In Memoriam: Vitali Silitski (2012)

On June 11, 2012 one year passed since the death after hard illness of famous Belarusian political scientist Vitali Silitski. During this time his friends and colleagues have not accepted the loss. Those who could not come to the Commemoration Evening send their memories. Also to the obit of Vitali Silitski a special issue of Belarus Headlines journal dedicated to him was issued. In this issue Belarusian and Western experts share their memories of Vital as a person and reflect on the relevance of his works today. Dzianis Melyantsou provides an overview of Vitali Silitski’s legacy and specifically looks into the concept of pre-emption as a strategic tool employed by autocracies to maintain their rule via manufactured consent. Dr Alastair Rabagliati highlights the relevance of Vitali's writings on the value of opposition participation in fraudulent elections. He agrees with Vitali's conclusion that the opposition should participate in the elections and to use them as an opportunity to reach the Belarusian population. Matt Rojansky of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace reflects on valuable perspectives offered by Vitali's idea of pre-emtive authoritarianism. David Marples shares Vitali's view that Belarus is less monolithic than most foreign media outlets seem to think.


Belarus Headlines issue devoted to Vital Silicki it is possible to read in English in PDF format.


Jonathan Moore, Deputy Chief of Mission, Embassy of the United States to Bosnia and Herzegovina


I deeply regret the passing of Vital Silicki, and apologize that I will not be able to join the commemoration of his death on June 11.  He and I got to know each other on Stanford University’s beautiful campus in 2005 while I was a fellow there, and he was also one of the first Belarusans I ever met.  I granted him considerable latitude given his clear academic focus – in distinct contrast to my attempts to secure concrete and practical answers.  He was always engaging and informative, both cynical and candid, with a sharp sense of humor.  While he had criticism both for the regime and much of the opposition, Vital’s consistent love for Belarus was always at the core element of our discussions.  I am glad to know that his legacy, including BISS, continues to be a positive force for the people of Belarus.


Jeff Lovitt, Executive Director of PASOS


Vitali will be remembered for his great intelligence, wit, and sense of humor, and as a beacon of freedom -- both in conversation and in his writings on democratisation and authoritarianism. He died at a time when civil society needed his gifts, when restrictions were being imposed on freedom of speech and movement, and three opposition presidential candidates had been given long prison sentences after the presidential elections of December 2010. Vitali’s memory should serve to remind us of the many positive voices for freedom and a democratic future in Belarus. The release of Andrei Sannikov must be welcomed by all who value the human spirit, but we all know that Lukashenko is capable of taking more hostages for each one released. As if we did not need to be reminded of the regime's disregard of human rights, the sentencing of the current BISS Academic Director, Aliaksei Pikulik for "hooliganism" shows the true nature of the regime - demonstrating he continuing intimidation and harassment of positive voices for freedom and democracy.


In 2003, Vitali lost his position as Associate Professor at the European Humanities Univerisity in Minsk when the university administration acted upon the orders of the state authorities to punish him for publicly criticising the government of President Lukashenko. He went on to become a Reagan-Fascell Democracy fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy (Washington D.C.) and visiting scholar at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law (Stanford University). In 2007, he was appointed director of the BISS - which joined the PASOS network in 2010.


In December 2011, in memory of Vitali, Central European University (CEU) in Budapest announced the creation of a scholarship named in his memory. The ‘Silitski Supplementary Annual Scholarship at CEU’ will be open to Belarusian students attending the university, where Vitali studied before receiving his Ph.D from Rutgers University in the US.


I am convinced that those of us who knew him in Belarus, throughout Europe and the US, and everyone who cares about Belarus, will join together in our efforts to realize Vitali’s own wish for which he worked so long -- to “light the candle of freedom” in Belarus.


Elena Korosteleva, Director of the Centre for European Studies


It has been a year since Vital is no longer with us… and yet, it is still hard to believe that he is NO LONGER with us, and all the short thirty nine years of his life are now history.., which we ought to treasure.


I remember well our first years as students, so young, so open and so daring, truly in line with the tidings of time and change capable of dismantling (even if for a short while) long-standing boundaries and stereotypes. Where would we normally find ourselves, after long and gruelling hours of lectures, which in retrospect were a curious mix of the history of communism and modern western philosophy? Of course, in the Leninka, on the October Square - simply because the archives were released and we could read Immanuel Kant, Hegel, Lock, and Nietzsche, in their original translation, and without the helpful guidance of the Communist Party! Vital, of course, had to take it a tad further, and see how all these great antinomies of democracy vis-à-vis the state could seed in reality, walking between the tanks and bloodshedof Moscow, after the Putsch.


