VILNIUS, Lithuania — U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Friday that the rule of law, political parties and democratic institutions must emerge in the Arab world if it is to emulate Eastern Europe's remarkable transition two decades ago from authoritarianism to truly free societies.
In Lithuania for an international democracy conference, Clinton cited the real risk of Middle East and North African nations slipping back into autocratic old ways. And she lamented the latest accounts of violence in Syria, with security forces and knife-wielding, government-organized thugs reportedly attacking protesters in the city of Aleppo.
"Today there are new democracies fighting for life, there are vicious autocrats clinging to power," Clinton said in a speech at the "Community of Democracies" meeting. "This is an hour of need. And every democracy should stand up and be counted."
Drawing on the experience of Lithuania and other countries that opened up when the Iron Curtain came down 22 years ago, Clinton outlined a series of fundamentals she said were necessary for nations to make the transition to democracy: institutions rooted in law; equality for all, including women; a free press; economic opportunity; legitimate leaders.
The implicit warning was that it is uncertain if the Arab reform movements will translate into stable democratic societies. While Tunisia and Egypt try to find their own formulas for a new system of governance, the would-be democrats of Syria may never get their chance.
Speaking at a news conference in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, Clinton said Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime wasn't sending a coherent message. She noted how it allowed an opposition meeting in Damascus this week, while pressing on militarily in the north.
"We know what they have to do," Clinton said. "They must begin a genuine transition to democracy and allowing one meeting of the opposition in Damascus is not sufficient action toward achieving that goal."
Clinton said Assad's government is running out of time and it must advance a serious political process or face increased resistance.
The democracy conference was being held only a short distance from Belarus, Europe's last autocratic stronghold, where authorities are cracking down on demonstrators amid the country's worst financial crisis since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Clinton lamented the brutal repression in the country and how the government denies its citizens the most basic rights. President Alexander Lukashenko's iron fist has long been an asterisk to democratic change in eastern Europe, and the Obama administration is alarmed by the rapidly deteriorating situation.
Without mentioning either country by name, Clinton also expressed concerns about the political motivations behind Ukraine's legal proceedings against former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, and Russia's refusal to allow a new opposition party to participate in upcoming elections.