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Belarus: Opposition Leader Receives Sakharov Prize

  • Ahto Lobjakas

http://gdb.rferl.org/C0A0DC21-FE76-4794-8D5A-BD5B77B4AC6E_w203.jpg --> http://gdb.rferl.org/C0A0DC21-FE76-4794-8D5A-BD5B77B4AC6E_mw800_mh600.jpg Milinkevich (left) receiving the Sakharov Prize from European Parliament head Josep Borrell (epa) BRUSSELS, December 12, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Belarusian opposition leader Alyaksandr Milinkevich today received the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought.


Milinkevich, who was awarded the prize in October, accepted the honor in Strasbourg with an emotional speech. He acknowledged the sacrifices made by other politicians, students, and ordinary Belarusians and dedicated the prize to all those who oppose President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's rule.


'Not My Prize Alone'

"This is not only my prize. Together with me, this prize also goes to all those Belarusians who are struggling for freedom, all those who came to the square this spring [during and after the presidential election] to defend their dignity, all those who were and still are imprisoned, those who were expelled from universities and who were fired from their job," Milinkevich said.

MORE: Coverage in Belarusian from RFE/RL's Belarus Service.

Speaking in Belarusian, Milinkevich called attention in particular to the plight of former presidential candidate Alyaksandr Kazulin, who was sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison for his role in street rallies that followed Lukashenka's reelection. Kazulin had refused food for nearly two months before his wife confirmed today he had ended his hunger strike.

The ceremony for the award -- named after Nobel prizewinner Andrei Sakharov, a strong advocate of reforms and civil liberties in the Soviet Union -- was led by the president of the European Parliament, Josep Borrell. During his speech, Borrell condemned Belarus as "Europe's last dictatorship."

EU external-relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner issued a statement in Brussels saying the prize "recognizes Aleksander Milinkevich's personal efforts, and the efforts of all those in Belarus who strive for democracy at their own personal risk." Ferrero-Waldner also said the award serves as a reminder of the EU's resolve to work for freedom and democracy in Belarus.


Deteriorating Situation In Belarus

During his speech and the press conference that followed, Milinkevich called for more EU support, although he avoided direct criticism of Brussels.

It was left to Borrell to note that despite all EU efforts, the situation in Belarus has deteriorated markedly since 2004, when the Belarusian Association of Journalists was the recipient of the Sakharov Prize.

Milinkevich, who said he will donate his 50,000 euro ($65,900) check to the European Parliament, strove to place Belarus's plight in a broader context. He said the EU must review the way it interacts with dictatorships at large, and not treat them as ordinary, legitimate regimes. The EU has so far been barred from funding activities in other countries not sanctioned by their governments.

Instead, Milinkevich called for a European "anti-dictatorship fund" to allow the EU to take direct action against authoritarian regimes.


Missing Mechanism Of Assistance

"What the united Europe is missing is a mechanism of concrete assistance to those struggling inside undemocratic countries -- it is not Belarus alone that suffers from injustice," Milinkevich said. "The European Union has practically no such mechanisms today. The European Union was created to help those who have chosen the democratic path and who want to follow that path. And the European Union should urgently work out flexible assistance programs for those who are under dictatorships."

But the Belarusian opposition leader also displayed a new awareness that change in his country cannot be brought about by outside pressure. He offered a bleak analysis of the prospects of Lukashenka's regime, saying its members now resist attempts by Russia to buy up the country's infrastructure fearing they'd be stripped of their status. On the other hand, Milinkevich said, the regime also knows "democracy would kill it."

Hence, Milinkevich concluded, "no elections" can change the situation in Belarus. Instead, he called for massive street action, saying he would take opportunities ahead of the upcoming legislative elections to create awareness of this need.

"A dictatorship never wants to go away on its own. And we say absolutely frankly that it is impossible to change the situation in our country by elections, just as it has been impossible under other dictatorships," Milinkevich said. "Therefore, we believe in street action. We want a great number of people to come out to the streets and say to this government, by peaceful means, that there is no place for dictatorship on Belarusian soil."


More People-To-People Contact

Milinkevich also appealed to the EU not to increase visa costs for Belarusian citizens, slated to rise to more than 60 euros ($80) next year. EU member states agreed earlier this year not to raise visa rates for countries with which it has negotiated or is negotiating a visa-facilitation agreement. These include Russia, Ukraine, and Moldova. Belarus, however, will not qualify for visa relief, as cooperation with Lukashenka's regime remains conditional on democratic reforms.

Milinkevich also said planned economic measures against Belarus might do more harm than good. The EU is considering removing Belarus from its most-favored-nations list later this month.

Brussels argues this is necessary less as a response to Minsk's intransigence than simply as a reaction to the absence of independent trade unions in the country. Earlier this week, however, commissioner Ferrero-Waldner said the EU could postpone the move by six months to give Lukashenka a "period of grace."

RFE/RL Belarus, Ukraine, And Moldova Report


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