Administrator Samantha Power at USAID 2022 Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance Conference

Speeches Shim

Friday, June 24, 2022

MR: DIAMOND: Thank you very much. It’s my great honor to be with you and I’m a longtime admirer of Samantha Power and I’ve become, more recent admirer of Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, as a result of her extremely brave leadership of the Belarusian Democratic forces.  I don’t want to say a lot at the outset because I don’t want to steal time away from these two amazing speakers.  Before they set the stage and take our questions, I will simply say that this conference is coming really at an existential moment for Democracy in the world. We are now a decade and a half into a very deep democratic recession, and of course very near and bordering the country where Ms. Tsikhanouskaya comes from, is the most central and existential battleground of that struggle for freedom and democracy and really national sovereignty–Ukraine. So the work of USAID and united democratic forces has never been more vital in all of these regards. 

Briefly, by way of slightly further introduction, I should say, of course you know there was a presidential election in Belarus in August 2020 and independent observers individually judged that Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya defeated the authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenka in an amazing campaign where she united the democratic opposition and turned to ridicule President Lukashenka's claim that a housewife, which is how he described her, couldn't be a president.  Unfortunately, it was her commitment to democracy that led him to prevent her from becoming president for the time being.  Samantha Power, of course, you know, was sworn into office as the 19th administrator of USAID in May of last year in leading the world's premier International Development Agency, with a global staff of over 10,000 people, including, I'm sure many on this call.  She's focusing on helping the United States respond to four interconnected challenges, the COVID-19 pandemic and the development gains that is imperiled, climate change, conflict and humanitarian crisis, and democratic backsliding of the kind we're going to be talking about today, with a goal of course of reigniting democratic progress.  She's working to ensure that USAID enhances its long-standing leadership as well in food security, education, women's empowerment, and global health.  

And she is the first USAID Administrator in its long history to be a member of the National Security Council.  And of course, she is a former United States Ambassador to the United Nations and a former member of the National Security Council.  So, with that, I think we should welcome Administrator Power, and I am tempted to say President-Elect Tsikhanouskaya and let them have a discussion.

ADMINISTRATOR POWER:  Hi there.  How are you doing?

SVYATLANA TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Good morning or good evening, everyone.

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: I guess maybe where we should start is just to know, where are you?  How are you?  Of course, the world was paying attention to your struggle before Russia's invasion of Ukraine but seeing the critical role that Belarus has played in providing a staging ground for some really horrific attacks on Ukraine, I think, has drawn additional attention to the plight of your people.  So, you've been warning what the leadership in Belarus was like for some time.  We've, of course, had programs in Belarus for a very long time but have seen our USAID Mission shut down and seen so many of our partners in grave danger or even arrested.  But, why don't maybe I just turn the floor over to you to understand better, you know, the current situation, which I know so many of our DRG, Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance officers and implementing partners will be interested in.

MS. TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Thank you.  You know, hello, once again, everyone.  First of all, I want to use this opportunity and to thank Samantha Power and USAID for the many years of assistance to deliver civil society.  You were always on the side of the Belarusian people, and many organizations and people received your assistance, like an independent vocal journalist, entrepreneurs, civic activists, human rights defenders, and so on.  So, unfortunately, more than 750 NGOs were destroyed by the regime, regime’s cracked down, and we need your support again to rebuild them.  So, thank you for inviting me today.  It's a huge opportunity to update information about Belarus.  

So repressions in our country is – repressions are continuing, you know, Lukashenka's regime is ruining everything, media, NGOs, people's lives, you know, but despite of this, people, they're continuing to fight.  And the fact that Lukashenka gave our land for use by the Russian army politicized people again, and people are starting to include more and more in different organizations and initiatives, and we need to support all of them, you know, to be healthy, to be strong, and not exhausted.  So, I'm grateful for this long-time collaboration with you, with our partners, and I hope that together, we will, I don't know, we will exhaust the regime earlier than the regime exhausts us.

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: What is the situation like now for Belarusian activists in exile?  What kinds of circumstances are they facing, given also the flood of Ukrainian refugees but also, of course, Russian dissidents and people who are critical of President Putin?  How has that affected the welfare of your people who have had to leave your country? 

