Since the fall of communism, there is hardly any other country in Central and Eastern Europe that has produced as many award-winning freedom fighters as Belarus.
It is certainly ironic that the-22-year-long autocratic rule of President Alexander Lukashenka, who works systematically to silence his critics, has produced so many vocal and inspirational leaders from various walks of life – artists, journalists, activists and politicians. All these personalities, and there are many more, exemplify the extraordinary talent as well as the potential of personal courage.
Belarus Free Theatre – Europe Theatre Prize, 2007; Juriy Khashchevatskiy - Nestor Almendros Award from the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, 1998; Svetlana Alexievich – Nobel Prize in Literature, 2015; Liavon Volski - Freemuse Music Award in Stockholm, 2016.
Belarusian Association of Journalists – European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, 2002, Golden Pen of Freedom Award from the World Association of Newspapers, 2004; Irina Khalip – Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women's Media Foundation, 2009; and many other awards; Natallia Radzina – Committee of Protection of Journalists’ International Press Freedom Award, 2011; Viktor Malishevskiy – Best of Online Activism from Deutsche Welle, 2016.
Ales Bialiatski – recipient of multiple prizes for defending human rights in Belarus, including the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Award from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, 2013. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012; Nasta Palazhanka – International Women of Courage Award from the U.S. Department of State, 2011.
Andrei Sannikov – Bruno Kreisky Prize for Services to Human Rights, 2005; Alexander Milinkevich – Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought from the European Parliament, 2006; Ales Mikhalevich – John Humphrey Freedom Award from the Canadian International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, 2011.
Despite threats and politically motivated pressure and harassment, they continue to advocate fundamental freedoms and promote respect for human rights and dignity. They write articles and books about the aberrant behaviour of the Belarusian regime, organise or participate in multiple political, cultural, media and expert events at home and abroad. Those rewarded by us, and many other Belarusian personalities, want us to listen more seriously to their voices, and not least to respect our own principles, commitments and promises.
Their reading of the domestic situation is repeatedly and consistently confirmed by the international human rights agencies. For example, the Human Rights Watch World Report 2015 stated that: “Belarusian authorities made no meaningful improvements in the country’s poor human rights record in 2014. President Aliaxander Lukashenka’s government continues to severely restrict freedom of expression and association, including by harassing journalists and imposing restrictive legislation on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). “
Very recently, UN Special Rapporteur on Belarus Miklós Haraszti stated in the cover letter for the regular report on the situation in the country which he will present at the session of the Human Rights Council at the end of June: “The findings show that, except for the recent release of political prisoners on the eve of the 2015 presidential election, no improvements have been introduced in the systemic, entrenched curtailment of basic human rights that triggered the establishment of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur in 2012.”
In the light of this dire situation and worsening socio-economic trends it is becoming increasingly difficult to explain to Belarusian democrats why European politicians, in their contacts with the country’s leadership, avoid stressing values and instead try to find progress where there is none. They warn us that this new pragmatism contributes to the conservation of autocratic rule and eventually leads to the erosion of belief in European values and solidarity. This new “Belarus normal” in European policy can lead to dangerous domestic and international consequences.
Pavol Demes, civic activist, former Slovak Foreign Minister, specially for charter97.org