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Belarus opposition leader Aliaksandr Milinkevich - 2006 European Parliament Sakharov Prize Winner for Freedom of Thought

Human rights - 12-12-2006 - 14:30
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Aliaksandr Milinkevich - 2006 Sakharov Prize Winner for Freedom of Thought

Leader of the Belarusian Opposition Aliaksandr Milinkevich received the 2006 Sakharov Prize from European Parliament President Borrell. Each year, the Parliament awards the Sakharov prize to exceptional people or organisations fighting against oppression, intolerance and injustice. The aim is to help them in their efforts to protect human rights, democracy and the rule of law around the world.

Mr Milinkevich gave the €50 000 that comes with the prize to the human rights NGO - the Norwegian Helsinki Committee.
 
President Josep Borrell said: "In Europe we very often take human rights for granted and enjoy our freedoms to think, to speak and to believe as something indisputable and natural. However, still too many people around the globe are deprived of their fundamental right to live in freedom. It may be difficult to believe, but democracy is denied to ten million people who live on our own continent, in Europe, in Belarus. As Europeans, we have a special duty to defend and promote human rights in the world; therefore we should never tolerate the breach of human dignity and suppression of democratic values on our own soil and beyond. The 2006 Sakharov prize manifests this determination as strongly as ever.
 
Mr Aliaksandr Milinkevich, you are fighting against fear and intimidation, which reigns in Belarus. You are fighting for a simple liberty to speak one’s mind, to choose one’s future. You have become a true symbol of resistance against the oppression and of hope for a democratic future. Your personality is remarkable, your endeavours are outstanding and your example is inspiring not only to the Belarusian people, but also to us all here at the European Parliament. We stand shoulder to shoulder with you in supporting the promise of democracy in Belarus and the aspiration of Belarusian society to obtain the right to elect their leaders democratically, the right to have access to independent information, the right to establish non-governmental organisations and the right to have an independent and impartial judiciary.
 
We are all dismayed by the fact that 17 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, 17 years since we awarded our first Sakharov Prize, the artificial division of Belarus from Europe still exists.
 
We ... deeply regret that contrary to any signs of change of heart in Minsk, the situation of democracy, human rights and rule of law is further deteriorating. There is no doubt that the future of Belarus lies with Europe. The Belarusian people deserve to live in a European dream of democracy, freedom and prosperity. I believe that it is not the question of whether, but only the question of when Belarus will join the European family of democratic nations.
 
The experience of my own country in the 1980's and that of our Member States from Eastern and Central Europe, who have successfully emerged from the totalitarian regime as democratic and free nations, shows us that it is in nobody’s power to stop people from thinking, hoping, dreaming, striving for and winning freedom.
 
Our 2006 Prize winner is a scientist like Andrei Sakharov. Both shared the same views and values, both experienced the sad consequences of standing up to a totalitarian regime. This year’s Sakharov Prize is given not only to a civic leader, but also to a scientist. A scientist, who dreams, who is trying to see the future with a fresh vision unimaginable to others. While some of these dreams seem impossible to realize, scientists sometimes are able to invent ways and precise solutions to make these dreams come true.
 
The Sakharov prize is therefore given this year to the HOPE for a democratic Belarus and to every person that has the courage not only to dream of freedom but to turn this dream into reality."
 
President Josep Borrell then awarded the certificate for the 2006 Sakharov Prize to Aliaksandr Milinkevich.
 
Speaking in Belarusian, Mr Milinkevich began his address to Parliament by expressing his thanks for the award, saying the prize was not for him alone but for all the Belarusians who are continuing their struggle for Belarus to rejoin the family of democratic European nations. Belarus had always been a European country, he said, and had been the first in Europe to have the prototype of a democratic constitution in the sixteenth century Grand Duchy of Lithuania. During the second world war, the country had the most powerful resistance movement in Europe, at the cost of the lives of a third of the population. One million of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust were from Belarus, he said.  The country had seen its national identity uprooted and its historical memory amputated, he said. Belarus had welcomed independence in 1991, but had not realised that independence and freedom were not the same thing.
 
