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S2E8 - HTWM Global Edition: The Belarusian Democratic Movement with “Election Commissioner-in-waiting” Alexander Shlyk

In June, hosts Brianna Lennon and Eric Fey, along with Managing Editor Rebecca Smith, traveled to Central and Eastern Europe to learn more about election administration in democracies overseas.

In this episode, they speak with Alexander Shlyk, the Special Representative on Elections for Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and the former head of the Elections Department of OSCE ODIHR, or the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe

Tsikhanouskaya is the leader of the leader of the Belarusian democratic movement who many believe truly won the 2020 election against President Alexander Lukashenko.

Shlyk is currently living in exile as one of the 16 people working for Tsikhanouskaya, and he’s working to prepare the legislative and practical framework for democratic elections in Belarus – which he believes will inevitably happen.

High Turnout, Wide Margins Credits:
Managing Editor: Rebecca Smith
Managing Producer: Aaron Hay
Associate Producers: Katie Quinn, Abigail Ruhman

Transcription of the episode is as follows:

Eric Fey: Okay, today we're joined by Alexander Shlyk., the former director of elections for OSCE ODIHR otherwise known as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. Alexander is also now the Special Representative on Elections or as he calls it, the Election Commissioner in waiting for the office of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who is one of the leaders of the democracy movement within Belarus. Oh, we're speaking outside the global summit on democracy in Europe.

Brianna Lennon: We're really thrilled to be able to talk to Alexander today. he's observed hundreds of elections at OSCE ODIHR. And just has a wealth of experience from everywhere from observing elections in the United States, to countries in Africa, and brings all of that experience and expertise to Belarus. So one of the things that we really wanted to talk about today is how his experience has been in Belarus. Or his inability to actually be in Belarus right now. So we wanted to give you some background about what exactly is going on there, and in the Belarusian democracy before we jump into this episode.

Eric Fey: So it's important to have a little background on elections in Belarus in the state of democracy in Belarus. The current president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko has been president since 1994, the longest serving Head of State in Europe.

Alexander Shlyk: And that's when and went downhill. He changed the Constitution again, abolished all the powers from the parliament. Now he can rule by decree. He's like a king. Whatever he signs becomes law. Yeah, it goes to the Parliament, but I don't remember a single name of a Member of Parliament. We don't care who they are. Not a single one of them has ever voted against anything. It's always unanimous approval of whatever the president wants.

Eric Fey: As you might imagine a situation like that. The elections in Belarus have been very problematic. The OSCE ODIHR, has observed most of the national elections in Belarus since independence. They have observed significant problems with the elections in Belarus. Opposition candidates being imprisoned, ballot box stuffing, and a number of other significant irregularities in the election. Alexander was leading a division of OSCE ODIHR, as a Belarusian.

And it's significant that now, after his term there was up at OSCE he's launched headlong into the the democracy movement in in Belarus, Which is really facing an uphill battle, after the most recent presidential election, many Belarusians felt like the opposition candidate who Alexander works for now actually won the election. There were significant protests, many people were in prison. The protests were put down harshly by the military and the security services. It's a very tenuous situation to say the least Alexander's living in exile essentially.

And Belarus, as many Americans know has been more or less aiding Russia and its invasion of Ukraine. And it's also important to know that, as sounds probably evident that Belarus essentially operates as a police state, You heard stories from the Soviet Union of the KGB and pervasive surveillance of the citizenry and everything that really never stopped in Belarus. As a matter of fact, Belarus still has a KGB. They still call it the KGB.

They never really changed any of that. It's been really an uphill battle. So a number of observers categorize Alexander Lukashenko as the last dictator of Europe. It will be interesting to see what progress is made there. And you know, what the future holds for Alexander and all of his compatriots and their struggle for democracy within the country of Belarus.

Alexander Shlyk: It's actually quite a sad story in a way because for 27 years to 28 years he has been earning himself the title of the bloodiest dictator in Europe. And now he got associated with Putin so much that his dictatorial career is in ruins. He's now a footnote to Putin. It's quite a sad story for the dictator. You defraud the elections, you kill your opponents, and he actually killed his political opponents. Then you were meaningless compared to Putin. It's kind of in a world of dictatorships. He was aiming for a solid paragraph in the book, and now he's just a footnote.