MS. TSIKHANOUSKAYA:  Actually, you know, our main task is to support people on the ground.  But of course, the fact that hundreds of thousands of people had to flee Belarus because of repressions, we have to try to support people in exile as well.  So, I think that we have rather huge problems with organization of people. For example, you know, people who fled Belarus, because of repressions, they are more or less in normal position, because it happened in 2020.  And those people who fled Ukraine, I mean, Belarusians who fled Ukraine, first of all, because of repressions, and now they fled Ukraine because of the war, they face a lot of troubles with organization.  And we need to support all those people and, you know, give them the opportunity to work, to take care of their families, and all our program human rights defenders and centers also had to flee Belarus, and they are working now in exile.  Of course, they have a network of people on the ground.  And there is – it's very important to deliver assistance to people who are in the country.  So, we have to, for example, use new technologies like cryptocurrency to transfer to deliver this assistance to the people on the ground. 

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: And one of the things that we at USAID have done is really tried to put a much more heightened emphasis on the fight against corruption, believing that corruption is the achilles heel of so many repressive actors and, of course, is a terrible thing in its own right.  What do you see in the Belarusian context of the link between repression, stolen elections on the one hand, and stealing the people's assets and natural wealth, and even petty corruption?  What are the links that you see in your context? 

MS. TSIKHANOUSKAYA: You know that corruption thrives in darkness.  So, I think our – what we can do now is to invest into investigative journalists to shine like a light on it, you know, and the best way to counter global corruption is by investigating global links.  In order for dictatorship, dictatorships help each other, so should we.  So, for example, we could launch a global investigative journalism hub in Vilnius, Lithuania or Warsaw, Poland, where a lot of Belarusians are represented.  And there are hundreds of talented Belarusian journalists who would be, like, excited to take part in this.  And we know that a lot of Lukashenka's regime money ends up in offshores, you know, Latin American countries, the gulf. And we should invite journalists from there to collaborate.  At the same time, our friends with, like, already established ties to these countries could help put more pressure on them, demanding more transparency and accountability.  

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: And do you think – I mean, how corrupt is the government that stole the election?  How – like, what do you think the issues are?  We'll say at USAID, we are trying to respond not only to corruption in a much more intense way, but to the recognition that most contemporary corruption is transnational corruption, meaning it crosses borders.  And yet, most of USAID's programs are, you know, occur within particular countries and so we are trying to adjust our programming to support kind of networked journalism and networked non-governmental organizations, civil society work.  But how severe is this challenge?  The challenge of corruption and the challenge of transnational corruption in your context. 

MS. TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Look, for 27 years of regime's governing, the corruption schemes are so strong that – and so, like, deep, that we can cover now, those schemes that are on the top, but there are so, like, underwater schemes that we have to investigate, first of all.  So our – for 27 years, you know, different regimes installed into countries corruption schemes.  And, you know, this is one of the core problems of regimes countries.  They are – people are so tied between each other with these corruption issues that it's difficult for separate people to defect, you know, or to say that I'm not in this system, because they are linked so much to each other.  So a lot of corruption problems.  And again, this is about investigation first of all.

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Yeah, I mean it does seem as though, you know, if you look at the sanctions that have been put in place on President Putin and President Lukashenka, you see a lot of connections between the two of them.  You see a lot of the ill-gotten gains.  I'm really interested in the kleptocracy task force that has been set up at the Department of Justice, which of course has made it its mission to track down stolen assets.  And I think is not only a critical tool in our toolbox here in response to this war, but also as a model potentially for how we supplement sanctioning particular individuals with developing and expanding the forensic tools that we have to know where they have squirreled away, again, the resources that should've belonged to the people.  

In your struggle, you know, a lot has been made of the relationship between Russia and the People's Republic of China.  You know, a relationship I think, as they put it, without limits.  That phrase preceded the invasion of Ukraine, but what have you seen of the role of the PRC in influencing the situation, for democracy generally around the world, or for Belarus? 

MS. TSIKHANOUSKAYA: So what is PRC?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER:Oh, sorry.  People's Republic of China. 

MS. TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Oh. 

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Do you see China's influence at all?  Like in, you know, as well as Russia's, I guess, in the Belarus context?  You know, you have enough with Russia as a neighbor, so I understand if that is the primary focus, of course.  But I didn't know if there, what Lukashenka had done also with the People's Republic of China.  

MS. TSIKHANOUSKAYA: You know, there are no deep connections with the – China.  I suppose maybe Lukashenka had some trade with China, but, you know, which and these the government is rather cautious about dealing with the countries who are in economic danger.  So I know that since 2020, a lot of economic ties have been broken with this country.  But we, you know, we do not have connection with them as a democratic movement.  

