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Gathering for freedom

TWO guards stationed outside the Foreign Affairs Ministry in Bratislava directed a motley crew to an adjoining congress hall the morning of February 23. Convened to kick off a special international conference on democracy, panelists and audience members ranged from freedom fighters from Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) to career diplomats and leading experts from the US and Western Europe.

TWO guards stationed outside the Foreign Affairs Ministry in Bratislava directed a motley crew to an adjoining congress hall the morning of February 23. Convened to kick off a special international conference on democracy, panelists and audience members ranged from freedom fighters from Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) to career diplomats and leading experts from the US and Western Europe.

A New Quest for Democracy: Shaping an Agenda for the Euro-Atlantic Community drew about 300 people over the course of the all-day event. Organized by the Institute for Public Affairs and the Slovak Foreign Policy Association, in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States, the conference gave those passionate about democratic principles a chance to share knowledge.

According to the German Marshall Fund, the conference was designed to elicit new approaches to advance democracy and freedom in wider Europe. In his welcoming remarks, Slovak Speaker of Parliament Pavol Hrušovský told the audience, "Freedom needs to be defended."

The conference consisted of four sessions. Session 1 - The Slovak Path to Democracy and Euro-Atlantic Integration - featured Slovak emissaries of democracy, including civic activist Pavol Demeš, who gave testimony to the last 15 years of change in Slovakia. Chaired by Martin Bútora, former Slovak ambassador to the US, panelists focussed on how Slovakia could inform and strengthen democracy assistance to countries in transition - Georgia, the Balkans, Ukraine - and those still under the thumb of autocracies - Belarus and Moldova, for example.

Lessons learned during the democratic development that recently swept through Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine was the focus of Session 2 - The Recent Wave of Democratic Change. Luminaries such as Sonja Licht, who fought for freedom in Serbia, examined the obstacles facing the region.

Session 3 - The Future of Democracy in Wider Europe - extended the debate eastward, where relevant international organizations and activists are working to stabilize Russia's "near abroad" with democratic principles. Irina Krasovskaya from We Remember Foundation in Belarus expressed hope that her country would also shed its authoritarian regime.

The final session - A New Democracy Agenda for the Euro-Atlantic Community - aimed to shape and promote a new agenda for democracy assistance by the Euro-Atlantic community. The debate included significant actors from the new EU, such as Slovakia's European Commissioner, Ján Figeľ, and leading regional expert from the US, Bruce Jackson.

At the end of the conference, Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda arrived to answer questions, followed by a post-conference reception hosted by Foreign Affairs Minister Eduard Kukan.

The Slovak Spectator will take an in-depth look at the conference next week, when specific issues and ideas of individual panelists and analysts are examined.

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