Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya being applauded by members of the House following her lecture
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya

Forced into exile after the 2020 elections, when she embarrassed President Aleksandr Lukashenka by forcing him to undertake unprecedented levels of electoral manipulation, Tsikhanouskaya is a living embodiment of the importance of resisting the rising tide of authoritarianism. Speaking to a packed audience of Members of Parliament, journalists and the UK’s democracy community, she gave a powerful speech about her people’s struggle for freedom that elicited a long and moving standing ovation.

The Annual Lecture on the State of Democracy in the World is a new initiative of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD) and the University of Birmingham’s new Centre for Elections, Democracy, Accountability and Representation (CEDAR). Through their collaboration and shared research agenda, CEDAR and WFD are at the forefront of efforts to identify new ways to strengthen democratic resilience and reverse a 17 year trend of rising authoritarianism. The Lecture, which was supported by the University’s College of Social Sciences and the Birmingham International Engagement Fund, has been created in order to shine a light on the human stories that underpin the promise of democracy, such as Tsikhanouskaya’s, 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.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s remarks demonstrated the importance and urgency of defending democracy around the world in three different ways: the human impact, the spread of authoritarianism across borders, and how this spread undermines the prospects for peace and prosperity around the world. First, her personal account of developments in Belarus revealed the terrible impact of authoritarianism on ordinary citizens, and the way in which it breeds violence, fear, and economic hardship. Knowing that it cannot hope to retain power in free and fair elections, Lukashenka, has become increasingly repressive. Today, there are at least 1,500 political prisoners in Belarus, and conditions are so harsh that three political prisoners have died since 2020. Tsikhanouskaya herself only emerged as the main leader of the opposition after her husband, Siarhei Tsikhanouski, had been detained in order to stop him from contesting the 2020 general elections.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya delivering her inaugural Lecture
View Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya delivering the inaugural Annual Lecture in the Houses of Parliament in London

Second, she explained how authoritarianism spreads like a cancer, pointing to the authoritarian networks that exist between figures such as Vladimir Putin and Lukashenka, and the spread of authoritarian strategies across borders. Indeed, Putin’s support was critical to the survival of the Lukashenka regime in 2020. After blatant election rigging had triggered mass protests across the country, it appeared that discontent might spiral to a point where he would be forced from office. Instead, a promise from Putin to send armed support to Lukashenka if protests escalated to a point where his regime was threatened turned the tide and allowed him to cling on to power.

Finally, Tsikhanouskaya explained how authoritarian alliances make regions, and the wider world, less safe. In the case of Russia and Belarus, by keeping Lukashenka in power, Putin maintained a key ally and so sustained his influence in the region, with important implications for his foreign policy ambitions. In Tsikhanouskaya’s words, it was the increasingly strong ties between Lukashenka and Putin, and the latter’s belief that he could rely on unwavering support from Belarus during the invasion of Ukraine, that emboldened him to act. Had the 2020 elections been free and fair, and led to the emergence of a pro-democratic government, the prospects for an invasion of Ukraine being successful would have been lower, which might just have changed Putin’s thinking.

Following the lecture, which was introduced by the Chair of WFD, Richard Graham MP, Tsikhanouskaya discussed the broader implications of these points in the region in greater depth with Dame Melinda Simmons, the British Ambassador to Ukraine between September 2019 and August 2023. This discussion, which was moderated by the Director of CEDAR, Nic Cheeseman, covered a wide range of issues including the importance of women’s leadership – which has been shown to have positive effects on peace building – the ways that democratic countries can work together to counter the growing authoritarian threat, and the particularly challenging impact of autocratization and conflict on young people.


From left to right- Nic Cheeseman, Richard Graham, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Dame Melinda Simmons and Anthony Smith
From left to right- Nic Cheeseman, Richard Graham, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Dame Melinda Simmons and Anthony Smith

The powerful and practical discussion between Tsikhanouskaya and Dame Simmons provided further proof of the value of bringing together democratic allies across borders, and hence of the State of Democracy in the World Lecture. Plans are already underway for the 2024 Lecture – check the websites of CEDAR and WFD for more information in due course.