TALKING IT OVER
HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON
October 6, 1999
Ten years ago, in the heart of Europe, the unimaginable happened. Where once the Berlin Wall divided East from West, families were restored. Where once tanks crushed the hopes of thousands, workers and students gathered freely, demonstrating without fear. Newspapers that once printed only lies, boldly reported the truth. Dissidents, once led away in handcuffs, became presidents of free republics.
Ten years ago, we shared in the celebration. But when the celebration ended -- when the television crews packed up their cameras and the world's attention turned to other events -- the story did not end. In fact, for the people of Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, the Baltics and Central Asia, the real story was just beginning. For they faced a future of grim choices and frightening challenges.
How would these nations find the will to endure massive layoffs and triple-digit inflation on the path to free markets? How could they overcome decades of repression, dictatorship and mistrust to build democracies that served all their citizens? How could the principles of democracy take root in societies where ethnic tensions, once suppressed by the iron hand of Communism, were re-emerging?
Choosing the path of democracy, free markets and freedom required vision, courage and moral leadership. Ten years ago, it was not an easy choice. But I have visited many of these countries, and I have seen firsthand that it was the right choice.
Nowhere are the possibilities more evident than in Poland, the first stop on a week-long trip this week that is also taking me to Slovakia, Italy and Iceland.
Poland stands as a testament to the fact that democratic and free market reforms -- when decisively and thoroughly implemented -- do work. It's been three years since I last came to Warsaw, and just driving around town, I can see many signs of growth and change. New businesses and shopping centers are flourishing. New cars crowd once empty streets. Cell phones ring in cafes, parks and on sidewalks, signaling that a new middle class -- the backbone of any democracy -- is emerging.
This morning, I met with a remarkable group of women entrepreneurs who, with the support of a USAID small-business assistance project and a non-governmental organization called the Association of Women Entrepreneurs, have created thriving companies that not only offer much-needed services and products to their communities, but also employ hundreds of workers.
Wieslawa Ewa Plucinska arrived in Warsaw with one suitcase and no money. Today, she runs Poland's second largest management consulting firm. Irena Szonomicka-Orfinger launched her cosmetics business 16 years ago with one worker. Today, she employs 250, and her products are sold in more than 13,000 retail outlets in Poland, and more around the world. Maria Sobiech's factory, which employs 100 in the manufacture of women's business apparel, said to me, "We are the opportunity." Indeed they are, and their success sends a message of hope and optimism to women -- and men -- all over Eastern Europe.
But the progress I've witnessed on this trip has not been limited to the commercial. New local governments are taking shape and becoming stronger every day. Dozens of newspapers, magazines and radio stations are reporting the news, openly praising and disagreeing with the nation's leaders. And where the Warsaw Ghetto once stood, Jewish life is thriving again.
In 1996, I visited the Lauder-Morasha School, which was housed in one of the few buildings remaining from the infamous ghetto. Founded two years earlier with 18 students, the school now enrolls 165, and is housed in a bright and spacious new building. As I listened to the children singing and visited the classrooms where they busily studied Hebrew and English, history and math, I was filled with hope.
I know that the past decade has been difficult. And for too many, the path of reform has not yet led to greater freedom or greater prosperity. But just as reform is working in Poland, reform will work for the rest of the region as well.
The path is long, but the United States is committed to standing by as a strong and supportive partner along the way -- building democracy, vibrant free markets and a healthy civil society. For democracy will survive only when governments are accountable to the public, and free markets will thrive only when every hard-working citizen enjoys the benefits.
The people I met today are the opportunity. They are the future. And the future is in good hands.
To find out more about Hillary Rodham Clinton and read her past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.
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