“Today we are fighting for freedom and defending our independence [...]  We are doing this for our children, who like French, Lithuanian, Polish and British children have the right to live in a free country. It was our children who spent long nights in freezing temperatures on the square in Minsk after March's elections.  They were arrested and imprisoned, expelled from their universities for their choice of conscience.  I am proud of them,” he said.
 
The regime, he said, had made thousands of arrests. The prisons had never been as full as during that week in March.  Nevertheless, the authorities had not expected such large numbers to participate in protests.  “This was our first victory,” he said, “but I know we will need many more similar victories to put an end to this illegal regime.” Former presidential candidate Aliaksandr Kazulin had been sentence to five and a half years in prison.  He had been on hunger strike for 50 days, and his life was now at risk, said Mr Milinkevich.   Mentioning all the political prisoners in his country, he said the prize was a sign that Europe was paying attention to the situation in Belarus.  It could also, he said have been a prize for opposition figures such as Hienadz Karpienka, Yury Zakharanka or Viktar Hantchar, “But they have vanished without trace and we believe they have been murdered.  These are the methods [...] used by the Belarus regime against their opponents.
 
Andrei Sakharov had always called for non-violent resistance, said Mr Milinkevich. “In this I am also a follower of his,” he said.  “We need to overcome the fear which over the last ten years has been planted in people's spirits by unceasing propaganda,” he said, recalling a comment of Mr Sakharov that freedom of thought was the only guarantee against national myths which can lead to bloody dictatorship. “This is what is happening now in Belarus.  Monuments to Stalin are being reinstated [...] the official media provides an unending torrent of lies and falsehoods, just as it did in Sakharov's time.  The main enemy is said to be the West, and local democrats are presented as its agents.” 
 
Mr Lukashenko had spoken of the opposition going abroad to call for sanctions on Belarus.  “I want to use this opportunity to say, in particular to the people of Belarus, that these are lies.  We would never call for sanctions, as we know they would hit ordinary people most severely.”  Mr Milinkevich said that Moscow's conditions for its political and economic support to Lukashenko were that Belarus adopt a single currency with Russia – in effect, the Russian ruble – and that it ratify a “State Union” treaty.  These would both cause the loss of Belarus's sovereignty.  So far, the Lukashenko regime had resisted this approach: “they know perfectly well that with the loss of independence and the arrival of Russian capital in Belarus, few of them would keep their posts and their wealth.”  But it may be that self-preservation would lead the regime to accept Moscow's terms and organise a referendum.  “We need to be clear that it is democracy and not dictatorship which could be the guarantee of Belarusian independence.”  Mr Milinkevich nevertheless stressed that a democratic, independent Belarus would want close and friendly relations with Russia.
 
He called on the EU to widen the scope of its travel restrictions on members of the regime, but at the same time called for the EU not to raise to €60 the price of a Schengen entry visa, as planned on 1 January 2007.  For most Belarusians, he said, this would act as a new Berlin wall. 
 
The latest proposal from the European Commission, inviting the Minsk regime to end its self-imposed isolation in Europe, were welcome, he said, though there was little change of the Lukashenko government responding positively: “They know that once democratisation starts it will inevitably, and swiftly, result in the end of their power.  The present leader of Belarus could never again win a genuinely free election.”  He urged Europe to let Belarusians know that, contrary to their state's propaganda, Europe was leaving its doors open for a free and democratic Belarus.
 
He urged the EU to go beyond its existing support for democratic development, which was only effective in countries actually trying to establish democracies.  There needed to be support also for countries under dictatorships, support for free media, civil society and repressed individuals. Europe should not shrug, he said, simply asking 'What can we do?' - “There is a lot you can do!” he said.
 
“I am deeply convinced that Europe cannot be complete without Belarus,”  he said.  “I want to thank you for having faith in our victory.  I promise it will not be long coming.  My country is not the same as it used to be – it is less frightened, and it believes in change. Belarus will soon rejoin the European family as a free and democratic state. History shows that dictatorships do not last, and end badly for their tyrants.  The only choice when faced with a dictatorship is to struggle against it.  Because we have no other choice.”
 
 
REF.: 20061207IPR01148