizens are helping the country make its transition to democracy after decades of authoritarian rule.
"There is a large group of Iraqi citizens who are working for a free political system and a stable economy, and that story is largely missing from the news we get every day," Egan said.
He added that the committment of Iraqis to building democracy can be seen from the results of the elections and referendum held last year.
In January 2005, 58 percent of voters turned out for the elections to the Transitional National Assembly, despite the fact that many expected to encounter violence.
In the December elections to the Council of Representatives, 76 percent of registered voters turned out.
"The three-million difference in Iraqi voters is an undeniable demonstration that most Iraqis really want change," Egan said.
The IRI member said his organisation had learned a lot from working with transformation processes in post-authoritarian regimes.
"We are told that what works in one place cannot work in another. My experience is that this is not true. Yes, every country is different, but there are basic similarities among post-authoritarian countries, which means that strategies can be adapted regardless of the local political culture."
- Zuzana Habšudová