Polish MEP Jacek Saryusz-Wolski is a former activist of the Polish anti-communist trade union Solidarność and was involved in the country's EU accession. He became vice chairman of the European People's Party in 2006. He was interviewed by EurActiv Senior Editor Georgi Gotev.
You nominated Ales Bialiatski, an imprisoned Belarussian opposition activist, for the 2012 Sakharov Prize. How would you present him to those who know little about him?
I wouldn’t say Ales Bialiatski is little known. He has also been nominated for a Nobel Prize. He is the longest-serving political prisoner of President Lukashenko’s regime. And I would say he is an emblematic figure for the democrats in Belarus. He is the vice president of the International Federation of Human Rights, so he’s widely known worldwide in the circles that deal with human rights protection. At the same time he is founder and president chair of Viasna, the Belarussian human rights defence organisation.
Throughout his life, he has been a fighter of human rights. Courageous, with great civic courage and not hesitating to put his fate and his suffering at stake.
So he is in my view somebody whom Andrei Sakharov himself would grant this prize, because he has exactly the same type of civic courage to fight for some convictions of freedom of thought and expression. So I would compare his psychological and personal profile compare to that of Sakharov.
Sometimes when we attribute the Sakharov prizes, we do not read sufficiently, profoundly the Sakharov life and message itself. We think that it is for everybody who suffers, which is horrible, for everybody who is a martyr, which is also horrible. It’s for people like Nelson Mandela who all their life prove intransigence in their fight for the rights of others. Forgetting their own price to be paid.
So this is the first reason; that he’s so close in his behaviour and courage to the definition of Sakharov himself. The second reason is that Belarus is the doorstep of the Union. Some people say “Why so many Belarusians [are awarded the Sakharov prize]?” Indeed, it would be the third one in the span of the decade. But my answer is Belarus is a laboratory of oppression and dictatorship, incomparable to any other case in Europe. And it is in Europe.
Therefore, there is a special obligation of us here in the European Parliament, the defence of the human rights, values, but also the postures, the attitudes that gives us some hope that one day in the future such situations and countries will not exist or repeat. So it’s not for him. It’s for us and it’s not about him, it’s about us and we should be profoundly grateful that people like him prove that in a widely defined Europe, the fundamental values, European values, which are also universal ones, are defended by people who are ready to pay the highest price, because in such a fight you can never tell whether your life will be threatened or not. In a nutshell, there are roughly three reasons. First, we are talking about a person who is, the way I feeling, ideally fitting the Sakharov message. Secondly, because it’s Belarus, which is a shame for Europe. And the third reason is about fundamental values.
Let me challenge you a little bit, because there are also other candidates. You said that Sakharov would give the prize to Bialiatski. But would he give the prize to Pussy Riot?
I don’t think so. I consider the verdict, the punishment of Pussy Riot [to two years of imprisonment] scandalous and unacceptable. But I can say the same about their behaviour. The places like a church are not the places to articulate politically motivated views, whatever one thinks about their groundedness. So I think they should be relieved. But there is no comparison of the clarity of the message and sacrifice … I wouldn’t even compare Bialiatski with Pussy Riot.
Also, it’s not fair to compare Russia with Belarus in terms of democracy?
Yes, one has to say with all the reservations about the state of human rights and democracy in Russia, that it’s better than Belarus.
There has been a strong statement by Catherine Ashton during the last session of the European Parliament on human rights and fundamental values. Do you think that EU-Russia relations have reached their lowest point for the last ten years or so?
They have reached a very low point, I don’t know whether it’s the lowest or not. Because it depends on whether you think of Russia as Russia or Russia as the Soviet Union.
No, I’m thinking about the last ten years or so.
I would say there’s some kind of disillusionment and “all cards on the table” moment. A linked to the intentions of Russia, not to democratise, not to allow for release of people like Khodorkovsky, or to clear up the situation of murders like Politkovskaya or judicial murder like Magnitsky. And no real opposition or pluralist democracy as we perceive it in Europe. And a very toughening stance in international relations. Plus the decree or executive order of Putin on prohibiting foreign companies and their subsidiaries to dialogue with anybody including the European Commission and the European Union, which confirms things which we Central Europeans have said for years and West Europeans have problems to understand, namely that Gazprom and Russia is the same thing. And energy is a political, foreign policy tool and weapon.
