When the Soviet Union was collapsing in the late 1980s I was one of a small group of political operatives sent to Eastern Europe to help introduce democratic principles and develop modern political institutions.
I was sent (along with the star of the show a political genius named Maxene Fernstrom) to Hungary, Bulgaria, the country then known as Czechoslovakia, Romania, and later Ukraine, as I remember.
We were sent under the auspices of an organization known as the International Republican Institute (IRI). There is a parallel organization known as the National Democratic Institute (NDI).
Back in the day the two groups cooperated. The IRI teams dealt with the center-right groups; the NDI with the center-left groups. I’m not certain what the relationship is today, but for the 15-or-so years I traveled on behalf of the IRI, the NDI folks were valuable and trusted allies in the democracy-building game.
A couple of stories from those days.
In Hungary, I was talking to the senior advisor to the guy who was likely to be the first freely elected head of state at least since the Soviet Union sucked Hungary into its orbit.
I asked him if he thought the Russians would ever try to take control of Hungary again. He said, “If they bring the tanks back …” and stared off into the distance.
Given news reports of Vladimir Putin assembling Russian troops on the Ukraine border, he may have been, alas, prescient.
In Romania we were speaking with the editor of the largest newspaper in Bucharest. We asked him what it was like being censored by Soviet operatives. He said outside censorship would have been easy – bright lines and all that. But he had to operate under a system in which he was not told where the line might be, but he had to self-censor his staff which was emotionally, and professionally, crushing.
In addition to those longer-term assignments, I was picked to participate in training programs – often with women who were expanding their participation in the governance of their country from Europe to Southeast Asia and most countries in between.
When I got to Iraq in November of 2003, one of the first people I ran into was a great friend named Judy Van Rest. She was dressed in that semi-local way that Western women adopted when they were about to go out into the local society – head covered, long draping clothing, sensible shoes.
Unlike most of the staff based in the Palace in Baghdad, Judy went out of the Green Zone nearly every day, travelling in what I called a 1967 Renault with rusty bullet holes, to provide hands-on guidance to what were then the forces of good in establishing democracy in Iraq.
After the Iraq adventure, Judy returned to Washington where, among other roles, she had been a senior staffer at the Republican National Committee and in the White House during the George H.W. Bush Administration.
She joined the staff of the IRI, rising to the rank of Executive Vice President traveling the world, keeping track of far-flung staff, and being a great pal with whom my wife and I spent many pleasant dinners at one other’s homes, or favorite restaurants in Alexandria, Virginia. Along the way she assembled enough local artwork – paying much-needed USDs to local artists – to establish a small museum.
Judy passed away last week from complications associated with COVID-19. She had been vaccinated but picked up the virus somewhere along her travels or from someone who had been traveling.
The IRI and the NDI will go on but at a time when autocrats are scuttling back to power around the world, we can ill-afford to lose one such as Judy Van Rest.
Her long experience in tirelessly working to enhance the role of regular people – especially women – in the governance of their countries was vital. Her willingness to share her knowledge and her contacts to further the growth of democracy, the development of freedom, will not be easily or quickly replaced.
I will personally miss Judy’s friendship, but we will all miss her fierce dedication to sowing the seeds of liberty everywhere she went.
Rest in peace, my friend.
See you next week.