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: No.  Yes.  No, I understand that.  How do you think USAID and the broader democracy community, you know, can best kind of – like, we see the authoritarians learning from one another, you know, kind of replicating each other's playbook.  How do you think we can do better transnationally as Democrats developing our own playbook or modernizing the old tools?  You know, like I know that you've gotten a great reception across Europe in most cases, and that the democratic world has tried to welcome you.  But what other kinds of things would you like to see democracies doing to support movements like yours? 

MS. TSIKHANOUSKAYA: So maybe, you know, I’'ll talk about some more about United States, you know.  The most important aspect is that the United States genuine commitment to a democratic Belarus for more than 30 years.  And I have to say that since 2020, we benefited from the unprecedented support of the American people.  And this is the recognition that we are here, that we exist, and we are different from any neighbor.  And the voice of Belarusians has been, you know, heard so clearly and so often in the White House and in Congress.  And of course, I'm so grateful to you, Ms. Power, for your attention and for your support during my visit to Washington.  And this naturally generates attention and not only in the US, but like, you know, globally, ordinary people start to think, you know, oh, Belarus, I have never heard of this country.  What's going on there and what can we do to help?  And most importantly, the media and the global community started treating us for like who we really are, a separate nation with our own culture, language, and aspiration for freedom.  And it's like Belarus is not a satellite to Russia anymore.  And this is exactly what we want to see more of, a narrative of Belarus as a country that needs to have its own national interest and unique policy.  You know, because I believe that Belarus holds the key for peace and democracy in the region.  As I often say, the destination of Ukraine, Europe and Belarus are interconnected and there can be no free Ukraine without free Belarus and vice versa.  And Europe cannot be safe unless both of our nations are free.  

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Do you do you think that the war in Ukraine – I mean, this is where I started, I guess, just to come back to it –  that the war in Ukraine has increased understanding of what you are going through or do you feel all of the attention to Ukraine, you know, is of course, incredibly warranted given what the people of Ukraine are going through.  But has it made it harder, or does it make the immediate connection in people's mind between Lukashenka's brutality at home and that of him and Putin also across their borders? 

MS. TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Maybe the war in Ukraine caused new challenges for us.  First of all, we had to explain to politicians and to ordinary people that Lukashenka – the regime that dragged our country into this war and became collaborative – accomplice to Putin is a different thing from people who are now opposing this war, because immediately the Belarusian people became enemies.  And I think that on our fight, almost two years fight gave us opportunity to prove like to keep our faith to keep the faith of Belarus, of Belarusian people.  But of course, we see that the focus was shifted from Belarus to Ukraine.  It's absolutely understandable.  We absolutely support it because we understand that the fate of Belarus, as I said above, it depends a lot on the fate of Ukraine.  So, we Belarusians are supporting the Ukrainians as much as possible as well.  

You know, when this war had started, about 80 acts of sabotage by the Belarusian partisans took place in order to slow down Russian troops from moving to Ukraine.  Belarusian people sent information about Russian troops to Ukrainian army for them to be prepared for bombings and Belarusian men are fighting on the side of Ukrainian army.  So we are – on our side, we want to support this brave courage, Ukrainian people, as much as possible.  And of course, it's very important to explain crucial role of Belarus in our region, because while regime is in the power and while regime, like, is the friend to Russia's regime, you know, there will be constant threat and not only for Europe, but also for Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and other neighboring countries.  So Belarus is a part of the problem, of the crisis, and this crisis has to be solved like in complex.  You can't solve Ukrainian issue without changes in Belarus.  So people in Belarus are fighting as brave we can in these circumstances under huge repressions in Belarus.  But we for sure, we need support and assistance of democratic countries, the U.S.A., Canada and all European ones.  

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Okay.  Let me ask the question that I know you get a lot, but I think – and I suppose, the Ukrainian people these days are especially getting a lot, which is, you know, against a backdrop of democratic backsliding, against a backdrop of Russia and Belarus using the most brutal, the most coercive tools, against a backdrop of so many political prisoners in your country, including so many of your friends and loved ones, of course, starting with your husband, where do you get your fuel every day?  Where do you get your hope?  What's the – you know, when you just the whole thing is overwhelming you – and the images from Ukraine or the distance from your loved ones, you know, what is it that keeps you going? 

MS. TSIKHANOUSKAYA: You know, I take my energy from like different resources.  First of all, is like anger that transforms into energy.  The anger that my children are growing up without their daddy.  That's thousands of families are split and thousands of children are growing up without their mothers or their fathers.  The people who are suffering in the awful conditions in prisons.  It's also my source of energy, because I understand that, you know, I have to do as much as I can for them first of all.  

