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Hillary Rodham Clinton
Hillary Rodham Clinton
1 Jan 2008
Talking It Over

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Talking It Over

Comment

Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday. When we give thanks this week, most of us will focus our gratitude on the blessings God has bestowed on our families, friends and nation. But this Thanksgiving, I will also be grateful for something else — for the blessings that are taking place around the world.

Nowhere are these blessings clearer than in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Russia and Ukraine — countries of the former Soviet Union I was privileged to visit earlier this month. The President and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright asked me to take this trip to see firsthand the democratic and economic progress these countries are making in their historic transition from communism to freedom. While the task remains daunting, their achievements in the six short years since communism's collapse left me filled with hope for the future.

Imagine for a moment that you lived in a place where you could not speak your own language, practice your own religion or choose your own leaders. Imagine you were told what to read, what to say and what to think. And imagine that you could not start a business, own a home, travel freely or shape your own destiny. That was what life was like in these countries not so long ago.

As hard as it is for an American to imagine living under the shadow of the Iron Curtain, it may be even harder to think about how these countries will reckon with the challenges and opportunities freedom poses: to transform state-controlled economies into free-market ones; to move from totalitarian societies into democracies; to create functioning civil societies out of disparate cultural, ethnic and religious groups.

And yet, that is exactly what these people are doing. Reforms are taking place at all levels of society, but I was particularly impressed by what young people, women and non-governmental organizations are doing to build democracy.

Despite crumbling schools and rising tuition, the students I talked with on my trip were some of the brightest and most energetic I've ever met. Speaking in excellent English and with self-confidence, they were hungry for information about America and how best to prepare for their future. They seemed to understand that an educational environment that encourages critical thinking and initiative was vital not only to their future but to the future of their countries as well.

In Kyrgyzstan, I sat with six women in a traditional Central Asian tent, or yurt.

Over the last six years, the transition to independence has created new obstacles for women: Too often, they are the first to lose their jobs and the last to get new ones. But these women did not despair. Under the sponsorship of a microcredit organization, they received small loans that enabled them to buy food, spices and other goods to sell at market. A 20-year-old student explained she was earning money to pay her way through college; a single mother of six recounted how she had been able to buy her own house.

Many of the women and young people I met have been able to weather the challenges of change because of the growing strength of non-governmental organizations. We in America know the importance of the private sector in sustaining democracy, and that lesson is being learned in these newly independent nations as well. I met with non-governmental organizations that are cleaning up the environment, expanding health care, strengthening educational opportunities and supporting a free press and an independent judiciary.

I also visited renewed religious communities, which are playing a central role in nurturing civil society. In L'viv, Ukraine, I went to St. George's Cathedral and the Gilad Synagogue. Not only are these Catholic and Jewish congregations openly practicing their faiths — something that was prohibited under communism — they are also reaching out to strengthen their communities. At St. George's, there's a program to care for children with disabilities. At the synagogue, there is a new Jewish school.

On my trip, I saw how the newly free people of the former Soviet Union are doing the hard work of building a new architecture of democracy. I saw, too, how U.S. aid and investment are helping to sustain their effort. Direct support from the United States has opened up health clinics and provided loans to start small businesses. Many of the students I met had come to the United States on exchange programs. Scientists I spoke with at one of Russia's great science academies in Siberia were learning, with the help of U.S. programs, to adapt their highly sophisticated defense-industry skills to the civilian marketplace. Through Operation Provide Hope, American businesses and voluntary organizations have donated pharmaceutical and medical supplies for hospitals and clothing for children.

After seven decades of communist oppression, the countries I traveled to this month are free and on their way to becoming full democracies. America is working with them in partnership as they make this unprecedented transformation — one that will lead to a safer, more prosperous, more peaceful and more democratic world. On any Thanksgiving, that's something to be grateful for.

COPYRIGHT 1997 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED



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