Russian NGO expected to receive EU human rights prize


Memorial, an organisation promoting fundamental rights in post-Soviet states, could receive the European Parliament’s 2009 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, European People’s Party (EPP) sources told EURACTIV.

MEPs this morning (30 September) presented the ten candidates for the prize at a joint meeting of the Parliament’s foreign affairs, development and human rights committees. Nominated by Polish EPP MEP Jacek Saryusz-Wolski and 59 others, Memorial has a “great chance” of getting the price in December, a Polish representative told EURACTIV. This view was confirmed by other parliamentary pundits.

Indeed, the entire Greens/European Free Alliance group is also backing Memorial by nominating three of its activists, Lyudmila Alexeyeva, Oleg Orlov and Sergei Kovalev.

“This candidacy is a cross party initiative,” Saryusz-Wolski told colleagues from the foreign affairs, development and human rights committees. Indeed, Memorial could end up receiving up to 114 votes should the Greens decide to vote alongside the Polish MEP.

“Sakharov himself was the leader of Memorial at the very beginning of the NGO,” Saryusz-Wolski reminded his audience, arguing that the NGO “should be rewarded for its continued essential work in EU neighbouring countries, monitoring the situation in countries of actual or potential conflict and human rights abuse in Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Tajikistan, Moldova and Ukraine”. 

“Memorial is our natural partner, ally and friend,” the centre-right MEP added, pointing out that the NGO’s charter resembled the priorities of the EU itself.

East European MEPs lobby against Kremlin

By awarding the prize to Memorial, the European Parliament would harden its stance towards Russia. Indeed, the EU assembly is already organising a conference on the August 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which split Poland in two between the USSR and Germany and led to the incorporation of Baltic states Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania into the Soviet Union.

Russia recently expressed the view that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was the right thing to do at that time.

According to parliamentary sources, this push by Poland and other Central European countries goes against the new climate of “resetting” relations with Russia under the Obama administration. New NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen, for his part, proposed a new era of cooperation with the United States and Russia on 18 September, calling for collaboration on missile defence systems after Washington had scrapped its planned anti-missile system (see EURACTIV 17/09/09).

This is not the first time that the European Parliament has been at odds with Russia. It named its press conference room after Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian journalist and human rights activist assassinated in 2006, which is often boycotted by Russian officials invited to the Parliament’s Brussels premises.

Last year, the Parliament also adopted a resolution condemning attacks on human rights defenders in Russia after Memorial’s St. Petersburg office, which housed archives on the Gulag, was raided by the authorities and 12 computer hard disks containing the entire digital archive of the atrocities committed under Stalin – representing twenty years of work – were confiscated.

Other candidates for the prize

Among the other 10 candidates are Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Palestinian obstetrician in Gaza who has treated both Israelis and Palestinians, Dawit Isaak, an Eritrean journalist, writer and playwright imprisoned since 2001, or Roberto Saviano, An Italian journalist and writer, threatened by the Italian mafia in Naples. 

The European Parliament's Sakharov Prize, in its 21st edition, is awarded to "individuals who have made an important contribution to the fight for human rights or democracy". It is named after Soviet nuclear physicist, dissident and political activist Andrei Sakharov, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975.

In 2008, jailed Chinese dissident Hu Jia was awarded the prize (EURACTIV 23/10/08). In his absence, his wife spoke to MEPs during their plenary session in Strasbourg last December via video link from Beijing, where she was being held under house arrest.

Candidates for the prize must be supported by one of the Parliament's political groups or at least 40 individual MEPs. 

  • 6 Oct.: Vote on the three finalists by the parliamentary committees concerned. 
  • 22 Oct.: Leaders of the main political groups to decide the winner.
  • 14 Dec.: Joint meeting of foreign affairs, development and human rights committees with the winner.
  • 16 Dec.: Award ceremony during the Parliament's plenary session in Strasbourg.

Subscribe to our newsletters