Self-Government Project Eases the Way to Democracy By Steve Libowitz When the Iron Curtain fell, the West hailed it as a triumph for democracy. Marie Flasarova, now the head of the environmental division for the Department of Planning and Development in Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic, worried that the people were not prepared for the realities of democracy. "For example, the government businesses became privatized so rapidly that no one considered the jobs that were eventually lost or the effects it might have on the environment," she said. Miles away in Policka, the new vice mayor, Jakub Skalnik, worried that people eagerly grabbed for their new freedoms but were unwilling to take the responsibility that came with it. "Hospitals wanted the freedom to operate free from government control," he said, "but then they put profit first, instead of the people. And the government was unable to stop it." Carmen Morosan, the chief of trade activities in the mayor's office in Piatra Neamt, Romania, was distressed because no one in the factories knew how to order raw materials that always had been provided automatically by the government. "We were used to being told what to do and when to do it," she said. "But we didn't know what to do or even how to think for ourselves. We were starting from nowhere to create a free society." And mistakes have been made. Ginka Kapitanova, mayor of Zlatograd, Bulgaria, lamented that in the rush for democracy, all the communist systems and bureaucrats were thrown away, before successors were trained. "We were wrong," she said. "We were too fast in getting rid of everything from the past, even things that worked well. We had a lot to learn, and we have learned too many times the hard way." For Michael E. Bell, a principal research scientist at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies, the process of democratic reform may seem global but is, in fact, essentially local. "As the euphoria of democratic reforms began to subside in Eastern and Central Europe, the reality set in that the real work of achieving these reforms is not so much about nations and economies but about a long-term process that must be implemented in the cities and towns," he said. "The problem is that the human capital needed to effect change at the local level simply did not exist in the previous system." To assist in this transition, the Institute for Policy Studies created the Local Self-Government Project, which in its first two years carried out a variety of activities designed to build the human infrastructure necessary for effective, free government. This year, the project added a new component: it has brought to Baltimore a dozen mayors, city managers and other high-ranking municipal officials-- Carmen, Ginka, Jakub and Marie among them--from five formerly communist countries for an intensive six-week internship program to learn how to run a democratic city. "This project is teaching them the broad strokes and some of the nuances of running a democratic local government, for which they have no model," Dr. Bell said. The group arrived in Baltimore from Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia on Aug. 22. They spent several days sightseeing, settling in with their host families and learning about local government and politics from city councilman and IPS staff member Bill Cunningham, Councilwoman Vera Hall and other local officials. Then they went to work with mentors at Baltimore and regional government agencies. Flasarova is working at the Baltimore Department of Planning with the blessings of her curious mayor, who hopes she will return with ideas about how to encourage people to protect the environment now that industries are no longer government controlled. "We want to start a recycling program in my town, and we have no idea how to get people to go along with it," she said. "So, I have a very real goal to learn how this is being done here." Mayor Kapitanova wants to return to Zlatograd with ideas about how to improve economic development and encourage responsible privatization. "I have to do something for my region," she said. "Unemployment is increasing, and there is a lot of competition for new business." Florin Matei, chief of election activities in Bucharest, Romania, had a front-row seat for Maryland's primary last week. "I didn't come here to copy your system," he said. "I came to find new ideas that get results and adapt them to my district. And I am getting a very good education." More than halfway through the project, Dr. Bell is pleased with the progress of the participants, whom he hand-picked from interviews conducted in Europe earlier this year. Dr. Bell said he was looking for people who spoke fluent English, who had never traveled outside Europe and who represented some of the brightest lights in the European reform movement. "We felt that the work of reform required bright, young, open-minded managers who were in positions of responsibility and who had authority to effect change," he said. There have been some problems along the way, Dr. Bell admitted, but nothing serious. "What we are learning is that the participants want to see how towns smaller than Baltimore handle their problems," he said, "because a number of them are governing in small towns. So, we've taken them to Annapolis and to Garrett County and have plans to visit Chestertown and Frederick." The other problem, Dr. Bell said, is that the schedule may be a little too packed. "In our effort to make this as complete an experience as possible, I think they may feel a little overwhelmed," he said. The pace does not slow, however. The group traveled to Cleveland last week to focus on that municipality's strong public/private development initiatives, which have been instrumental in Cleveland's recovery from bankruptcy in the late 1970s. "We're throwing a lot at them in six weeks," Dr. Bell said, "and we don't expect that they'll be able to implement everything they learn. But having experienced for themselves the way democracy works at the local level, we hope they will approach their problems with a broader perspective of the possible solutions as they begin the long, hard work it will take to create a similar open system in a place where only a closed communist system existed for several generations."
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