Ion Ratiu Lecture Celebrates Democracy

Cover story, Centerpoint, December 2008

Dec 03, 2008

On December 4, the Wilson Center will host its fourth annual Ion Ratiu Democracy Lecture, honoring Eleonora Cercavschi of Moldova. Named in honor of the late Romanian activist Ion Ratiu, the award and lecture aim to bring visibility and international recognition to the ideas and accomplishments of those who are working on behalf of democracy. Whether in exile from oppressive regimes or representing today's emerging democracies, these individuals from around the world have made outstanding contributions to circulating ideas about democracy and democratic change.

Sponsored by the Ratiu Family Charitable Foundation in London and the Ratiu Center for Democracy in Turda, Romania, this event expresses the deep commitment to democracy of the late Ion Ratiu through his contributions as a Romanian politician and intellectual, as well as his interest in democratic change worldwide.

The 2008 Award Recipient
A dedicated human rights and democracy activist, Eleonora Cercavschi, principal of Stefan the Great High School in Grigoriopol, Moldova, has devoted her career to defending the right of children to have a quality education and to be educated in their native language of Romanian. Grigoriopol is located in the volatile Transnistria, a breakaway region in Moldova where Russian troops are stationed. Nearly 70 percent of Moldovans are of Romanian descent.

During the past 15 years, children in Romanian-language schools faced discrimination and persecution. Transnistrian schools have been using books more than 20 years old, not reflecting the political reality of the former Soviet space. And, Transnistrian authorities insist public education for ethnic Moldovans in their mother tongue should use the Soviet-originated Moldovan Cyrillic alphabet.

The separatist regime, supported by Moscow, has restricted the usage of the Latin script (the norm) for the Romanian language to six schools, which did not want to comply with this rule. Cercavschi claims the separatist regime also is trampling on human and constitutional rights, inciting poverty, and provoking a population exodus, while carrying out assimilation in the media, schools, and churches.

"It's our responsibility as teachers and parents to fight for democracy and education in our native tongue, the Romanian language," Cercavschi will argue in her December 4 speech. "I think it's my duty as a citizen to help bring about necessary changes in society."

In 2002, under pressure from Transnistrian authorities, her high school was shut down and relocated to a village under the jurisdiction of Moldova. Despite the challenges imposed by the separatist regime, many of these students excel. Today, seven other educational institutions teach in Romanian language, but thousands of students in Transnistria still lack such opportunity. In response, Cercavschi started the Association of Transnistrian Teachers, "Lumina," in 1999 to improve the educational process. Since its inception, the association has obtained hundreds of high school and university scholarships and has filled school libraries with thousands of books donated by the Romanian government and private sources.

"Prosperity and progress can only flourish when our education is a priority, where democracy and freedom of choice takes precedence," Cercavschi said. "We have a duty to promote moral, ethical, and national values, the national language, a history of the Romanian people, the cultural traditions, national ideals, and right of the local population."

Highlights from Past Years
The first Ratiu award and lecture, held at Georgetown University in 2005, honored Sergio Aguayo, an academic and human rights activist in Mexico. The Wilson Center began hosting the lecture in 2006. That year, the Ratiu Democracy Lecture was awarded to Egyptian democracy activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim; the 2007 recipient was Anatoli Mikhailov of Belarus.

Mikhailov, rector of the European Humanities University in Vilnius, Lithuania, lives in exile in Lithuania for his opposition to the Lukashenko regime in his native Belarus. In his lecture, he examined components needed to undertake democratic transition in Belarus, a post-Soviet nation whose leadership is still hostile to democracy.

His university was located in Minsk, where it became a hub of civic opposition, and the Lukashenko regime shut it down in 2004. Since reopening in 2005 in Vilnius with the European Union's help, the university is educating hundreds of graduate students and others are taking long-distance learning classes from the university.

The mindset in Belarus is "based on the assumption that societal development is implicitly inclined toward democracy and progress," Mikhailov said. "This way of dealing with social reality, especially when we face it in a particular distorted and destroyed form as after the long-term domination by the totalitarian regime, is a special challenge for the present international community."

Mikhailov's lecture underscored the need for critical thinking, which he considers seriously lacking in Belarusian educational institutions. "Democracy as a way of life originates from free thinking," he said. He also underscored the important role of intellectuals, but cautioned they not talk about democracy in abstract, theoretical terms. He said, "Intensive rhetoric about democracy can in no way replace or substitute for our practical actions."

Ibrahim, the 2006 recipient, is head of the Ibn Khaldun Center in Cairo, Egypt and a professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo. He currently is finishing a semester as a visiting professor at Indiana University. His counsel was sought by successive Egyptian governments, from Sadat to Mubarak, until he became critical of Mubarak's administration, and was jailed for his ideas. He lives in exile, fearing imprisonment if he returns to Egypt.

"If this could happen to Ibrahim who is both an American citizen and married to an American, then what is the fate of an ordinary Muslim," asked Ambassador Akbar Ahmed in his introductory remarks to that lecture. "By marginalizing, persecuting, and sometimes murdering scholars, society is depleted of perhaps its most valuable asset."

Ibrahim focused his lecture on democratic lessons the Arab world could learn from Eastern Europe's experiences. He said not to despair waiting for that historical moment when forces will rise up to overcome tyranny. "No society is eternally immune from change and development," he said. Underscoring the importance of one's regional neighborhood in moving toward democracy, he said, "Successive countries learned it was possible for citizens to organize and overthrow a dictatorship by first seeing it happen across the border."

Ibrahim discussed the role of leadership—including Eastern Europe's use of collectivism as a successful political tool—the role of religion, and the power of external factors, including the media. "Today, the Arab world needs similar support from the free world," he said. "Conditional aid and putting teeth into expectations for minimal adherence to human rights standards in Arab countries would give heart to struggling democracy forces."

About Ion Ratiu
Ion Augustin Nicolae Ratiu was born in Transylvania in 1917 and was the son of Augustin Ratiu, a successful lawyer who became leader of the Romanian National Party. In 1940, Ion Ratiu joined Romania's Foreign Service and went to London as a chancellor at the Romanian Legation. Later that year, Romania's decision to align with the Axis powers appalled Ratiu, who resigned his post and obtained political asylum in Britain.

In exile in London after the communist takeover of Romania in 1946, Ratiu threw himself into the struggle against communism, becoming a regular contributor to the Romanian Service of the BBC, Radio Free Europe, and Voice of America. In 1957, his book Policy for the West radically challenged contemporary western views of the nature of communism. He went into shipping and later into real estate, and continued publishing. He returned to Romania in 1990 where he had a failed bid for the presidency. He did become a member of the Romanian Parliament and served as both deputy speaker of the Chamber of Deputies and as Romania's roving ambassador to NATO. Ion Ratiu died in January 2000. His funeral, in his home town of Turda, was attended by more than 10,000 people.

Christian Ostermann, director of the History and Public Policy Program, chairs the Ion Ratiu Democracy Lecture at the Wilson Center. Applications for the Ion Ratiu Democracy Lecture are reviewed annually but can be submitted on a rolling basis between December 1 and May 1 of each year.

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