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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ex-Dissident Sharansky Becomes Bush's Muse

ReutersSharansky and his co-author, Ron Dermer, left, giving Bush a copy of "The Case for Democracy" at the White House in November.
JERUSALEM -- It's been a long and lonely road for former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, who for years has been ridiculed for his political theories of spreading democracy across the globe to obtain world peace.

But the former Soviet refusenik, who is now a Cabinet minister in the Israeli government, no longer walks alone. His companion in his campaign to democratize the world is no less than U.S. President George W. Bush.

To have the ear of the most powerful leader in the world after decades of having his political ideology dismissed as naive and eccentric is a pleasant change for the diminutive Ukrainian-born mathematician.

"I am sorry that there are so few people who believe in these ideas, but it's nice to think that one of these very few people is the president of the United States," Sharansky, 57, said in his office in Jerusalem.

Not only did Bush read Sharansky's new book, "The Case for Democracy," with avid interest days after it was published, but he gave a copy to his top adviser, new Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and said he personally bought a copy for British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

"This is a book that ... summarizes how I feel. I would urge people to read it," Bush told CNN.

Bush was so taken with the book that he summoned Sharansky to the White House in November. The president spent an hour in the Oval Office discussing Sharansky's ideology based on his years as a dissident and prisoner in the Soviet Union.

"I told him: 'You are the real dissident. Politicians look at polls -- what is popular, what is not popular. A dissident believes in an idea and goes ahead with it ... even when there are so many people who disagree,'" Sharansky said.

Sharansky has espoused these views for more than two decades, but said he had been largely dismissed "as a guy who has spent too much time in a Soviet prison, so he is a bit crazy in the head."

Palestinians and Israeli peace activists see him as betraying the values of freedom and human rights he says he holds dear because he has not fought the Israeli occupation and has helped prop up a succession of right-wing Israeli governments. Even Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told him, "They are good ideas, but they don't belong to this part of the world."

So it was with a feeling of vindication that Sharansky heard Bush's inauguration address on Jan. 20, in which he called for "expansion of freedom" around the world and an end to tyranny, phrases that could have been taken from the pages of Sharansky's book. "I was very excited, not only because the words were so familiar and the ideas were so important. [But] the ideas were expressed with such confidence ... not by an academic, but by the leader of the free world who was going to implement them."

The soft-spoken Sharansky does not claim to have put words in Bush's mouth. Rather, he says his book gave Bush a historical context and political theory "for his instinctive feelings."

Sharansky's theories on "liberty" and "freedom" germinated while working as an aide to leading Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov in the 1970s and during his eight years in a Siberian jail after the Soviet authorities convicted him as a spy and traitor.

He became a symbol for the movement to free Soviet Jews, and under enormous international pressure, particularly from the United States, was released in 1986 as part of a prisoner swap with Moscow. He immediately immigrated to Israel.

There, a painfully thin Sharansky, despite being force-fed at a Soviet hospital before his release, was greeted as a national hero. He later formed a party for Russian immigrants that joined the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996.

He resents being pigeonholed as a "right-winger," despite opposing the 1993 Oslo peace accords with the Palestinians. He said his political views are conceptually different from anything on the Israeli political spectrum today. "Today I am called a right-wing extremist. Tomorrow I will be called a left-wing extremist," he said. "I am a refusenik."

The gist of Sharansky's view is that the "free world" should encourage countries to democratize by linking international standing and aid to their record on human rights and freedom of speech. It was such linkage through the 1975 Helsinki Agreements that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, he said.

Sharansky said he firmly believes the world would be more stable and extremism would fizzle out if all peoples, including those in the Middle East, enjoyed freedom and democracy.

As with Bush's speech, Arab academics are somewhat skeptical about Sharansky's view. "I can't swallow that he was a champion of human rights in the Soviet Union and when he came over here he forgot his past and was part of the scheme of occupying another people," Palestinian political analyst Ali al-Jarbawi said.

Sharansky does not spare criticism for the United States, saying it tried to appease countries such as Saddam Hussein's Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Washington, he said, should have linked relations and aid with improved human rights and democracy.

He acknowledged Bush faced an uphill battle for democracy in the face of the "realpolitik" that drives foreign policy. His advice to Bush: Ignore the skeptics and stick to your ideals. "Dissidents are always alone. ... You can only hope the logic of history is on your side. That is what happened in the Soviet Union and that is what I hope will happen in the Middle East."