I take energy from people in Belarus who are under huge wave of repressions.  But everyday when I'm communicating to them, they say, we are not giving up.  We don't have, we don't have chance to give up because we know that our country, our independence, is at stake.  I take energy from Belarusians all over the world, from Belarusian diaspora.   I see that people they could easily live in the wonderful countries, European countries or in the U.S.A., but they use their time, you know, money to support those Belarusians who are fighting on the ground.  

Also, I take energy from different organizations that are supporting our civil society because I see that what's important for us, for me, is important for them as well.  And I take energy from such conferences as this one because I see a lot of people who want to help somehow, who want to understand what's going on in Belarus and how different organizations and initiatives can be helpful to us.  I know that I'm not alone and this like charge my battery everyday.  

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: That's great.  Well, as you know, watching you in action, I think it's fair to say, I don’t know Larry if I'm speaking for you, but certainly gives the rest of us hope and fuel as well.  I mean, especially given the personal sacrifice for your family, of living your values in the way, in the way that you do.  I think, Larry, you want to, I think we'll open it up now to other questions, comments.  

MR. DIAMOND: Wonderful.  Um, if you don't mind Madam Administrator, I wonder if we could start by getting you to just talk about how this conversation reflects the priorities, vision and directions in which you're trying to take the U.S. Agency for International Development, particularly in the wake of the Summit for Democracy last December and the mandate that USAID has been given to play a leading role.  I don't know if it's a clever play on words or just a coincidence that “Powered by the People” is one of the presidential initiatives for democratic renewal.

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Yeah, it’s definitely just a coincidence there Larry, but not the, not the first or last coincidence when I'm either blessed or cursed with my last name.  

And which I would note in Irish, which is where I'm from, I’m an immigrant from Ireland, but in the native Irish is actually [foreign language], which is of the poor.  So the very - the Anglicization of the poor became power and which no one can explain to me.  

So I think what happened out of the Summit for Democracies is President Biden launched an initiative for Democratic renewal, as you mentioned.  And the idea here is, you know, of course, to try to recapture some of the momentum that democracy had a couple of decades ago really is probably the last time you could say it had full throttled momentum and to try to look at the toolkit that had developed over time.  And I want to stress, you know, many of those tools are still incredibly valuable in deploying election monitors in advance of elections, of course, training independent media, training judiciary, trying to build the rule of law, which is, of course, is foundational for checks and balances and for democratic accountability.  

You know, I could go on, but I think people are pretty familiar with the sort of post Reagan, you know, proliferation of democracy promotion tools and, you know, we USAID and the Bureau for Democracy, Rights and Labor over at the State Department, you know, we have funded a lot of those programs over the years to great effect, I think.  I mean, not that the sixteen straight years of freedom in decline is great effect, but in supporting those actors on the ground who are, you know, like Svyatlana, just putting everything on the line to try to advance the cause of individual dignity and collective dignity and in some cases, and also to hold their leaders accountable.  

So those tools are really important.  But we also felt that it was time, you know, some of us, were in the Obama Administration, left for four years, came back to try to say, okay, instead of just, you know, trying to get more resources to support that traditional tool kit, are there additional tools we want to bring to bear? And so the Power by the People initiative, for example, I think is one that is born of a recognition.  And it's actually Erica Chadwick's work, which I think you know well, of the Kennedy School professor who I had the chance to work with a little bit when I was out of government.  But, you know, looking at social movements, looking at the diverse coalitions that are taking to the streets all over the world, because alongside this democratic backsliding trend that we know so well is this other trend, which is that, you know, prior to the pandemic, in the two years prior to the pandemic, you saw more public protests or political protests really around the world than in any prior two year period, I think, in recorded history.  

So people are voting their discontent with their feet.  A lot of those protests, I think you'd have the statistics on hand, were fueled by concerns about corruption.  And so what we want to do is resource the connections that I think Svyatlana has taken advantage of across borders.  And I mentioned before that, you know, U.S. government programing tends to go country by country, but to make sure that we resource the desire that so many activists have to learn from one another, to learn about what tactics work, to you know, learn how to fight, you know, noxious laws that are declaring them foreign agents for no reason.  I mean, for good reason from the standpoint of the regime.  But, you know, these growing number of restrictions.  And so the idea is, you know, again, building kind of – thickening network connectivity, knowing that these are very indigenous movements and formally that's their strength.  And so, you know, U.S.  government involvement is going to be, you know, modest and at the margins.  But if there are ways that we can enhance the connective tissue, and that's something that, you know, those groups want.  And it's, again, to recognize that many of the people involved in those protests are, you know, ordinary people who may not be officially members of civil society organizations.  They may be workers, they may be students.  And so it's also, you know, we at our Embassies around the world really needing to –  and our USAID Missions – needing to reach out to these very different constituencies who may be driving social change or securing changes, as in Chile, you know, to the constitution, not through the kind of traditional, you know, capital D Democracy organizations or capital C, capital S, Civil Society organizations.  But it's a more diffuse, you know, kind of set of connections.  So we're trying to build, you know, different muscles within the U.S. government to be able to be responsive to that.  