Alexander Shlyk: Hi I'm Alexander Shlyk, and I come from Belarus. The way I got into elections and the whole trajectory was through first helping the international observers as a translator. I was 20 years old. I got hired to accompany the two international observers. I think one was from Poland and one was Swedish. For three days as they were observing the elections in Belarus in 2004. That was fascinating.

Not that I had any illusions about what elections were like already back then. But then seeing that with my own eyes was really something out of this world. I clearly remember, I was 20 years old. I didn't buy what they were giving to us on the state television already then. But then, as we were in the vote counting, we saw how the ballots got placed ones first in one pile and then moved to another pile. And the extra ballots were just burned outside. It was just crazy. That got me totally hooked on the elections.

Two years later, I started working with the mission as the logistics assistant for a longer time. Then I went into the international observation, ended up working at the OSCE ODIHR. That's the regional body for 57 countries. I first was a desk officer for nine, ten countries. Then I was for the last five, six years, I was the head of elections. So I was overseeing all election observation and electoral assistance across 57 countries, including the United States of America where I've in person observed in 2016, and then 2020.

Brianna Lennon: Do you have a favorite Election Observation Mission?

Alexander Shlyk: I can tell you more about my own country from Belarus. It's actually a unique system. We have the same president for 27/28 years now. He has never really won an election in a fair way, except for the first one, when he came to power in 1994. That was through a good election, a normal election. And since then, he's just faked every single election that he was going through.

Last time in 2020 in August, he clearly lost. And then 10s, or hundreds of 1000s of people took to the streets, to protest and to demand that the winner of the election the lady whose name is Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is duly installed in office. The revolution is still going on. And now I'm in the team with Sviatlana. I have left my work with the OC. And I've joined the her team as her special representative on elections. So, in a way, I'm like a shadow Election Commissioner or an Election Commissioner in waiting. Yeah. The idea is that the new election that would reestablish democracy back at home.

This is our top priority. This is what we're preparing for. For the time being, it's just you know, as it was, in Belarus, for example, it's a unique, it's a unique situation where the vote counting happens in the polling stations. Yeah, we use paper ballots, no technology, nothing like this. And then the commission members gather around the table. Of course, they placed the observers, whoever has been accredited somehow, magically.

They're placed about 10-15 meters away, that's what 40 feet away from the table. There, the commissioners surround the table in a way that you can't see anything. They count the votes in total silence. Each one counts their own pile of ballots. They put the results of their own little count onto the piece of paper, pass that piece of paper in total silence to the chairperson of the commission. Then, the chairperson of the commission collects the little pieces of paper and goes somewhere else, makes a couple of phone calls and comes back with the totals.

In this way, even the commission members don't know the totals in their own polling station. Good luck finding out how people actually voted. I'm smiling now, but this is actually quite horrendous. It's just a fantastic know how of how fraud can take these totally ridiculous dimensions. That's one anecdote from my own country. That's something that we really hope to change one day.

Eric Fey: To piggyback on that, I actually had a very similar experience. When I observed an election in Belarus, the vote count happened exactly as you just described it. If it's occurring in that fashion, all across the country. Is there some coordinated effort from somebody in the government to teach them to do this? Or have they heard by word of mouth to do it like that? Or how is it all happening like that?

Alexander Shlyk: First of all, the commission members are typically drawn from the government servants. Government employees. School teachers, very typically, doctors in the hospitals or outpatient clinics. It's very common that the chairperson of the election commission is somebody in the leadership role at the very local level, would be the headmaster of the same school. These people come to work for the election on Sunday. Then next day on Monday, they report back to work to the same boss.

So, you know, good luck really deviating from sort of a party line. That's how it functions. And then I think it's also about the fact that nobody's really interested in knowing what are the actual outcomes and the results in a given polling station. It's more that the results get fixed up top. The Central Election Commission together with the administration of the President decide, you know, what's that going to be this time. 82% or 83%, or maybe 76%.

