2023 Lecture: Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya

Annual lecture

2023 Lecture: Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya

The inaugural Annual Lecture on the State of Democracy Around the World was delivered by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya on Tuesday 17 October 2023.
A woman stands at a lectern in front of a microphone, the backs of the audience's heads are in the foreground. She stands next to a sign that says strengthening democracy around the world. The words Inaugural Lecture on the State of Democracy are on a screen next to her.

About Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is the leader of the Belarusian democratic opposition movement. She stood against Aliaksandr Lukashenka in the 2020 presidential elections, after her husband was barred from running, arrested, and imprisoned. Lukashenka was declared the winner of the flawed and fraudulent elections. Following her forced exile from Belarus, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya inspired unprecedented peaceful pro-democracy protests in Belarus, with some rallies numbering hundreds of thousands of people.  

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is now Head of the United Transitional Cabinet of Belarus. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya announced the anti-war movement to prevent the participation of Belarus in the war against Ukraine.  

She has visited 28 countries, gathering support and advocating for the release of more than 1500 of political prisoners and a peaceful transition of power through free and fair elections. In meetings with world leaders Tsikhanouskaya has argued for the need for a braver response to the actions of the Belarusian dictatorship. 

About the lecture series

Our Annual Lecture on the State of Democracy in the World shines a light on the human stories that underpin the promise of democracy and the struggle to defend it around the world. Strengthening democracy is a global challenge, and we can learn from the experiences of those working to uphold human rights and strengthen democracy in their countries and communities.

In an era of rising authoritarianism there is a tendency to focus on the role of autocrats and dictators. But every day, people around the world put themselves at risk in service of democracy. Our lecture spotlights democracy defenders and innovators and offers a chance to hear their ideas about the challenges and opportunities for democracy. This can help us identify the way forward to strengthen democracy globally.

The lecture is organised by WFD in partnership with the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Elections, Democracy, Accountability and Representation (CEDAR).

Dear friends,

I’m deeply honoured to be the first one to deliver this Annual Lecture on the state of democracy in the world. I heartily thank the WFD and CEDAR for this opportunity.

I think it’s a common feeling that democracy around the world is in danger.

It’s sad to realize that only 20 percent of the world's population live in a country rated as free by Freedom House.

Lately, democracy is not just in decline. It’s under attack.

One of the brutal attacks on democracy has been carried out in Belarus by the Lukashenka regime – for three years now.

Supported by Russia, this attack led to Russia’s military presence in Belarus. It made possible the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In which Lukashenka is Putin’s accomplice.

I’m convinced that the West could have prevented this bloody war by reacting earlier and harsher to what Lukashenka was doing to Belarusians in 2020.

If our peaceful revolution succeeded then, the war would probably never have started.

As I often say, tyranny is like cancer. If not dealt with  properly, it spills over entire regions. This is exactly what happened in the case of Belarus.

The members of the so-called Dictators’ Club learn from each other and support each other. Lukashenka’s media, as well as Putin’s, were cheering after the Hamas terrorist attack on Israel. Propaganda wrote that the attack was “the victory of Minsk and Moscow”.

Tyrants are mongering hate against the democratic world among the population of their countries.

After 9/11, people in the United States were asking: why do they hate us?

They do, because the existence of Western democracies proves to the people of the globe that another world is possible.

Democracy is more attractive and more effective than tyranny

Democracy is more attractive and more effective than tyranny. It’s more successful economically. To live in a democracy means to live in security, peace and prosperity.

This is why people from all over the world are attracted by the way of life in Western democratic societies. They also want their share of prosperity and peace. They don’t look up to authoritarian countries. But unfortunately not all of them succeed in building democracy at home.

To live in a democracy means to live in the twenty-first century. To live in a dictatorship means to live in the times of the Cold War, and in some cases in the Middle Ages.

Belarusians chose democracy in 2020. They have never changed their minds since then. They want to live in an independent, free, modern country, but not in a totalitarian system.

