Balkan trip opened this voter's eyes

(John Andrews in the Denver Post, Nov. 20) When I voted in Colorado’s 2005 tax referendum and the Centennial local election, it had deeper meaning for me than any vote since my first one almost 40 years ago. In 1966 I was just out of college, engaged and headed for the Navy. I patriotically cast my ballot for Republican candidates committed to America’s struggle against world communism and skeptical of Lyndon Johnson’s welfare state. I’m now a grandfather and politically battle-scarred. Yet this November I felt a brand-new sense of gratitude for our privilege to exercise “the consent of the governed.” It came from spending part of October in Macedonia and Serbia, where the icy grip of communism denied such consent until very recently.

On the day when Iraqis, themselves newly freed from brutal tyranny, were voting to ratify a democratic constitution, I flew overnight from Denver to Skopje, Macedonia. Ancient Macedonia sent Alexander the Great to conquer the known world. Through its gateway Europe received the Christian gospel -- and later the Muslim invaders. Skopje is the birthplace both of Mother Teresa and of modern terrorism; the Orthodox revolutionary movement against the Turkish empire began there in 1903.

Macedonia and its larger neighbor to the north, Serbia, struggled out of the ruins of the old Yugoslavia as fledgling democracies about 15 years ago. But ethnic and religious civil wars led by the now-deposed Milosevic regime in Belgrade cost the region another decade of chaos in the 1990s. Only since 2000 have these troubled countries gained enough stability to start building democratic institutions, civil society, and a market economy. I went hoping to help a little in that process.

The International Republican Institute, a nonprofit agency funded with USAID dollars, invited me to Skopje and Belgrade as part of the democracy-building work they do in scores of countries around the world. My time there imposed a humbling perspective upon the supposedly great issues we battled over in this year’s state campaign.

In the grim context of Balkan underdevelopment, our squabble over spending levels in Colorado’s enviable systems of education, health care, and transportation seemed less cosmic. When I deplaned at DIA with descriptions of the mafia hit on Serbia’s reforming prime minister ringing in my ears, our fretting about media bias or campaign violations suddenly sounded childish. Fabulously affluent, complacently law-governed, ancestrally free – we Americans take way too much for granted.

The genius of America, our institutions of self-government and wealth-creation along with the timeless moral truths and civic virtues that make those institutions possible, must never be taken for granted. Not even amid the state’s exhaustion after the C & D shouting match. Not even amid the nation’s dismay at the mess blamed on (pick your villain) in Washington. Never.

Our heritage of liberty must be faithfully treasured, jealously guarded, and generously shared – or we will lose it. President Bush was right when he said, “We live in a time when the defense of freedom requires the advance of freedom.” You don’t have to agree with the President’s application of that in Iraq to admire how the International Republican Institute is making it real in places like Macedonia and Serbia. (The institute’s chairman, incidentally, is Sen. John McCain, no Bush puppet.)

Over there, IRI’s dedicated staffers connected me with officials and parliament members from parties in the government, parties in opposition, Christian parties, Muslim parties, one party formerly in armed revolt and another currently boycotting the parliament sessions. The resilience and resourcefulness of these determined men and women awed me.

They told of gradual progress for self-government despite such obstacles as crooked elections, intimidated media, ex-communist oligarchs, age-old hatreds, deadening apathy, massive unemployment, and endemic corruption. I spoke about lessons I’ve learned in the legislative majority and minority, in campaigning, in think tanks.

Bridging the gulf between my experience and theirs was not easy. But we found a bridge in the universal truths of “all created equal,” “unalienable rights,” and “consent of the governed.” Marking my C & D ballot a week later on the kitchen table at home, I couldn’t shake the sappy feeling that Jefferson and Hamilton were sternly watching.