Belarus opposition wins European Parliament’s human rights award

Belarusian opposition presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (L) raises her fist next to Maria Kolesnikova (R), a representative of non-registered presidential candidate Victor Babariko, during a campaign rally in Minsk, Belarus, 19 July 2020. [EPA-EFE/TATYANA ZENKOVICH]

The European Parliament awarded its annual Sakharov Prize for human rights on Thursday (22 October) to the democratic opposition movement in Belarus led by the exiled Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who stood up to strongman Alexander Lukashenko.

“They have stood and still stay strong in the face of a much stronger adversary. But they have on their side something that brute force can never defeat – and this is the truth,” the Parliament’s President, David Sassoli, told European lawmakers.

“My message for you, dear laureates, is to stay strong and not to give up on your fight. Know that we are by your side,” Sassoli added.

The human rights prize, named after Soviet physicist and dissident Andrei Sakharov, was established in 1988 by the European Parliament and is awarded every year to individuals or organisations that “have made an important contribution to the fight for human rights or democracy”.

Belarus has been gripped by unprecedented protests since Lukashenko claimed victory over Tikhanovskaya in an August election.

Since then, every weekend, tens of thousands of Belarusians take to the streets to protest against Lukashenko, Europe’s longest-serving leader, despite the risk of arrest and the threat of live ammunition used by police against peaceful protesters.

The democratic opposition in Belarus is represented by the Coordination Council, an initiative of women, including prominent political and civil society figures, set up to start a democratic transition of power.

The award will go to several leading Belarussian opposition figures, including Tsikhanouskaya; Maryya Kalesnikava; Veranika Tsapkala; Volha Kavalkova; Syarhey Dyleuski; Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich; Tsikhanouskaya’s imprisoned husband, Syarhey Tsikhanouski; the founder of the Telegram channel NEXTA, Stsyapan Putsila; Ales Byalyatski from the human rights organization Vyasna; and political prisoner Mikalay Statkevich, a presidential candidate in the 2010 election.

Almost all the figures linked to Tikhanovskaya – and the Coordination Council – have been imprisoned, placed under house arrest or forced into exile.

After the award announcement on Thursday she said she was “really glad” to hear the Sakharov Prize to the movement opposing Lukashenko.

“This is not my personal award, it is an award for the Belarusian people,” she told reporters.

An award ceremony is due to take place in the European Parliament during its Strasbourg plenary session on 16 December.

Moscow and Minsk have constantly denounced a Western conspiracy behind the protests, making Europe’s support a double-edged sword for the opposition.

Tikhanovskaya, who was granted shelter in EU member Lithuania after the vote, has called on Lukashenko to quit power before 25 October, warning he would otherwise face a crippling general strike.

The Belarus opposition leader had addressed the European Parliament twice since then. In September, during a meeting with EU foreign ministers in Brussels, she urged the EU to show courage and impose sanctions on Lukashenko’s regime, as the bloc continued to face internal squabbles over sanctions.

After weeks of bickering, EU leaders broke a longstanding deadlock to impose sanctions against members of the Belarus regime on 2 October.

The EU is now set to impose asset freezes and travel bans on around 40 members of President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime whom it blames for rigging the 9 August election and cracking down on protests afterwards. Lukashenko himself will also be targeted with a travel ban and his assets will be frozen.

EU agrees to sanction Lukashenko, impose Russia sanctions over Navalny poisoning

EU foreign ministers on Monday (12 October) agreed to impose sanctions on Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and move forward with a sanctions framework against the culprits involved in the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Additionally, the EU scaled back the financial support it gives to his government and instead increased its support for the Belarusian people and civil society.

MEPs call for sanctions implementation

On Wednesday (21 October), EU lawmakers also adopted new recommendations by 602 in favour, 44 opposed, and 44 abstentions, calling for a comprehensive review of the EU’s relations with Belarus.

MEPs urged the EU to “to immediately impose sanctions, agreed by the foreign ministers and the European Council, directed against a significant group of individuals and providing for an asset freeze and travel ban”.

They also stressed the European Parliament’s position that after the end of Lukashenko’s current presidential on November 5, 2020, “he will no longer be a legitimate president.”

“The EU cannot be a passive observer – active measures to prevent hybrid or direct Russian intervention in Belarus must be taken,” rapporteur Petras Auštrevičius (Renew Europe) said after the vote, urging the German EU Presidency to “lead diplomatic efforts to prevent any interference and support the Belarusian people’s democratic aspirations”.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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