But they have a hard time staying true to their choice in a country controlled by a violent Kremlin-backed regime.

What does life in a dictatorship mean?

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It was the British writer George Orwell who described it best. It is a world turned upside down. A world, where “War is peace. Slavery is freedom. Ignorance is strength.” Lies are the truth, and so on.

Dictatorship is a world of fakes

Dictatorship is a world of fakes. Lies appeal to the human mind, because they are more intriguing than plain truth. The bigger the lie, the more willing are people to believe it.

Tyranny means not only hatred and fake news. Tyrants also stage a fake democracy. They deprive people of their voices and turn them into an obedient hard-working mass.

Fake democracy starts with fake elections. Elections without a real choice are degraded to an empty ritual. Such were held in the Soviet Union – and in Belarus, after Lukashenka came to power in 1994.

Manipulation and ready-made results. Kidnapping and murders of political opponents. Mass detentions and beatings. All this happened in Lukashenka’s Belarus. Even before 2020, almost every presidential candidate other than Lukashenka ended up in jail. 

In 2020, the campaign started with the detention of presidential hopefuls Viktar Babaryka and Siarhei Tsikhanouski, my husband. False allegations were brought against them.

I replaced my husband, because I didn’t want to fail him. And I didn’t want to fail the Belarusian people, who remained without alternative candidates. A housewife with two children challenged the tyrant.

The authorities registered me, Lukashenka couldn’t belive that a woman without any experience could beat him. “Our Constitution is not for women,” – dictator said. He was wrong. Me and my team, we managed to steal the show. And Belarusians voted for us.

Of course Lukashenka declared his victory again, but no one believed him this time. He lost his legitimacy in the eyes of Belarusian people. And hundreds of thousands went to the streets to defend their choice. Even the terror and mass repressions did not kill people's desire for freedom.

Dictatorship means fake justice. Belarusian courts became just another tool of political revenge. Everyone can be sentenced to several years in prison as an extremist. What for? Just for sharing or liking a post criticizing Lukashenka or Russia in social media.

You are going to be arrested, beaten, and then humiliated on a so-called confession video. On those, we can see beaten and tortured people blaming themselves for crimes they never committed. Just like in Stalin’s times. Or in Orwell’s books. 

Aliaksei, an IT specialist, was arrested for a comment on the internet. They came for him to his office, handcuffed him and started beating him in the police car. They tore his ear and made him drink from a toilet bowl at the police station. After serving one year and a half in Lukashenka’s prison he managed to leave the country.

It’s just one typical example of political persecution in Belarus. Since 2020, more than 50 000 people have passed through experience of detention.

We usually think that such things happen on a regular basis only in Iran or North Korea. No, they happen every single day in Europe, in Belarus.

Situation with human rights in Belarus has become a catastrophe. Such arrests, as I’ve just described, continue every day. In August, about 20 people were detained daily.

There are at least 1500 political prisoners, the real number can be much higher. Up to 5000 - at least. They are kept in harsh conditions, many of them in solitary confinement, some of them incommunicado.

I haven’t heard anything from my husband Siarhei Tsikhanouski since March. I don’t even know if he is alive. Several months ago, they sent me text messages saying he was dead.

At least three political prisoners died in prison — Vitold Ashurak, Mikalai Klimovich and Ales Pushkin. Ashurak was beaten to death, Klimovich and Pushkin were denied medical assistance. Ales Pushkin, one of the best painters in Belarus, will never finish his last painting that he was working on for years. It is a painting about the history of the Belarusian fight for freedom.

As I speak, the lives of hundreds of political prisoners are in danger for the same reason. Including those of my friend Maryia Kalesnikava, Viktar Babaryka, Ksenia Lutskina and many others.

Having texted me fake news about my husband’s death, Lukashenka’s henchmen were trying to break me. But you know what, they didn’t, and they won’t break me. Just like they can’t break the will of our political prisoners.

