Kalinowski Forum Session on “A Call to Defend Democracy”

Stephen Biegun, Deputy Secretary of State

Vilnius, Lithuania


(As Prepared)

I am honored to speak at today’s session of the Kalinowski Forum entitled “A Call to Defend Democracy.” The legendary freedom fighter Konstantinas Kalinowski inspired the support of people from across all parts of his society, and served as their voice in defending their right to freedom and self-determination. These topics are a lifelong passion for me so it is a privilege to join so many well-respected defenders of freedom and democracy during this two-day forum.


The word democracy derives from ancient Greek: demos meaning people and kratos meaning power. By definition, in a democracy, power derives from the people. In the United States, the very first words of our Constitution are “We the People,” stating boldly that the people grant authority to the state and not the other way around.


If we look across the globe, each nation’s story of how it achieved self-determination is unique and reflects the particular moment and history when democracy was born. And history has taught us that the path to democratic governance is not linear. This was as true for the uprisings in Lithuania and Poland that Kalinowski joined in the 19th century, as it is for the people of Belarus bravely marching in the streets today.


In this sense, we could say that democracy is born from a yearning that we each have to live in free societies – to choose our leaders, to speak our opinions, to practice our faith, to own our property, to protect our privacy.


It is also true that democracy is earned, earned by the courage and sacrifice of peoples who brave violence – and even make the ultimate sacrifice like Kalinowski – to demand and defend the right of freedom and self-determination. Even long-standing democracies like the United States continue to renew and evolve our own democracy. As President Reagan told the British Parliament in 1982, “Freedom is a fragile thing and is never more than one generation away from extinction. It is not ours by inheritance; it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation.”


This process of constant renewal can sometimes be messy. The phrase “We the People of the United States” in our Constitution is followed by “in Order to form a more perfect Union.” Not a perfect union, but a better one. In the United States right now, we are having a robust public discourse as our country heads towards national elections in November. This discussion can at times be heated and even uncomfortable, but that does not indict our democracy; rather our democracy is strengthened by the resolve of our people – all our people – to exercise the rights and liberties that all United States citizens are guaranteed by our Constitution.


It is for this reason that the United States has been so inspired by the display of peaceful expression of the Belarusian people seeking to determine their own future. You remind us that democracy is worth fighting for. The United States stands by our long-term commitment to support Belarus’ sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as the aspirations of the Belarusian people to choose their own leaders through free and fair elections, without external intervention.


As Secretary Pompeo said this past week, the United States as a matter of principle supports free and fair elections that reflect the will of the Belarusian people. It is a principle enshrined in the Charter of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says that “Freedom is not the sole prerogative of a lucky few, but the inalienable and universal right of all human beings.”


The August 9 election in Belarus did not meet that standard. We condemn the brutality that was directed at the people of Belarus in the aftermath, we call for the release of all those arrested, and we urge the government of Belarus to accept the OSCE chair’s offer to facilitate dialogue and engage all stakeholders. Just as we have since our founding, the United States stands with people exercising their right to form a government that reflects their will.


A century and a half ago, even from his prison cell, Konstantinas Kalinowski continued to speak to – and for – his countrymen through his “Letters from Beneath the Gallows.” Shortly before being executed he called on his countrymen to “Live out your lives in freedom and in joy … And in that time when words must turn to actions, then stand up … and fight for truth.”

Kalinowski’s words call out to us from the grave. Today, more than 150 years after his death, these words are no less powerful than when he wrote them. May I echo his wish for the people of Belarus and all freedom seeking peoples around the world; may you live out the length of your days in freedom and joy. Thank you.