On August 9, 2020 citizens in the Republic of Belarus went to the polls to vote for their next president. The incumbent was Alexander Lukashenko, a 67-year-old military officer who has kept an iron grip on the presidency for the entire 26 years Bealrus has held elections. But the challenger was an unexpected, new face. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is a 38-year-old English teacher, mother and pro-democracy activist who stepped into a campaign following her husband's arrest and imprisonment in May 2020 for political dissension. In four short months, she galvanized the nation with a message of democracy, freedom and fair elections that reached across opposition factions and gained enough momentum to become a serious contender for the presidency.
On election day, projections estimated an initial win for Tsikhanouskaya at 60%. But when the country's Central Elections Commission announced the election results, Lukashenko carried 80% of the vote, and Tsikhanouskaya a mere 10%. Given the long history of election engineering in Belarus, the results were expected. But what happened next was not. Outraged by the fraud, Tsikhanouskaya's supporters poured into city centers in Brest and Minsk by the tens of thousands, instigating the largest public protests in the history of post-Soviet Belarus. Caught off-guard, the regime hit back with a ruthless wave of violence and political imprisonments, prompting the European Union, NATO and other countries to impose sanctions and condemn Lukashenko as an illegitimate leader.
While Tsikhanouskaya's presidential campaign ended last August, her role as a democratic leader in Eastern Europe has not. In the year since the election, she has traveled the globe to meet with lawmakers, policy experts and heads of state to speak out against the ongoing repression of Lukashenko's regime and advocate for support of Belarus by the international community. The Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) was honored to host Tsikhanouskaya and her delegation at Stanford for a roundtable discussion on the challenges that lay ahead in preparing Belarus for a democratic transition. Director Michael McFaul hosted the discussion, which brought together scholars from across FSI, the Hoover Institute and the Belarusian expatriate community. The full recording is below.
Rather than holding a typical press conference, Tsikhanouskaya's visit at FSI gave members of the Belarusian delegation an opportunity to engage in back-and-forth dialogue with an interdisciplinary panel of experts on governance, history and policy. Tsikhanouskaya and her senior advisors shared their perspectives on the challenges they are facing to build and maintain pro-democracy efforts, while Stanford scholars offered insights from their extensive research and scholarship.
Presidents, Protests and Precedent in Belarus
As leader of the delegation, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya gave an overview of the brutality of Lukashenko's regime and the lawlessness that has enveloped the country. But she also reaffirmed the commitment of everyday Belarusians to defending their independence and continuing the work of building new systems to push back against the dictatorship, and encouraged the support of the international democratic community.
"Belarusians are doing their homework. But we also understand that we need the assistance and help of other democratic countries," said Tsikhanouskaya. "That support is vital, because our struggle relates not just to Belarusians, but to all countries who share these common values."
Speaking to the work that Belarusians have already undertaken, Franak Viačorka, a senior advisor to Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, described how citizens are creating new means of protesting and organizing. Though they learned some tactics from recent protests in Hong Kong and classic theories by political scientists like Gene Sharp, organizers in Belarus quickly realized that they needed to innovate in order to keep ahead of Lukashenko's crack-downs. Today the opposition is a tech-driven movement that spreads awareness and support quickly through digital spaces and underground channels while avoiding large in-person gatherings that attract government brutality.
By Tanya Bayeva's assessment, these methods of organizing have been effective in capturing widespread support amongst people. A member of the Belarusian diaspora, Bayeva described the sense of empowerment she felt in coming together in a common cause with like-minded people.
"By coming out like this, people have started realizing that it is up to us, the people, and our individual willpower to make a difference," said Bayeva. "We are realizing that the king has no clothes, and that working together we can forward the process of democratization."
But there is still plenty of work ahead. In order to facilitate a more peaceful future transition to a democratic system, there will need to be frameworks in place to bridge the divide between old systems and new. Valery Kavaleuski, the representative on foreign affairs in Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya's delegation, is focusing extensively on these issues, such as reconciliation processes and plans for future investments between Belarus and the European Union.
"These are political moves that reinforce hope among Belarusians and tells that that they are not alone and that when the change comes, they will have friends by their side to overcome the challenges of the transition period," said Kavaleuski.
Advice from Stanford Scholars: Focus on Processes and People
Responding to the Belarusian delegation's questions and comments, the faculty from FSI and the broader Stanford community offered insights and considerations from a variety of perspectives and disciplines on 'next steps' for the pro-democracy movement.
Francis Fukuyama, the Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow at FSI and Mosbacher Director at the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law (CDDRL), cautioned against the impulse to immediately take down the state and bureaucratic systems of the existing regime. While dismantling the mechanisms from the old state may feel emotionally satisfying, examples from history such as post-Nazi Germany and post-invasion Iraq illustrate the crippling effect on efficiency, functionality and the ability of the new order to govern in a vacuum of bureaucratic expertise.
FSI's Deputy Director, Kathryn Stoner, gave similar advice in regard to drafting and implementing a new constitution and conventions.
"People care to a great degree [about a new constitution], but not to months and months of debate and politicians yelling at one another. People can't eat constitutions," said Stoner. "You have to demonstrate that your system is going to be better than what was. When things have not gone well in transitioning countries, it's been because people don't see concrete change. So have a constitutional convention, but make it fast."
Amr Hamzawy, a senior research scholar for the Middle East Initiative at the Center for Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law, also pointed to the importance of engaging the public and building alliances within both the old and new political systems. Based on his observations of the failed Egyptian and Tunisian efforts at democratic transition, he cautioned against discussions of impunity, arguing that while politically and morally symbolic, this practice often backfires and alienates important factions of the state apparatus which are vital for the function and success of a new government.
Hamzawy similarly encouraged carefully blending nationalism and populism to keep divisions within the public sector in check. Imbuing such narratives with pro-democracy rhetoric, he believes, can create a powerful tool for unifying the population around the new government and emerging national identity.
The advice from the Europe Center's director, Anna Grzymala-Busse, succinctly brought together many of the points made by the faculty panel: "No post-transitional government can achieve all the promises they've made right away," said Grzymala-Busse. "So make the transition about processes rather than specific outcomes, about ensuring the losers are heard along with the winners, and about making sure all people can participate."
Additional participants in the roundtable discussion not noted above include Hanna Liubakova, a journalist and non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, Dmytro Kushneruk, the Consul General of Ukraine in San Francisco, and Stanford scholars Larry Diamond, David Holloway, Norman Naimark, Erik Jensen, Kiyoteru Tsutsui and John Dunlop.