The democratic opposition in Belarus - 2020, Belarus

© Nadia Buzhan / Nasha Niva
Led by brave women and other civil society and political figures, the Coordination Council has united the Belarussians fighting for democracy in Europe’s last dictatorship.

The 2020 Sakharov Prize was awarded to the democratic opposition of Belarus represented by the Coordination Council, an initiative of brave women - Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Svetlana Alexievich, Maryia Kalesnikava, Volha Kavalkova and Veranika Tsapkala, and political and civil society figures - Siarhei Tsikhanouski, Ales Bialiatski, Siarhei Dyleuski, Stsiapan Putsila and Mikola Statkevich.

In August 2020, the democratic opposition of Belarus began an unprecedented process to mobilise society in peaceful mass protests for democracy in a country long considered the last dictatorship in Europe. The protests began in the light of elections which saw Aliaksandr Lukashenka claim his sixth term as president in a contest marred by allegations of widespread electoral fraud. The united opposition insisted that the leading opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya won a decisive first-round victory with at least 60 % of the vote. They called on Lukashenka to start negotiations to transfer power and created a Coordination Council to that end.

In the weeks that followed, the streets of Minsk were filled with record-breaking demonstrations attracting over 200 000 people. Demonstrators from all walks of life and professions called on the president to step down. The regime responded with an unprecedented level of violence and repression, but Belarusian society did not give up and has continued to protest.

Brave women such as Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Svetlana Alexievich, Maryia Kalesnikava and Volha Kavalkova, members of the Coordination Council Presidium, along with the political activist Veranika Tsapkala, have become the symbol of the opposition and offered hope to Belarusians. They have been supported by dissidents, other political activists, human rights defenders, opposition politicians and youth leaders, including Siarhei Tsikhanouski, Ales Bialiatski, Siarhei Dyleuski, Stsiapan Putsila and Mikola Statkevich.

The leader of the Coordination Council, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, has become the emblem of this peaceful Belarusian revolution. Despite having no prior political experience, she stepped in as the independent presidential candidate in place of her spouse, the blogger and dissident Siarhei Tsikhanouski, who was arrested on trumped-up charges and jailed by Lukashenka. Two days after the election Tsikhanouskaya was directly escorted to the Lithuanian border by Belarusian officials. Now in exile, she has been the voice of the civic nation of Belarus throughout Europe. During her visit to the European Parliament in Brussels, Tsikhanouskaya proclaimed that Belarus was experiencing a democratic revolution and striving to assert its right to freely and fairly elect its leaders and take charge of its own destiny.

Two other brave women followed a similar course of action to Tsikhanouskaya. Veranika Tsapkala, a business manager and political activist, became her husband Valery's representative at Tsikhanouskaya's campaign rallies after he was denied permission to register as a presidential candidate and left the country, taking their children with him. Maryia Kalesnikava, meanwhile, a musician, political activist and Coordination Council member, ran Viktar Babaryka's presidential campaign until his arrest, after which she lent her support to Tsikhanouskaya.

The Presidium of the Coordination Council also includes Svetlana Alexievich, the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015, and Volha Kavalkova, Tsikhanouskaya's representative when the council was formed, along with Siarhei Dyleuski, the leader of the strike committee of the Minsk Tractor Works. The Belarusian authorities have either imprisoned or exiled many of the most prominent pro-democracy activists, including Siarhei Tsikhanouski, Sviatlana's husband, Ales Bialiatski, a former Sakharov and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Mikola Statkevich, a prominent Belarusian politician and veteran of the opposition to Lukashenka, and Stsiapan Putsila, the founder of NEXTA, a channel for sharing information, photos and videos of the peaceful protests in Belarus and the violence perpetrated against them by the law enforcement services.

In resolutions adopted in September and October 2020, the European Parliament condemned the Belarusian authorities and called for EU sanctions against the group of individuals responsible for falsifying the election results and for the violent repression, including President Lukashenka. Members affirmed that the elections were conducted in a 'flagrant violation of all internationally recognised standards' and that Parliament would no longer recognise Aliaksandr Lukashenka as President of Belarus once his term of office expired on 5 November.

Parliament also called for free and fair elections to take place before a transparent and inclusive constitutional reform process. MEPs welcomed the Coordination Council for its openness to all political and social stakeholders and for serving as a legitimate representative of the people demanding democratic change and freedom in Belarus, and insisted that the Belarusian regime enter into dialogue with it.

During the ceremony, exceptionally held in Brussels, President Sassoli said: "The whole world is aware of what is happening in your country. We see your courage. We see the courage of women. We see your suffering. We see the unspeakable abuses. We see the violence. Your aspiration and determination to live in a democratic country inspires us."

Accepting the prize, the main opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said: "Each and every Belarusian who takes part in the peaceful protest against violence and lawlessnes is a hero. Each of them is an example of courage, compassion, and dignity.

"Belarusians have been marching every week since the 9 August election. They march for their future and the future of those who cannot be there. They march for the freedom and dignity of Belarusians, of Europeans, yours and ours. Without a free Belarus, Europe is not fully free either." She added: "I have only one wish this year. I want every Belarusian who is now in jail or was forced to live in exile to return home,"