The other –  we can get into other tools in the toolbox.  But I think we are, Svyatlana and I had a discussion just now about corruption that is so central to the Lukashenka model and is so important.  And I just mentioned in the context of popular protest, so important to what's bringing people out into the streets.  You know, the oligarchs and the repressive leaders are getting more sophisticated, too, as people do begin to laser focus on corruption, because, you know, this is something that can embarrass, you know, even the most shameless leaders.  It's not something they want to see exposed.  They want to keep their money.  So they don't want to see their assets seized.  But they also don't like that it’s a bad look, even in countries where elections are not free and fair.  So we've seen a growing trend, as you well know, Larry, of journalists getting sued by governments, by oligarchs, where those who have the most to lose from journalistic or civil society expose’s decide to take advantage of the fact that they have significant resource advantages.  And, you know, just try to, in a sense, work a journalist or a media organization or work an NGO out of a business.  

So we are creating this fund called Reporters Mutual, which I also think is just reflective of this desire to meet today's threats.  And that's what we hope will be an insurance fund that those journalists that are doing this kind of work, investigative reporting of the kind that might be deemed threatening to those who are well-resourced, but that at a minimum, these journalists can get insured and know that if they are sued, you know, that they'll be able to afford the kind of legal counsel to allow them to defend themselves.  Now, that's super challenging in places where there's no legitimacy, you know, where the judiciary is in the pocket of a regime or an oligarch.  And so, you know, in some places that's going to be of less use than others.  But there are a number of places where democratic backsliding is occurring, where journalists just can't keep up with the number of lawsuits against them.  Maria Ressa, of course, in the Philippines, is a poignant example of that, just the number of lawsuits she's been fielding just since her Nobel Prize.  You would think that that might deter people, but quite the opposite.  She may, you know, need insurance less than somebody who's less well known.  But this idea of giving some immunization or at least some comfort to those who are putting everything on the line to try to expose the truth, I think is another example.  

MR. DIAMOND: Wonderful.  Let me ask the President Elect.  And since we've met Svyatlana  – and you know that my grandfather at Stanford – and you know that my grandfather was born in Belarus, I do feel a strong identity with your cause beyond all the other reasons why I would.  So how are Belarusians today getting access to information?  And to what extent are you and your colleagues in the opposition in exile able to have two way communication with them and, you know, not just in terms of your appeals and strategies but in terms of explaining to them what's happening and what more can we do to facilitate you in that regard?  

MS. TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Thank you very much for the question.  You know, information is extremely crucial in this historical moment.  And Belarusian people have started for this year and a half how to have access to alternative information.  You know, the regime in 2020 destroyed all alternative media for people not to have opportunity to get true information.  But media managed to flee the conflict and restore the activity in exile.  So now most information people are getting from YouTube channels, from different networks like Telegram, Instagram, TikTok.  You know, we use all the possibilities to deliver this information.  And, for example, I'm communicating with the people in Belarus daily through Zoom conferences.  It's a difficult tool for the regime to track these conferences so people are more or less safe in this situation.  So, but of course, we are facing a lot of problems that regime also uses all these channels like YouTube, Telegram to spread the information.  That's why we are working rather closely with Google and Meta and other organizations to block the regime's propaganda advertising, to block videos, for example, through fake confessions and so on.  So on the one hand, it's very important that technologies have to be useful for people who are fighting for democracy and blocking the people who, you know, who spread fake information like propaganda and so on.  

MR. DIAMOND: Well, I want to thank you both for this deeply informative and inspiring conversation.  You both have compelling personal stories, and you both give us hope that we have a path way, we have the personnel, and increasingly we have a set of new tools and strategies to pull us out of this decade and a half long democratic recession and help you, Svyatlana, and your country, women and men achieve the democracy that you deserve and have been bravely struggling for.  So thank you both and good luck.  Godspeed.  And we will continue on with the program of the day.

Last updated: August 19, 2022

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