News Type

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.

Read More

All News button

Democratic leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and her delegation joined an interdisciplinary panel of Stanford scholars and members of the Belarusian community to discuss the future of democracy in Belarus.

Encina Hall
616 Serra Street
Stanford, CA 94305

Professor of Central and Eastern European Studies and Director of the Centre for European Studies at Lund University, Sweden and Anna Lindh Fellow at The Europe Center

Barbara Törnquist-Plewa is professor of Central and Eastern European Studies and director of the Centre for European Studies at Lund University, Lund, Sweden.  Her research interest include nationalism, collective memory, myth and symbols in Central and Eastern Europe (with focus on Poland, Belarus and Ukraine) as well cultural integration in Europe.  She has been involved in and coordinated a number of research projects on these issues.  Currently she leads a large international research network called “In Search for Transcultural Memory in Europe” financed by the EU (COST-programme) and the research project “Remembering Ethnic Cleansing and Lost Cultural Diversity in Eastern European Cities”.  She is also Lund University’s coordinator for International Research Training Group (Greifswald – Lund – Tartu) “Baltic Borderlands”, funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG).

Professor Törnquist-Plewa's publications include monographs The Wheel of Polish Fortune : Myths in Polish Collective Consciousness during the First Years of Solidarity, (1992) and Belarus: Language and Nationalism in Borderlands (in Swedish), (2001) and a number of articles and book chapters, the most recent one "Coming to Terms with anti-Semitism in Poland", European Cultural Memory Post-89, 2013 inv.30 in European Studies Series, Amsterdam: Rodopi. She contributed to and edited 14 collections of essays, the recent entitled Cultural Transformations after Communism. Central and Eastern Europe in Focus (2011) and Painful Pasts and Useful Memories. Remembering and Forgetting in Europe, (2012).


About the speaker:

Dr. Franz Cede is a retired Austrian diplomat who served as the Austrian Ambassador to Russia (1999-2003) and to NATO (2003-2007). He also was the Legal Advisor to the Austrian Foreign Ministry. He has a strong California connection dating back to the time when he was the Austrian Consul General in Los Angeles 20 years ago. Dr Cede holds the degree "Doctor of Law" from Innsbruck University. He received an M.A. in international affairs from the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, D.C., and is currently an associate professor at the Andrassy University in Budapest, Hungary. Dr. Cede has published several books and articles in the field of international relations, international law and diplomacy.

Jointly sponsored by The Europe Center at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, and the Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies.


Audio Synopsis:

In this talk, Dr. Cede details his views on Russia's evolving relationships with the EU, NATO, and the US, drawing on his experiences as Austrian ambassador to the Soviet Union from1999 to 2003. Cede first outlines his perceptions of present-day Russia-US and Russia-NATO relations. Russia, he explains, still thinks in Cold War terms of bilateral relations and considers the United States to be its primary strategic partner on global security issues, especially in light of the Obama administration's recent "reset" of relations and ratification of the new START treaty. In contrast, Russia views NATO as outdated and yet still a threat. Its expansion to the East is viewed with suspicion by Putin's administration, which considers these developments to be distinctly anti-Russian. Russia engages with NATO only to the extent that it believes it can influence the organization's behavior and policies toward Moscow.  Still, in Cede's experience, the NATO-US-Russia triangle continues to be at the forefront of Russian policymakers' dialogue. Russian leaders prefer to avoid dealing with the EU because it lacks a coherent foreign policy, and also because Russia prefers bilateral relations with countries that offer a strategic benefit. Dr. Cede quotes Timothy Garton Ash, who wrote in a recent op-ed that "much of the Russian foreign policy elite treats the European Union as a kind of transient, post-modern late 20th century anachronism: flawed in principle, and feeble in practice. What matters in the 21st century, as much as it did in the 19th century, is the...determination of great powers." Dr. Cede cites the Georgian military intervention and recent Ukrainian gas crisis as examples of Russia's renewed attempts to reestablish dominance in its neighborhood.  

In the second portion of his talk Dr. Cede traces the evolution of Russian views of the EU and NATO.  Ten years ago, the EU-Russia relationship was largely ignored in the Russian media. When Cede asked Russian citizens for their views on the EU, they "either didn't know or didn't care." As Ambassador, Dr. Cede found Russian officials better informed, but  disdainful of being given orders by EU donors and "treated like a developing country." Cede illustrates this dynamic by recounting the 2004 incident in which the EU forced the residents of Russia's Kaliningrad Oblast region to apply for EU Shengen visas, which then required special permits to travel throughout Russia.  Western assurances that EU expansion to the east was not an attack on Russia but rather an attempt to extend stability to the Eastern bloc fell on deaf ears. Cede believes that notwithstanding Russia's attitude, the country is too big to ever join the EU, or to be influenced by Europe in its policy decisions. Because Russia still views itself as "one of the poles in a multipolar world," Dr. Cede insists that any change must come from within the country. However, Cede views Russia's candidacy to the WTO, which would require a clearer commitment to democracy and open economic policies, as a glimmer of hope.

