‘Without a free Belarus, Europe is not truly free’

Why the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought remains a beacon of the EU’s commitment to human rights and peace

European Parliament president David Sassoli (centre) presents the Sakharov prize to the activists from the Belarusian opposition
European Parliament president David Sassoli (centre) presents the Sakharov prize to the activists from the Belarusian opposition
‘Without a free Belarus, Europe is not truly free’

This feature is in partnership with the European Parliament office Malta

The 2020 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought was this week awarded to the democratic opposition in Belarus, a coalition of brave activists who have taken the initiative to stand up against the totalitarian system controlling the country.

The prize, awarded by the European Parliament, was received by Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya on behalf of the Coordination Council, a body set up by the political opposition to facilitate a transfer of power in Belarus, and other democratic opposition representatives.

“An invisible wall of fear had been built around us,” she told European lawmakers in her acceptance speech. “But this year, united, we believe that this wall of fear could be taken down, brick by brick. The dream of a better Belarus keeps us going. “We call on Europe to be braver in their decisions and support the people of Belarus now – not tomorrow and not somewhere in the future. Without a free Belarus, Europe is not truly free. Long live Europe, long live Belarus!”

Civil unrest

Currently, the situation in Belarus is embedded in civil unrest amidst the electoral election results, which saw Alexander Lukashenko keep his seat as president. The tyrannical leader has maintained his firm hand on the Belarusian society throughout his 26 year old reign, making him the longest elected president in EU history.

Alongside accusations of electoral fraud, torture and corruption, Lukashenko and his associates are thought to have illegally misappropriated an estimated $10 billion, according to a journalistic investigation on Belarus. His landslide win over his closest rival, Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya, has prompted numerous assertions of election fraud, with Lukashenko shrugging these allegations off and calling it business as usual, despite punitive police violence towards opposition supporters, arrests of journalists and activists, internet shutdowns, ‘disappeared’ citizens and widespread accusations of torture.

So far, four people have died, hundreds have been injured and close to 7,000 people have been arrested amidst protests. Thousands of workers have come out on strike, further plummeting the socio-economic situation in Belarus. Furthermore, the mishandling of the coronavirus outrage has added more fuel to the fire, leading to some of the largest protests in the history of independent Belarus.

Lukashenko’s response was indifferent – “Until you kill me, there will be no other election” – upholding his tyrannical exploits. A peaceful protest in August was met with police officials using tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades to disperse and control the 100,000 Belarusian protesters.

The Russia factor

The Belarusian opposition is looking for free and fair elections, not to sever ties with Russia.

Though while the protesters are not aiming to set up an anti-Moscow movement, a socio-political change in Belarus could serve as encouragement for simmering protests in south-eastern Russia.

Amidst an evolving economic crisis, and the coronavirus pandemic, Russian president Vladimir Putin’s popularity has sunken to a record low. Recent consti­tutional changes, which could allow him to stay in power until 2036, have further challenged Russians’ patience.

Despite Lukashenko’s recent anti-Russian rhet­oric, and the arrest of alleged Russian mercenaries, accusing them of ‘plotting terrorism’, Minsk is still seen as the less­er evil for Moscow. Putin has repeatedly underscored the ‘inadmissibility’ of foreign ‘interference’ in Belarus.

In truth, Putin has constantly pushed for a Union State with Belarus, even though Lukashenko has shown nothing but reluctance. So far, Putin confirmed Russia’s ‘readiness to provide necessary assistance in ironing out emerging problems’.

There is reportedly increased military movement, with columns of unmarked trucks, on Russia’s side of the Belarusian border. Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, alleged that the EU is on the verge of intervening in Belarus, claiming that “this is about geopolitics, the fight for the post-Soviet space”.

Lukashenko added on by saying that “Putin and I agreed: Belarus is first, Russia is next in line. This is a springboard, and we must destroy it”.

EU action

In an emergency European Council meeting, Tsikhanouskaya had already urged EU member states through a video appeal not to recognise these “fraudulent elections”. In response, Lukashenko stated that this was an attempt at a political ‘coup’. Furthermore, he claims that the creation of the Coordinating Council violates the country’s constitution, arguing that “the creation and the activities of the CC are aimed at seizing power and inflicting damage to national security”. Consequently, members of the CC were either brought in for questioning, detained, or accused of organising unauthorised mass events.

EU leaders and member states have shown their support towards the Belarusian people with their mutual decision to disregard the electoral results, meaning that Lukashenko is not recognised as the president of the state. “The elections were neither free nor fair, therefore we do not recognise the result,” the EU has declared, underlining that Belarusians “have a right to determine their future”.

In light of the brutality imposed by Lukashenko’s totalitarian state, the EU Council has unanimously decided to impose sanctions against 40 individuals who were identified as being responsible for the intimidation and repression against peaceful demonstrators, opposition members and journalists in the wake of the 2020 presidential election in Belarus, as well as for misconduct of the electoral process. Such restrictions include travel bans and the freezing of assets, funds or economic resources.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell stated that: “One day, we will exhaust the number of people that could be sanctioned. And now we have to go to more sensitive issues, which is sanctioning firms, which will affect the development of the normal economic activity.”

The European Parliament wants EU sanctions to include Lukashenko, who is not the legitimate president. It considers Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s Coordination Council as the legitimate representative of the people, and called for new free and fair elections to be held under international supervision.

Source: European Parliamentary Research Service

Veronika Tsepkalo
Veronika Tsepkalo

Q&A Veronika Tsepkalo

Veronika Tsepkalo is a member of the democratic opposition in Belarus. Her husband, Valery Tsepkalo, had planned on contesting the 2020 Belarusian presidential election, but then opted to join forces with other opposition candidates and united their campaigns. He soon fled the country with their children out of fear for their safety, while Veronika became his representative at campaign rallies. On the eve of the election she too fled the country fearing the loss of her freedom, reuniting with her husband in Moscow.

What does this mean to you as the democratic opposition to have your work recognised by the EU in this way?

For us, winning the Sakharov prize is an acknowledgement of our fight. This was an exceptional year for the democratic opposition, but this has been going on for years. Viktor Babariko, my husband Valery Tespkalo, and many others have all challenged the government when Lukashenko was stronger.

The Sakharov prize isn’t only an achievement for these people – it’s dedicated to every person in Belarus fighting for democracy.

How do you think that this could play out back home in Belarus? Do you think having your work recognised in this way could be an added blow for the Lukashenko government?

There’s no way back for Belarus now. If we give up now Lukashenko will remain in power for the next five or so years. Back home I’m sure they’ll continue to fight, we have seen many solidarity marches in the past months. The problem is that no opposition is allowed – if you are in the opposition you are not allowed to stay in the country.

We don’t want to become a concentration camp. We’re not asking for anything big either – we just want a simple right to vote and to have free and fair elections.

What actions do you feel the EU should take against authoritarian governments inimical to democracy?

Firstly it’s good that the EU did not acknowledge the results of the election this year. Sanctions have been key in punishing the Lukashenko government, both now and during previous uprisings. Maybe more importantly would be to provide financial help. People are receiving high fines for protesting, and particular help is needed for women’s groups in Belarus experiencing threats of rape.

The protests have been peaceful – in months of demonstrations not a single car was burned. But many have been arrested and we’re seeing major human rights violations in Belarus’s prisons. Men and women have been raped and killed. People are being raped, killed and tortured yet not a single criminal case was registered.