Vitali Silitski and His Input to Political Science

By Dzianis Melyantsou

A year ago, on the 11th of June 2011 the renowned Belarusian political scientist, blogger and civic activist Vitali Silitski passed away after a long battle with cancer. But after himself he has left numerous academic and analytical articles, several books and a great number of ideas which he unfortunately had no possibility to complete.

Vilali graduated from the Belarusian State University (department of Philosophy and Economy, programme in Sociology) in 1994. He holds M.A. in Politics (Central European University, Hungary) and PhD in Political Science from Rutgers University. With such brilliant education Dr. Silitski could have built a successful career in the USA or Europe but he preferred to return to
Belarus and work there to promote western standards of research and analysis in his home country.

In 1999-2003 he worked as an associate professor at the European Humanities Univerisity in Minsk. The EHU was the flagship center to bring European academic standards to the Belarusian academic community.

Nevertheless Vitali lost his position when the university administration took orders from the authorities to punish him for publicly criticizing the government of President Lukashenka. Afterwards he was a Reagan-Fascell Democracy fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington D.C. and visiting scholar at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law at Stanford University.

In 2007 Vitali was appointed director of the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS) and ran the Institute until his tragic death in 2011. Thanks to Vitali Silitski, his energy and dedication BISS soon became one of the leading Belarusian think-tanks working in the field of political research and public policy.

Silitski’s research interests embraced not only Belarus’s domestic politics and economy, but he also has made a significant input into political science as a discipline; he developed the concept of pre-emptive authoritarianism to explain how post-Soviet regimes prevented the democratic transformations associated with the color revolutions in Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine.
According to Vitali, the strategy was to suppress any emerging opposition forces before they were able to use the relatively liberal environment of competitive authoritarianism:

“Preemption aims at political parties and players that are still weak. It removes from the political arena even those opposition leaders who are unlikely to pose a serious challenge in the next election. It attacks the independent press even if it reaches only small segments of the population.

It destroys civil society organisations even when these are concentrated in a relatively circumscribed urban subculture. Last but not least, it violates the electoral rules even when the incumbent would be likely to win in a fair balloting.

Although these actions may destroy the regime’s democratic image abroad, the public at home may still perceive its leaders to be duly, if not fully democratically, elected. By uprooting political and social alternatives well before they develop into threats, incumbents can win elections long before the start of the campaign. And the validity of their victory is less likely to be contested when the strongest challengers have already been denied entry into the race by disqualification or other more nefarious means. Preemption has an enormous psychological impact on both the political and social opposition; such systematized repression instills in them a sense of hopelessness and imposes the perception that political change is far beyond reach.

Vitali Silitski underlined that it was Vladimir Putin’s Russia that pioneered this strategy. He argued that the Kremlin initiated measures “not only to discredit and demoralize the opposition with hostile propaganda, but also to strip it of anything like a level playing field and, when necessary, to remove it physically from the scene. This last goal may be pursued by simply
disqualifying opposition figures from running for office, but also by jailing them, forcing them into exile, or even, in extreme cases, murdering them” (1).

Pre-emption is only one of the three major tools that autocracies employ to maintain their rule via manufactured consent, Silitski wrote. Across the post- Soviet arena, regimes also exploit resource-based revenues to purchase consent and employ dirty political technology – disinformation and propaganda campaigns to discredit opponents before they even enter the electoral arena – in a strategy that provides revealing insight into the ruling elites’ political mentality:

In the minds of those who run the Kremlin, this is nothing to be ashamed of: They simply cannot imagine a political system working differently. In their view, the spontaneity that one seems to observe in Western democracies is a product of the same elite consensus and fixing, through which outsiders are marginalized. Western rhetoric about democracy and the rule of law is spurned as a cynical attempt to open up political space for outsiders who enjoy foreign backing (2).
According to political scientist Lukan Way (University of Toronto), Vitali Silitski was among the first to put authoritarian regimes in the international context

Many in the 1990s and the early 2000s wrote about democratic diffusion, but Vitali started a discussion about counter-diffusion. In a sense he created a new research agenda on the spread of authoritarianism. One of his concepts was what he called the authoritarian international - basically efforts to respond to external challenges by increasing coordination among non-democratic states.

This concept is very actual today, when we analyze the process of emerging of the Eurasian Union announced by Putin last year.
While much of his work was focused on the post-Soviet space, a region which has proved to be largely inhospitable terrain for democratic transitions, Silitski maintained a stance of cautious optimism that nevertheless rejected simplistic notions of democracy emerging from abrupt regime change or externally-driven political engineering.

“The project of promoting democracy is as complex as the world in which it must thrive, and it requires an intelligent and long-term effort that cannot be expected to be equally successful everywhere and at once,” he insisted (4).

Co-author of The A to Z of Belarus and The Political Trends in the New Eastern Europe: Ukraine and Belarus, author of the Historical Dictionary of Belarus, and the Postponed Freedom (5) Vitali Silitski also produced over 100 publications on issues of democratisation and authoritarianism in the former Soviet space, electoral revolutions, preemptive authoritarianism, EU relations with Belarus, and Belarus-Russia integration. He was a frequent contributor to the Journal of Democracy, the European Voice, ARCHE and many other periodicals. Vitali was an active, debate provoking and ironic blogger as well as a dedicated democratic activist and an enormously engaging person.

1. Vitali Silitski, “Tools of Autocracy”, Journal of Democracy Volume 20, Number 2, April 2009 pp. 42-46.
2. Ibidem.
3. Andrew Kuchins, Cory Welt, Mitchell Orenstein, Lucan Way, Rodger Potocki, “Vitali Silitski (1972-2011)”, Journal of Democracy Volume 23, Number 1, January 2012 pp. 188-189.
4. Vitali Silitski, “The Quintessential Dissident”, Journal of Democracy Volume 16, Number 3, July 2005 pp. 170-174.
5. It was published in 2012 in Belarusian.