Take Palina Sharenda Panasiuk, mother of two children. She renounced Belarusian citizenship in protest against torture. Last year, she spent more than 200 days in isolation, in the punishment cell. She was beaten, and her ribs were broken. She is denied treatment and medication for her liver condition. They are literally killing her. With a height of 5,5 feet, Palina now weighs only one hundred pounds.

Now, they sentenced Palina to a new prison term for the third (!) time in a row. But neither torture, imprisonment, nor an attempt to put her in a mental ward have broken her.

Dictatorship means fake humanism. Since 2020, Lukashenka has been bringing to Belarus immigrants from the Middle East and Africa. He is using them to orchestrate a hybrid attack on the European Union. In this way he blackmails our neighbour countries – Poland, Lithuania, Latvia.

It is an orchestrated human tragedy from which the dictator hopes to benefit. Do you think that he cares for refugees’ lives? Of course not. All he cares for is his personal power.

It is fake humanism when he illegally brings Ukrainian orphans from occupied territories to Belarus. There, his propagandists brainwash them and teach them to hate Ukraine, their motherland.

Lukashenka acts as if he had no part in the war. As if he didn’t help to destroy these children’s homes with Russian missiles launched from Belarus last year. As if he didn’t know that to displace citizens of another state, in this case Ukraine, is a war crime.

Dictatorship means fake patriotism. The dictator brings Russian nuclear weapons to Belarus saying that these are “for our protection”. Protection from whom? No, it is the tool to blackmail the neighbors, and to fix Russian control over Belarus for many many years.

As a fake patriot, Lukashenka needs only those Belarusians, whom he can control. Those, who left the country fleeing repressions, are rendered stateless by his recent decision: not to renew national passports for Belarusians in exile. He just wants to get rid of them, and take revenge on everyone who dared to speak up against him.

Finally, dictatorship means propaganda and fake news. In Belarus, it’s all anti-Western and anti-Ukrainian brainwashing and hate-mongering. It endlessly goes on in the media, but not only. It starts in schools already.

Wagner mercenaries, murderers that Lukashenka brought to Belarus after Prigozhin’s coup, are invited to teach Belarusian pupils. In the same schools, Belarusian classical writers are banned because they wrote - and fought - against Russian imperialism.  

However, even such a massive propaganda has its limits. The regime did not manage to convince Belarusians to join Russia in the war against Ukrainians. It gives me hope that after so many years of dictatorship, people have developed resilience to lies, and learned to look for the truth. 

So, what does it mean to live in a dictatorship?

It means fear. You are afraid to visit anti-government pages on the internet. Or to read the media proclaimed “extremist”. Even when writing to your family, you use encrypted messengers, to avoid potential encounters with the KGB.

You are afraid to keep your old photos in your phone: they can be used as evidence that you were taking part in protests three years ago. You are afraid to speak Belarusian on the street, because it makes you a potential enemy of the regime.

You know that if they come for you, you won’t be out of prison for months and probably years, because there’s no independent justice. There is just no way to prove that you are innocent. Presumption of guilt works instead of presumption of innocence.

Belarus can be a success story

Given all this harshness and hardships, I sometimes hear that Belarus is a lost case. But it’s not. Let me assure you: Belarus can be a success story.

Why am I so positive about it? Because I know the Belarusian people. A pensioner from Minsk called me some time ago. She told me that she and her female friends gather regularly to discuss politics and support each other. “Aren’t you afraid?”, I asked her. “We’re simply tired of being afraid,” she told me. “There are too many of us. They just can’t arrest everyone.”

People like this woman give me strength to go on in my political activities. Also, thinking about my husband doesn’t leave me another choice than to continue my fight.

You know, my son has been hearing-impaired since he was born. I spent years trying to rehabilitate him. I did not know if it would work out, I was just doing what I had to do.

Fighting for democracy is the same — it can be long and challenging, with no outcome guaranteed. But we have to hold on to that dream and be ready to give it all to it.