There is a division not only between East and West Europeans, but I think among political groups, I’m not sure if the Socialists & Democrats would endorse exactly what you have been saying.
I would tend to agree with you.
So that they see Russia more as a partner and less as a threat maybe?
Socialists are more indulgent vis-à-vis Russia.
In any case, would you expect the Socialists & Democrats to vote for Bialiatski or would they prefer another candidate, I think they support two Iranian personalities [Nasrin Sotoudeh, a lawyer and human rights advocate and Jafar Panahi, a film director]…
Well, one doesn’t know until the end of the process. But I thought that Bialiatski is such an emblematic figure which deserves horizontal, cross-party support. And the biggest number of signatures of all the candidates which I have succeeded to gather comes from all the groups. Nearly all the groups.
Including the Socialists & Democrats group?
Yes. To show that this is about fundamental values.
You could have introduced the nomination on behalf of the EPP group, but you preferred to gather signatures from individual MEPs from various groups…
I preferred to make it a cross-cutting, if you wish. Because this is about fundamental values where we all agree. So I heard different rumours about support for Pussy Riot or Iranians, for Rwandans, for Pakistani… I have survived many Sakharov nominations. Four or three of them come from my proposals – [Aliaksandr] Milinkevic, Memorial, [Guillermo] Fariñas. And I didn’t succeed with Politkovskaya.
So you are in a very good position to say if there is enough interest on behalf of the wider audience for the Sakharov prize. Because you can’t compare, I hope you will agree, a Sakharov Prize with a Nobel Prize.
I call a Sakharov prize a small Nobel prize. And in some respects I think it’s more important than Nobel. Nobel gives enormous PR and prestige, but it does not give the political possibilities that Sakharov does. It’s an institutional reward of the highest directly elected European institution. It’s kind of an honorary membership of the European Parliament. Its provides the ability and capacity to be part of the Sakharov network and be able to speak and participate for years to come. It’s not a one-year event. You become kind of an honorary special human rights club of the European Parliament, under its protection, for years, for lifetime.
And in that case it would be signalling Belarus is relevant and important for the European Union and we’ll not forget about democracy and human rights there. What I regret is that some use the argument that Belarus has got it already twice. I don’t believe in quotas in such types of prizes. I don’t think there should be some geographical distribution patterns, be it Myanmar, Belarus or Cuba, wherever thinks happen and emblematic people appear, which gives others the pattern of human dignity and hope and values above other political considerations. They should be directed there. But obviously there are political circles in Parliament and sympathies. Geographical sympathies I would say. But I was the promoter of Cuba’s Fariñas. I proposed him, which means that I’m not fixed on Central-Eastern Europe or Eastern Europe as some might suspect.
We published two articles at EurActiv about candidates for the Sakharov prize, one about the Belarussian activist Bialiatski, and another one with Pussy Riot in the title. I’m sure you can guess which one got more page views.
Yes. But is it fair?
I demand that they are released. But I don’t think that scandalous behaviour in places of religious worship is the right place to do such things.
Will you state your opinion in the Parliament plenary?
No, because we are not here to criticize the other candidates. This is not the way to do it. I usually say that all are deserving, but the most deserving is X,Y,Z. And all my sympathies for Pussy riot, but I don’t think they will win. In terms of lifelong engagement for human rights and freedom, I think Bialiatski is the strongest nominee. And I believe in this new institution, which is the Sakharov prize network. Which means that Parliament keeps in touch with them, that it invites them once a year, that it takes care of them in the sense of following their destiny and allows them to articulate their views and preoccupations over the years after their nomination. This is a very precious institutionalization of the idea of the Sakharov prize. We set the pattern and our message is that these people, dozens of them, are the people we would like others to follow.
Probably in your country Poland there is more interest for the Sakharov prize than say, Ireland or Italy?
I don’t think it’s specific for Poland. It’s specific for those who have a fresh memory. And it’s about all Central and Eastern Europeans. It’s very easy for me to convince Bulgarians, Romanians, Czechs, Hungarians, Slovaks, Estonians, Lithuanians and Latvians, because their memory from fight for human rights and democracy is fresh. This doesn’t mean that others are not sensitive – they are. But their sensitivity is not that vivid as in the case of the so-called new members, who still know what all that is about.