IRI Marks 30 Years of Democracy Support in Lithuania 

  • Alexis Mrachek

In March 1990, as the Soviet Union was dissolving, Lithuania regained its independence. Soon thereafter, the United States began providing vital development aid to help the country democratize following its 50 years under Soviet occupation. In 2004, Lithuania joined the European Union (EU) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a mark of Lithuania’s extraordinarily fast progress in democratizing, aligning with the West, and further distancing itself from Russia. 

Ten years prior to that, the International Republican Institute (IRI) opened its doors in Vilnius, Lithuania. Its democratic programming began in 1994 with the creation of a political party program based in Vilnius but covering seven cities in Lithuania. The program brought together all Lithuanian political parties that were committed to democratic processes. Following this program, at least half of the next Members of Parliaments (MPs) in the Lithuanian Seimas (Parliament) were alumni of IRI.  

In 1998, IRI conducted a training program for MPs at the Lithuanian Seimas as the finale to its Lithuania-focused programming, as Lithuania’s democracy was flourishing. In that training program for MPs, IRI brought a number of prominent U.S. officials and experts to Vilnius to share their experience on the roles and responsibilities of elected officials, how to develop independent media, the role of polling research in politics, and more.  

The Ten Plus Coalition with Senator John McCain.

That program marked a transition point for IRI, for how it should utilize its Lithuania office moving forward. 

As IRI’s Vilnius office planned for the future, the Institute involved Lithuanian politicians and party activists in IRI-conducted trainings throughout Europe, from 1998-2001 and beyond. These trainings were especially helpful as Lithuania was preparing to join NATO and the EU in the coming few years.  

Then, at the request of the Lithuanian government itself, IRI transitioned its Vilnius office to support democratic development in Belarus. This program began on New Year’s Day in 2001. Five years later, IRI started its Baltic-Eurasia-Inter-Parliamentary Training Institute (BEIPTI) program in partnership with the Lithuanian Seimas to bring MPs, parliamentary and ministerial staff from Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and Armenia to Vilnius to learn best practices from Lithuanian counterparts, and to have reverse exchanges with Lithuanian experts sharing in-depth experience on the needed reforms each year. 

IRI’s Belarus programming continued for the next several years bringing hundreds of Belarusian democracy activists to Vilnius to learn more about democratic processes, political party development, political campaigns, independent media, the role of local government, and how a democratic country should function overall. This was occurring as Aliaksandr Lukashenka continued his dictatorship in-country.  

In 2003, IRI identified the five largest pro-reform parties in Belarus that expressed a desire to improve their capacity and skills in advance of the 2004 parliamentary elections. IRI conducted polling that revealed the need for pro-democratic forces to unify and run a joint campaign, if pro-reform leaders were serious about a democratic change in Belarus. In January 2004, five parties, along with more than 200 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and associations, formed the People’s Coalition “Five Plus” (Five Plus Coalition). Following the 2004 elections, an additional number of political parties, youth groups, prominent individuals, NGOs, and former parliamentary candidates joined the Five Plus Coalition and formed the “United Democratic Forces” (UDF). As a result, leaders of the UDF signed a joint agreement calling for the creation of a joint strategy and a single candidate for the 2006 presidential election campaign. 

IRI was one of the main organizations to lead the Belarusian opposition through the democratic process of selecting Aliaksandr Milinkevich, a single opposition candidate to run against Aliaksandr Lukashenka in 2006. After one more fake election held by the Belarusian authorities, the first larger protests appeared in Belarus when people came out to defend their votes. However, the government brutally dispersed the protests and imprisoned many of the protestors. 

In 2015, with IRI’s guidance and support, the first female presidential candidate Tatiana Karatkevich was registered to run against the incumbent.  

A few years later marked a significant change for Belarus, and for IRI programming. In 2020, opposition candidates began announcing their campaigns to run in the August presidential election. Notably, in May 2020, a famous opposition blogger named Siarhei Tsikhanouski who had announced his plan to run was imprisoned for organizing pro-democracy protests. His wife, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, an English teacher and stay-at-home mother, decided to bravely run in his place.  

Her campaign gained exponential support in the weeks leading up to the election, including well over 100,000 attending her rallies. Then, on the day of the election—August 9, 2020—Lukashenka falsely claimed victory, and Tsikhanouskaya was forced to flee to neighboring Lithuania due to threats by his regime.  

Large-scale protests continued for many months following the election, and in retaliation, riot police and members of the armed forces violently cracked down on protestors. Nonetheless, the protests strengthened the Belarusian democratic movement.  

Many Belarusians have left the country since 2020, mostly fleeing to Lithuania or Poland. And the democratic movement has continued to flourish there, as well as more covertly within Belarus.

IRI’s Resident Program Director based in Vilnius, Mark Dietzen, with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, leader of the Belarusian democratic forces.

During the campaign period, in the protests following, and in the democratic movement’s activities since, IRI has been involved. IRI’s Vilnius office worked and continues to work with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, as she has been the head of the United Transitional Cabinet (UTC) of Belarus since 2022, as well as with the Coordination Council, Belarus’ proto-parliament in exile. IRI also works with courtyard communities, youth activists, and various Belarusian women’s groups, which all are promoting democracy and a better future for Belarus.   

Moreover, IRI’s BEIPTI program has continued for nearly 20 years, and parliamentarians and their staff from the Eurasia region have been greatly assisted in their democratization and passing necessary reforms as a result. Within the past couple of years, IRI’s BEIPTI program has included an additional angle, promoting national and regional security, energy independence, and EU membership for Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, through both small-scale and large-scale events.  

IRI is extremely grateful to Lithuania for hosting its programming in Vilnius for the past 30 years and is also proud of Lithuania for its transition from being a recipient of IRI assistance to being a provider of it, through both the BEIPTI and Belarus programming. IRI looks forward to the next chapter of its partnership with Lithuania to advance their shared values throughout Europe and Eurasia, as Lithuania is a beacon of hope and democracy for the region.  

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