If they really want to look nice, maybe 72%. But it never happens. That's also the feature of the autocratic regimes is that every single next election, you have to put a figure higher. Because you can't be losing support, if you're such a beloved president. Yeah. Every single time you need to go a couple of percentages higher. But then there's also a limit. You can't really go above 100%. And I think they would want to but just doesn't work. And then there's also this whole feature of- it's regretful.

We do know that a lot of people in the commissions were esspecially in 2020, they really wanted to report honest results. A couple of 100 commissions, we actually got the honest results. That's what allowed us to extrapolate the outcomes from these polling stations onto their neighborhoods nationally. And that is how we know that Ms. Tsikhanouskaya won in the first round. She won more than 60% of the vote. The one that got reported for her was like 9% or something I don't remember. See, it doesn't matter what they report, but then they're also in a kind of a competition between polling stations.

Yeah, if you have two neighboring schools, you're looking up at your bosses and you're like, oh, man, this one's gonna put 82% of his polling station, I better put 83%. That's how they get fake protocols and the results. Of course, they get corrected up top. The commission would report 85% and then the Regional Commission would say no. Let's be serious. We're in a downtown capital. People clearly don't like the government here. Let's put 60%. The village gets reported I don't know 99%.

Brianna Lennon: I mean, this is probably a very obvious question, but why do voters even participate then?

Alexander Shlyk: It's a great question, actually. I think a lot of people participate because of the inertia. A lot of people participate because they're forced to participate. We have students, for example, or people who are dependent in their salaries on the government. They're forced to come, that's also an interesting thing. But 2020 was different. 2020 for us, and the August election, there was such a mobilization, especially by Svetlana and her team.

It was actually three women teaming up. They've agreed, they've built a coalition, just three women who were appearing in every single rally all of them together. The male candidates were not there. That really inspired people. Because for the first time, people clearly saw that we have a person who they really want to vote for. And that was weird, because she's not a politician.

Her husband was supposed to be running for election, he got thrown in jail, and she stepped in instead of him. It's just an amazing story of how the person came to politics despite all odds, won the election and continues to fight for the people. Her husband is still in jail. He has been sentenced to 18 years in prison. So if we don't win, he's going to be there for 18 years. We better win.

Eric Fey: Hey, it's Eric Fey and you're listening to High Turnout Wide Margins, a podcast that explores local election administration, European edition. So, Alexander, you've observed elections in more countries than most human beings, you've, you've seen how systems work in all different countries. I think most Americans, most American election administrators are not familiar with OSCE ODIHR. OSCE has observed all these elections in Belarus. But yet, there is this outcome that you've just described. So can you talk a little bit about what is OSCE ODIHR and what it does? What it accomplishes, and maybe what some of the shortcomings are?

Alexander Shlyk: OSCE ODIHR has been observing elections in Russia and Belarus. And we all know how these elections are not improving. But that's not exactly the point of international observation, to improve elections on behalf of the countries. The observers have to stay out of the process. I remember an anecdote.

We were in a vote count and as they took the ballots out of the box and turned the box over, one of the ballots just flew under the sofa in the corner of the room. I've seen that, and they were counting and they were missing one ballot. But as an observer, you can't tell them because that would be interference in the process. Eventually, yes, after a couple of hours, I was like, have you maybe considered looking under furniture.

They were like, where have you been? But not interfering actually helped us understand that in that vote count they were doing the best job they could. They were honest about missing a ballot, and they put it in the protocol in the minutes of the commission. That's what matters, that's what allows the international observers to build a comprehensive picture of how elections were. Then, propose the recommendations, and then maybe come back and help the governments implement these recommendations. But really, everything is in the hands of the national authorities, it's up to them if they want to have good elections or not.

Eric Fey: Election observers are not the election police.

Alexander Shlyk: Not at all quite the opposite.

Eric Fey: Right. I think that's a common misconception, at least among Americans, like these observers are there. I get that question all the time. So do you enforce the election laws? And no, it's not that way. To conclude, you're working kind of in the opposition. I guess you would call it.

Alexander Shlyk: Government in waiting.

Eric Fey: Government in waiting. There you go.