These ideas, and sobering reality made him an intellectual, and a fighter, who,having been educated both in the east and the west, would always want to try them out in practice, to make the world a better place.


Well, the struggle was not that of equals, and he burnt out. And we are now deprived of a formidable mind, a true Belarusian, and at the same time, a very private, childish and kind friend, whom my son will always tenderly refer to as Diadia Sila


David R. Marples, Professor, University of Alberta, Canada


Vitali was that rare phenomenon: a completely independent analyst and scholar, who had the knowledge and abilities to offer sound, original, and informative analyses of contemporary Belarusian politics. His premature death last year was a great loss not only to family and friends, but also to the world at large: he was man of great depth, humanity, and above all wisdom.




Vitali’s points remain very relevant today. He understood better than most the importance of maintaining links with Europe on a number of levels. Implicit in his remarks is the view that Belarus is less monolithic than most foreign media seem to think, even though he foresaw clearly that the way forward was to undermine in any way possible the “Presidential vertical” an he did consider Belarus a dictatorship (though one can define that word in a number of different ways). The one possible caveat in the above statements is that since the 2010 presidential elections, privatization has been conducted under conditions of severe economic stress (bringing about the urgent need for foreign loans) and in one direction only, i.e. Russian companies have had a more or less exclusive “first right” to purchase valuable Belarusian firms or to bring about mergers with them. It was one of the conditions of the $3.5 billion Eurasian Economic Community loan last year. Thus logically the task of the EU, following Vitali’s suggestions, is to find means to circumvent the current impasse with Minsk in order to be in a position to take part in the future privatization of Belarusian firms. The ending of the regime’s economic power, as he surmised, will weaken its political power and result in a more pluralistic and less absolutist society.




Remembering Vitali


I first met Vitali at a conference in Bath, England, in 1999, which was probably the first major conference on Belarus to be held in a Western country. At that time he was a translator for sociologist David Rotman, standing at the front of the stage and dwarfing the diminutive speaker, so much so that at one point, a member of the audience asked if he might stand a little further to the side, so that the audience could see the presenter. My next encounter was about a year later in a Minsk subway where he appeared from behind me suddenly, and treated me like a long-lost friend. Erudite, brilliant, and very human, he seemed both figuratively and literally “larger than life.” He seemed to know everyone worth knowing in the Belarusian capital and more recently he introduced me to various ambassadors and scholars visiting his favorite café—the appropriately named—for someone as cosmopolitan as Vitali—“News Café” on Karl Marx Street. He was an exceptionally likeable and amusing man. I once saw him sleep through a panel at a conference at the Lazarsky University in Warsaw. Afterward he denied he had been sleeping despite the fact that his snores could be heard throughout the presentations. It turned out he had been socializing in the Old Town until 3 am the night before. Rarely would he miss an opportunity to discuss political issues with friends from near and far. The term ‘public intellectual’ is an opposite description. Although his work was his passion, and he was a brilliant analyst, free from any sort of political leanings or strong sentiments, he was very much in tune with popular culture. His great passion was Liverpool FC, the English football team, and he followed their progress from afar or on television as avidly as any fan. It is symbolic of his broad and sometimes complex personality and wide range of interests. No one who met Vitali could ever forget him. And few would seek a better epitaph.


Pavel Daneika, Director of BEROC


We met when Vitali SIlitski came to the office of IPM Research Centre. He was still a student at that time.  We started talking to each other, and our dialogue would never end.


When we had to decide who was going to become the Director of the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, Vitali had just graduated  and came back home from Stanford University.  From the very start we were looking for a ‘Western-minded’ person, and Vitali with his Ph.D. -based professionalism, enthusiasm, and the sense of mission was exactly the one we needed.


He showed an outstanding level of academic analytics. Before him the analytics was either in the essay form, or was well too often ideologically biased.  Which was very different from the scientific research, since the answer had been evident even before the actual study. Vitali would involve networks of experts into BISS’s projects, which resulted in the creation of a new political circle  revolving around  BISS.  Those people, outstanding specialists, had credibility and skills, so they could present their findings on the international level.


He was the first person with a Ph.D who had come back to Belarus and worked here. Now there are several of them, not only in political science, but in economics, too.  This is an ongoing process, although after December 19th, several people have decided not to come back. Vitlali Silitski was the first Belarusian analyst with an excellent European level of professionalism.