Vitali Silit Ski (1972-2011)
Vitali Silitski died of cancer on 11 June 2011 at age 38. A renowned Belarusian political scientist, he produced more than a hundred publications on democratization and authoritarianism in the former Soviet space. In 2003, he was forced out of the European Humanities University in Minsk, where he had been an associate professor, after openly criticizing President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s government. Subsequently, he was a Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow at NED and a visiting scholar at Stanford University, and then became director of the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies.
Vitali was a frequent and highly valued contributor to the Journal of Democracy. In addition to contributing several articles on Belarus, he wrote with keen insight about a considerably wider range of subjects, including the color revolutions, the nature of the autocratic regime in Putin’s Russia, and Natan Sharansky and the phenomenon of dissidence.
Vitali was extraordinarily learned as well as insightful. He was simply the best political scientist of his generation to emerge from the former Soviet Union, and it is a tragedy that the world will not be able to benefit from the scholarly achievements that he undoubtedly would have made if his life had not been so rudely cut short. Vitali was also a dedicated democratic activist and an enormously engaging man. He will be sorely missed not only in the scholarly world, but by his many friends, fellow democrats, and brothers-in-arms.
A tribute to Vitali Silitski was held as part of a panel discussion on the future of Belarus at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., on September 8. It was also cosponsored by NED and PONARS Eurasia. Excerpts of tributes to Vitali appear below:
Andrew Kuchins (CSIS): I think that the turnout here is also a tribute to Vitali Silitski, our late colleague and comrade, who has very many admirers, supporters, and friends in this town and around the world. All of us were very, very deeply saddened by his unfortunate and untimely passing earlier this year. I fondly recall Vitali both for his analytical astuteness, his independent thinking, and especially his dry humor and his quickness with a quip and a gentle needle.
Cory Welt (George Washington University): When Vitali told me that he was sick in July last year, it was impossible for me to imagine that this was going to lead to his passing, and in less than one year at just 38 years old. Vitali was a brilliant and dedicated scholar, a patriot, and a [End Page 188] humanitarian. He was a vibrant presence and all who knew him cherished his friendship. He is greatly missed.
Mitchell Orenstein (SAIS): Vitali was a wonderful scholar, and he was also devoted to being a bridge-builder between Belarus and the West. Certainly the best way to honor him is by maintaining the tradition that he established of sharp, consistent analysis of Belarus but also by creating and maintaining those links which he worked so hard to achieve and are so evidently on display here today.
Lucan Way (University of Toronto): I first met Vitali in Minsk in 2004 when I was working on Belarus, but I quickly learned that his work had relevance far beyond this one case, that he offered a nuanced understanding of the functioning of authoritarian regimes. . . . He 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. The international encompasses counter-monitoring to declare elections free and fair that most observers would not consider free and fair. This authoritarian international extends both within the former Soviet Union and to a broad range of nondemocratic regimes elsewhere, including Venezuela and Iran. Vitali also emphasized the importance of individual creativity in the survival of authoritarianism, and I think Belarus represents one case in which it really was the creativity of one individual, Lukashenka, which has kept this authoritarian regime alive despite a very hostile context. Vitali also introduced the concept of authoritarian preemption, in which authoritarian leaders respond not just by sporadic reactions to already existing opposition but by making preemptive attacks that eliminate threats before they grow too large: attacks on politicians who do not pose a serious threat, attacks on media even when the media are totally sidelined, and serious violations of electoral rules even when the incumbent would likely win anyway.
Rodger Potocki (NED): When Vitali first came to NED in 2004, he was close to being an ivory-tower intellectual. I like to think that at NED he learned a little bit more about NGOs, about civic activism, about civil society in the broad sense. But after he returned to Belarus, he wrote an article called “Dancing with Wolves,” calling upon Belarusian civil society to conduct a dialogue with the regime, propose the way the dialogue should be organized, determine common positions, and protect the national interest. He saw this not just as a role of politicians, but also of think tankers, NGO people, and human-rights activists. Vitali really became an activist after being in the United States, after being at NED and at Stanford, and he was on the square in December 2006 taking part in all of that, something that he would have found very strange back in 2004. [End Page 189]