Brianna Lennon: I like the shadow election director.

Alexander Shlyk: The commissioner in waiting.

Eric Fey: Shadow Election Commissioner in waiting. What do you see as next? What do you do right now? You're not living in Belarus.

Alexander Shlyk: I can't go back. Eight, nine years in jail. The moment I crossed the border.

Eric Fey: So what are you doing right now? What are you doing to get back?

Alexander Shlyk: What we're doing now on my field of elections? First of all, once again, having new good elections is our top priority. We got into this mess because the elections were defrauded. The only way out is to rerun a good election. My task that was given to me by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is to prepare the grounds for us to be able to run good elections, if the opportunity presents itself, say tomorrow.

And if the opportunity presents itself tomorrow, we are ready. We have an election law, which is not a good law. It's not a good law. But it's not a totally disastrous law. So even with the current election law, we can run a pretty decent election. If we supplement the legislation with sub legal acts the regulations of the Election Commission. I'll give you an example. To get registered to run for president, you need to collect 100,000 signatures in Belarus. These signatures get collected then are verified whether they're authentic or not.

Yeah, the law says you get the signatures to the commission, and then you take a sample of no less than 20% and verify those. If you find bad signatures, then you take another sample. If you find more bad signatures, you invalidate all of them. Which is the attitude of looking for bad signatures amongst the ones you received. In my logic, what we should be doing is looking for good signatures, the point is to find enough signatures to get a person registered. Rather than, what the current commission is doing, finding enough signatures to not have somebody registered.

So in the sub legal regulation that I've drafted and my team, we basically said, the law says the sample of no less than 20%. Let's do a sample of 100%. And keep looking until we find 100,000 signatures. So that's the change in logic within the same legal framework. It's just the change from being prohibitive in how you run elections to allowing for competition and promoting the honest process.

Eric Fey: And this is significant in Belarus, this case, right? I mean, because you know, much better than I do. Before the last election, people were told their signatures were invalid. Then didn't they line up for hours in some cases to go to I guess the election commission and have their signature validated.

Alexander Shlyk: It was unprecedented what was happening in 2020. I think it had a lot to do with COVID as well. Lukashenko, the President has been a COVID denier from the very beginning. COVID has been raging worldwide. Yeah, the world was on lockdown. This guy would be like, go to the sound, ride the tractor and have a shot of vodka and you'll be fine.

I mean, crazy, you know. He's been denying the obvious. And people finally, I think, felt that it's this whole situation with them. That government is not just about your fundamental rights, not even about your salary, it's about your livelihoods. They clearly saw that the government cares nothing about the people. So when the alternative candidates were presenting themselves, people were like, yeah, I'll give my signature. The very well known banker presented himself as a candidate.

Now he's sentenced to 14 years in jail. Another a guy who was running IT- it's like a consortium of IT firms. He presented himself. He's now in immigration. The husband of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Sergei presented himself. Now he's an 18 years in jail. Then Sviatlana stepped up and collected the signatures and people were literally queuing for six, seven hours to give their signature. That was a legal way for people to demonstrate their political opinion. What is the government going to do? Okay, if Lukashenka knew where it was going to end up, he'd probably beat the people up already then. But he couldn't have predicted that.

It's also a very interesting gender issue. The reason he didn't expect things to go this way is because he was discounting the ability of a woman or even three women to do anything significant in politics. He is in his macho mindset of just women need to stay at home and mind their own business. What is she doing? Who's gonna vote for her anyways? She gets 60% of the vote on the first round, and you know, he gets barely 10%. So people were really excited.

Then the people took to the streets, and it's still continuing. Now, of course, we don't see much of this action in Belarus. Yeah, they're not no protests, but it's suicidal to go and protest. You'd be picked up immediately, beaten up, tortured, raped in prisons. We have 1250 political prisoners right now in prisons sentenced or waiting to be sentenced. There are people who've been picked up two years ago and they're still in pretrial detention. They'd have given a court hearing. They're just lounging behind bars.