Finally, Dr. Cede outlines several "permanent" features of Russia's relationship with the world, including economic interdependence, lack of cooperation on security policy, and weak relations with stateless organizations like the EU and NATO. He lays out several recommendations, which are elaborated on during the Q&A session:

  1. EU policymakers and other Western powers (notably the US) should strengthen their common Russia policy. Given the EU's dependence on Russia for oil and gas, it should also diversify its own energy sources to strengthen its bargaining position.
  2. The EU should consider membership for "bridge countries" such as Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus.
  3. Personal diplomacy between universities, civil society, and citizens is important.  This includes reevaluation of visa policy. Cede hopes that the advent of the internet will also help improve attitudes between Russia and the rest of the world.

Reuben W. Hills Conference Room

Franz Cede Former Austrian Ambassador to Russia Speaker

Introduction by Michael McGriff, Jones Lecturer in Creative Writing, Stanford University.

Building 460
Terrace Room
Stanford University

Valzhyna Mort Belarusian Poet Speaker

The workshop is premised on the view that we are now entering a new phase in the development of post-Soviet Europe. Clearly, further NATO enlargement and EU expansion are unlikely to take place in the next few years, creating a zone of insecurity and potential instability dividing those countries which succeeded in winning integration into the EU and into NATO in recent years from those countries that have sought membership without any immediate prospects of achieving it.  Moreover, even among countries that have been successful in achieving membership in recent years there remains continuing anxiety about the degree to which their new European partners are prepared to support their economic viability and guarantee their security, particularly in light of increased assertiveness from Moscow.

The central purpose of this workshop series is to analyze the new dynamics emerging within this region, focusing on the external influences exerted by Moscow and Brussels and how they interact with the internal dynamics of the “corridor” countries, and to explore possible scenarios for future stabilization and development.

This workshop will be held November 5 and 6, 2009 at Stanford.  The primary focus will be the “corridor” of countries consisting of the Baltic and Central European members of the EU and NATO, together with Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. Moscow and Brussels will enter as driving outside influences. The participants will include analysts and policymakers from the region itself as well as scholars from the relevant scholarly communities.


CISAC Conference Room


Jeffrey Gedmin is President of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Inc. and in that capacity directs Broadcasting and Internet operations in 28 languages to countries stretching from Belarus to Bosnia and from the Arctic Sea to the Persian Gulf. Dr. Gedmin is author of the book "The Hidden Hand: Gorbachev and the Collapse of East Germany" (1992) and editor of a collection of essays titled "European Integration and the American Interest" (1997). He was also executive editor and producer of the award-winning PBS television program, "The Germans, Portrait of a New Nation" (1995) and co-executive producer of the documentary film titled "Spain's 9/11 and the Challenge of Radical Islam in Europe," aired on PBS in the spring of 2007. Jeffrey Gedmin has taught at Georgetown University and is an honorary professor at the University of Konstanz in Germany. A member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the board of the Council for a Community of Democracies (Washington, D.C.) and the Program of Atlantic Security Studies (Prague, Czech Republic), Gedmin holds a PhD. in German Area Studies and Linguistics from Georgetown University.

Dr. Gedmin's piece "Reporting Among Gangsters" on human rights violations perpetrated against journalists in Central Asia, appeared in the July 2, 2008 edition of the Washington Post.

Encina Ground Floor Conference Room

Jeffrey Gedmin President, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Speaker

This seminar will focus on the Holocaust as the most important factor in shaping the relationship between all Germans and all Jews, as well as on some of the differences in Germany's relationship with Israel on the one hand and with American Jews on the other hand. Consul General Schütte will also address the situation of Jews in Germany today, based on personal observations and research during his posting at the German Embassy in Tel Aviv, as Deputy Head of Division for Middle East Affairs in the German Foreign Office, during a speaking tour in the U.S., and as a visiting scholar at the American Jewish Committee in New York.

About the Speaker
Mr. Rolf Schütte was born on June 9, 1953 in Goslar, Germany. He studied German and Russian Philology and Political Science at Göttingen University, Germany, at Ohio University, and at the Bologna Center of Johns Hopkins University in Italy. He joined the German Foreign Service in 1981 and served in different functions in the Foreign Office in Bonn and later Berlin (e.g. as Deputy Head of Division for Middle East Affairs and Head of Division for Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova) as well as in the German Embassies in Moscow, Tel Aviv and Rome and in the German Mission to the United Nations in New York. Before becoming Consul General in San Francisco he spent a sabbatical year as a Visiting Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, the American Jewish Committee in New York and the Institute of European Studies in Berkeley.

This event is jointly sponsored by the Forum on Contemporary Europe and the Taube Center for Jewish Studies.

Philippines Conference Room

Rolf Schütte Consul General Speaker the German Consulate General, San Francisco
Subscribe to Belarus