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Red to White: Ex-Communists Taught Democracy 101

BEHIND the stone walls of a US military facility nestled among the idyllic German Alps here, the United States government is operating what potentially could be its most effective program to promote stability in Europe.

Then again, the project could be an exercise in futility. Only time will tell.

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''It's an act of optimism, but it is a pragmatic act at that,'' Marine Corps Col. Ernest Beinhart said of the program at the George C. Marshall Center for Security Studies.

Colonel Beinhart is one of the administrators of the project, which educates mid-level officers and civilian defense officials from formerly Communist nations in Central and Eastern Europe on the fine points of democracy.

Participants concentrate on the civilian-military relationship, including the necessity of civilian control of the military. They also learn how to draft defense budgets and lobby legislators for appropriations.

The center last week graduated its first class of former Communist-bloc officers, mostly majors and colonels, along with civilian officials. In all, 75 people from 21 nations completed the five-month course. The participants are selected by their own governments. The center wants participants who are considered to be on a fast promotion track.

''One way we will be able to judge success is to see who they are sending,'' says Alvin Bernstein, director of the center. ''We had incredible quality in the first [graduating] class.''

The hope is that graduates will rise to influential positions in defense establishments at home, using the knowledge gained at the center to help firmly anchor formerly communist armies in the democratic camp.

Another aim is to establish an old-boy network in which former Communist-bloc officers -- if the need arises -- can use the personal ties forged here to help avert a crisis.

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''Personal contacts can be very important. They can provide a big security guarantee,'' says Johannes Kert, an Estonian officer in the first graduating class.

Yet, as with most military endeavors, there is no guarantee the program will ultimately produce the desired results. All involved caution that it will be five to 10 years before success or failure can be gauged.

''You can only plant the seeds and hope they don't get washed away by the rain, or baked away by the sun,'' says Beinhart, the US Marine colonel. ''You never know if one of the seeds that we've planted will become an oak.''

While the program was designed for all formerly Communist nations, those running the Marshall Center would most like to see the so-called ''oaks'' take root in Russia, Europe's most important nation from a military standpoint, and a place where the military has had an especially tough time adapting to new conditions.

The situation within the Russian military could perhaps best be described as a fiasco. There are accusations of widespread corruption among senior officers. Civilian control over the military appears tenuous. And now, in the case of the ongoing Chechnya crisis in the northern Caucasus, commanders in the field are announcing publicly that they will disobey orders to attack civilians.

Such instability within the Army poses a threat to the entire Russian reform process, and by extension, endangers the fragile stability in Central Europe.

Six Russians, five officers, and one civilian were among the first Marshall Center graduating class. And while they all said they now have a greater understanding of how the military should operate in a democratic system, some are worried that the chaotic situation back in Moscow will make it difficult for them to build on their Marshall Center experience.

''They [the center] are trying to do good things. I will tell other officers that the experience was worth it,'' Lt. Col. Sergei Soldatenkov says. ''But I'm not sure that that I'll be able to continue. Back in Moscow, it will be easy to loose touch.''

Officers from smaller nations, meanwhile, said the course provided understanding that can make a difference. ''Before I had many questions about what my role was in the military and what the military's role was in a democracy,'' says Lt. Col. Anatolijs Jerumanis of the Latvian Army. ''Now I have confidence in my beliefs about what is the nature of liberal democracy. And what the relationship between the Army and the government should be. We have seen how others have done it, now we can use that experi ence to apply to our own situations.''

Although it's not known what kind of impact the program will have, the US Defense Department is exploring the possibility of doubling the number of participants, says Mr. Berstein, the Marshall Center director.

But expanding the program, naturally, will require greater funding. Democracy 101 costs roughly $11,000 per participant.

Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, who gave the commencement address, says he is optimistic that legislators in Washington will back the program, despite the budget-slashing mood on Capitol Hill.

''The assistance here is so directly related to our national security that I believe it will have bipartisan support,'' he says.

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