De facto, about 4,500 people are under criminal prosecution right now because of their political views. So it's dangerous to be protesting. But the last thing that was a street action was three days after the war, after the invasion of Russians in Ukraine started. People took to the streets in Belarus. People protested against the war because it was just, you know- it's dangerous, suicidal, but it mattered. People wanted to show that, you know, Belorussian Lukashenko regime is an accomplice of Putin and this.

The territory of our country has been used to launch missiles into Ukraine. Our army didn't go in because they're also not suicidal. They know they'll be killed the moment they get into Ukraine because Ukrainians know how to fight. The people want it to make it very clear to themselves to the world to the Ukrainians, that Lukashenko is one thing he doesn't even represent us. We can't wait to get rid of the guy. We are with the Ukrainians, we really are against the war. We clearly chose the side of the people. One thing has to do with another. The path from defrauding the election to becoming a security threat in the whole region is extremely short.

And less than two years, the guy faked the election and then allowed missiles to be launched to Russia, or to Ukrainian territory. Yeah, the two things are connected. It's the autocracies in the war against the democracy. It's as simple as that. It's not by pure chance that you know, there are no good elections in Russia or Belarus. And Ukraine they're pretty decent. That's why they find themselves on different sides of the war.

Brianna Lennon: Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Alexander Shlyk: Thanks to you.

Eric Fey: You're a great storyteller.

Alexander Shlyk: Thanks and good luck to you guys. I mean fantastic that you're here. And best of the greetings and once again, fascinating how dedicated the election officials are. The democracy rests on the shoulders of these people at the county level and in the polling boards.

Managing Editor Rebecca Smith: Can I ask a silly question? Maybe sorry, managing editor Rebecca Smith here, but I'm wondering you know, we talk a lot about like loving democracy. But you're putting your livelihood, your life yourself at risk. And I'm wondering, you know, why is it worth it?

Alexander Shlyk: Okay, let's be honest, I'm not risking my life. I haven't even been imprisoned. Unlike many others, Sviatlana has 15 criminal cases against her. She has declared terrorist and this and that. She's the leader of the whole future.

Eric Fey: But you're under no illusion. I mean, the KGB knows where you are.

Alexander Shlyk: Of course they do. Yeah, we've detected three KGB officers in Poland in Warsaw, where I live. and deposited them to the Polish security services. We're on the lookout, we're careful.

Eric Fey: So, regular people don't have to deal with that.

Alexander Shlyk: No, they don't have to deal with that. But at the end of the day, look, I'm in a perfect situation compared to these 1250 people who are sitting in jail and being beaten up regularly. In the end of the day, it's a small investment still for potentially a very bright future for the country. I'm not in the safest environment but then life was never going to be too easy, huh? It's worth it. It's worth the fight.

If we win, we'll have a fantastic country. We'll be proudly welcoming you there – showing off how we can run awesome elections.

For the time being, it's actually quite shameful the situation in which my country is. There's a rich history, 1000s of years of history, a constitution written in 1488, in Belarusian language.

Imagine, and now we don't even know how to run the election. I'm sorry, a nation that is so well educated, middle of Europe. We deserve better. That's what we're fighting for.

Lennon: You've been listening to "High Turnout, Wide Margins," a podcast that explores local election administration. I'm your host, Brianna Lennon, alongside Eric Fey.

Thanks to KBIA for making this podcast possible. Our managing editor is Rebecca Smith. Our managing producer is Aaron Hay. And our associate producers are Abigail Ruhman and Katie Quinn. This has been "High Turnout, Wide Margins." Thanks for listening.

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After serving as Assistant Attorney General in the Missouri attorney general's office and as Deputy Director of Elections in the Missouri secretary of state's office, Brianna Lennon made the decision to pursue election administration at the local level. She was elected county clerk in Boone, Missouri, in 2018, making her responsible for conducting elections for more than 120,000 registered voters.
Eric Fey is a lifelong resident of St. Louis County, Missouri, who fell in love with election administration as a teenage poll worker. He has worked in the field for a decade, and became director of elections in 2015. He’s on the executive board of the Missouri Association of County Clerks and Election Authorities, and has observed elections in twelve countries, including Ukraine, Sri Lanka, and Uzbekistan.