Belarusians are tired of living in dictatorship for almost 30 years. Though you can’t see any beautiful rallies like those three years ago, the resistance continued and went underground. It’s not “sleeping”. It’s preparing for a new window of opportunity when it comes.

Only last year, there were at least 375 acts of peaceful protest in Belarus. Recently, Belarusian railway partisans have blown up the railway track section, used by the Russian military.

As I speak, thousands of Belarusian volunteers are fighting for Ukraine within the Ukrainian Armed Forces. So were thousands of Belarusians fighting in the Anders (Андэрс) army during WWII. Fighting for Britain, they were fighting for Belarus.

Today, defending Ukraine, Belarusians also fight for freedom of Belarus. The destinies of our countries are intertwined.

Because Putin doesn’t see Belarus or Ukraine as independent countries. He wants our countries to be colonies, without democratic institutions, and without national identity.

And without Belarus and Ukraine Putin’s attempts to restore the empire are doomed to fail.

Dear friends,

I have no doubt that Ukraine will win this war. And Belarus will be free too. However, we can’t win this fight alone. We need strong allies and friends, who are ready for bold steps and decisions.

And I do believe that such people are today in this room.

I don’t ask you to fight instead of us. Changes in Belarus are the task for Belarusians themselves. But I ask you to stand with Belarus in such a critical moment of history, when the very existence of our country is under threat.

I wish Belarus to be among the priorities of the British Parliament, current and future UK government.

I ask you to demand from your government the strong and decisive steps in confronting Putin’s and Lukashenka’s tyrannies. Words of condemnation are not enough.

Demand immediate withdrawal of Russian troops and weapons from Belarus.

Sanction Russia for undermining Belarus sovereignty. Current sanctions don’t work in full because of loopholes. And the UK could set an example of how to fight circumvention of sanctions.

Join the international coalition in support of independent and sovereign Belarus. Don’t allow Belarus to become a consolation prize for Putin.

While increasing sanctions on the regime, increase assistance to democratic forces. Civil society. Independent Media. Human rights defenders. We have resources to sustain, but we need resources to win.

Help us to restore justice. Demand the tribunal not only against Putin, but also Lukashenka. An arrest warrant must be issued. He has a long record of crimes: crimes against humanity, orchestrated migration crisis and, finally, deportation of Ukrainian children.

Parliamentarians can join the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Belarus. Let me here today pay a tribute to our big friend Sir Tony Lloyd, the Group’s chairman, and thank him for his steady support of Belarus. 

Become godparents for political prisoners like Boris Johnson adopted my husband yesterday. Many of them have already served their terms. Now they need relocation and rehabilitation, and I rely on your support in this matter.

There are exiled Belarusians in Britain. the regime recently deprived them of passports. We plan to start issuing our own, alternative Belarusian passport, as Baltic states were doing during the Soviet occupation. That will allow Belarusian to travel and not to lose the connection with the motherland. And I hope that the UK will be among the first to endorse this initiative.

And finally – help Ukraine win this war. Victory of Ukraine will be the ultimate defeat of Putin and Lukashenka. Democratic Belarus will be a huge blow to Russian imperialism.

Dictators unite – so should democracies

Dear friends,

Fighting for free Belarus is a part of the global struggle for democracy. The dictators unite, so should democracies. I firmly believe that the challenges that we face today will make us only stronger.

We live in a pivotal moment of history. “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever,” Orwell wrote. This is exactly the prophecy that we must prevent from coming true.

Democracy itself is not a boot on anyone’s face. We don’t want to impose our way of life upon others. We open the door for the people of the world, welcoming them to live in the 21st century.

This is exactly what Belarusians want. And no dictatorship, no occupation, no terror can hold us back from fulfilling our dream to become a truly democratic European country.

I hope very much that, with help of one of the oldest European democracies, the United Kingdom, we will prevail.

Thank you very much. Zhyve Belarus!