“Not for a minute do I regret my decision. Freedom is worth fighting for.”
So writes Maria Kolesnikova in a letter from prison to her father. She is sitting there alone when she writes these words. With the prospect of having to spend the next eleven years of her life there, behind bars. In prison, she says, she misses everything. “Letters, conversations, the possibility of having a shower”. Above all else, however, as such a gifted musician, her flute.
“But when you know why you are living, how doesn’t matter.”
This, too, she writes to her father. When the henchmen of the Lukashenko regime tried to force her to leave the country, she could simply have gone. Instead, she tore up her passport at the border. She cannot be with us today. Her sister Tatsiana Khomich will accept the prize in her stead. And we can all see here the photo of Maria – a photo of Maria when she was standing up for our freedom. This image is and will remain a reminder of an appalling injustice. Maria was arrested and then tossed into the loneliness of her cell. Without conversation, without music. Even so, she writes: I have no regrets. I know why and for what I am living: for freedom. Because freedom is worth fighting for.
Freedom, which for so many of us seems as natural as the air we breathe. But it is, as you, dear Svetlana, have so aptly put it, something that can easily be lost.
“You live in wonderful, democratic countries, but sometimes you forget that in your countries, too, there were in the past people who had to fight hard for this way of life and for these rights.”
Freedom – for which you laureates, dear Svetlana, dear Veronica, dear Maria, continue to fight, with courage and immeasurable sacrifice. And it is of course not only your own freedom. It is the freedom of the people in Belarus for which you continue to fight, day in, day out. It is the unconditional desire for freedom of all those who want to direct their own lives and who want to see their children grow up in peace and freedom. It is the freedom of each and every one of us to which you have committed yourselves.
It was in July 2020 when you three first stood together on a small stage in a town near Minsk voicing your demands: the release of all political prisoners, the fair conduct of elections and a limit on the presidential term. Everything for which Europe was built. That day only a few dozen people were in the audience. However – and this is what was special – that very day, the little light you had lit began to spread. Just a few hours later, you spoke in Minsk – and this time it wasn’t only a few dozen people who came, wanting to hear you, but thousands. And that in a country where even a dodgy comment on social media can land you in a prison camp. The light you lit back then lit up the whole of Europe.
But then came the election. Lukashenko’s blatant manipulations. But your light shone on. I remember those images; I think all of us here do: how in the days and weeks that followed, thousands of protesters stood up against the regime’s gangs of thugs in their black uniforms. Old people, young people, big, small, flowers in their hands.
To my mind, what makes your fight so impressive, and the reason why it motivated so many other people, is the fact that it was not one you – an IT manager, a musician, a housewife – went looking for. Svetlana, you once said: “I didn’t study politics. I just say what I think and feel.” Before all this started, you were not politically active. Maria and Veronica, too, had imagined their route to politics, to social engagement, rather differently. But when Maria’s good friend Viktor Babaryko was locked up and Veronica’s husband was banned from running for election, they both assumed responsibility. “We had no other choice. If not us, then who?” as you once said, Veronica. It cost you your job, your life in your country.
And perhaps it is for that very reason – because you didn’t want to be in politics, didn’t want power at any price – that you were and are so strong. You took up the fight because it was right and necessary for you, for your country, for your people. Despite all the differences between you, you said: we have to fight together for freedom, for justice, for the great common goal. And how long did your negotiations last? Anyone familiar with coalition negotiations knows that they can sometimes drag on. But you said: what’s at stake is not our own, individual interests. This is about something much bigger: our freedom. And you took just 15 minutes to agree on who would be the presidential candidate.
Dear Veronica, you once said that men would probably have talked for weeks or even months about such a step. I don’t know whether your protest was a typically female protest. What I absolutely do know, however, is this: you are role models for millions of women, young women all across Europe. You show what empowerment really means: enthusiasm, but also empathy. A belief in what is right, even if you don’t know whether it can truly become reality. What energy that can unleash! You set in motion an entire movement. Thousands followed your call. The Belarusian Nobel Literature Laureate Svetlana Alexievich commented on the crowds of protesters thus: “I suddenly saw very different people. I fell in love with my people.”
However, your story is also one about the price of the struggle for freedom. “For us, politics means pain.” And what pain! – as I have seen for myself. When Svetlana and I met, a little under a year ago, I thought the election campaign here might take me to my limits. And you, Svetlana, told me about your children, who are a similar age to mine. How at first you couldn’t explain to your younger daughter where her father actually was. Because a child in kindergarten doesn’t know what prison is. In the beginning, you sent her parcels and said they were from Dad on his business trip. Today your children know the truth. Now they write letters to their father themselves. Sometimes the prison management keeps the letters back for months. That is what the fight for freedom is. That is real politics. That is responsibility. For your country, for your children.
I do not know how to put this, but you can scarcely imagine how extremely honoured I feel to have been invited to give the citation for the bravest women in Europe! For you, dear Svetlana, the representative of free Belarus. For you, dear Veronica, who has lost everything yet continues to fight far from home. And for Maria, who is sitting far away from us in an eight-square-metre prison cell with cold water – and who, I learnt just a little while ago, is now also on the terrorist list. Someone has sent sheet music to her in prison. The Goldberg Variations by Bach, which she loves so much. She cannot play them without her instrument. But she has written that they sound fantastic in her head.
The sacrifices that you and your families are making are a painful reminder of the high price of freedom. But even though you two are in exile and Maria is in prison, your courage cannot be shut away. The idea of freedom cannot be driven into exile. That is the message of this year’s Charlemagne Prize. And I congratulate the Board on making this decision at such an important time. Because – and this, I believe, is what is courageous about the decision – it is not merely an honour for three strong women, politicians, decision-makers. Rather, if one reads the explanation for the decision closely, it is also a warning to us all. And then warm words are not enough.
For many people here in Germany, it seemed almost natural that, after the lifting of the Iron Curtain, there would automatically be a move towards greater democracy and greater freedom throughout Europe. The belief that it is at least possible to cooperate to some degree even with dictators like Lukashenko may perhaps have made us too slow to act in respect of the Belarusian regime. It was always clear that Belarus is an oppressive regime. At the same time, however, European policy built on cautious, constructive steps, for example the release of six political detainees shortly before the 2015 presidential elections or the role played by Belarus as host in the Minsk peace process. I, too, in my first days as Foreign Minister, didn’t think anything of it and spoke quite naturally of the Minsk peace process. Other hopes, too, proved false – for instance that trade alone might bring change and a shift in values.
Lukashenko continues to act against his critics with fearful harshness. His regime blatantly supports Russia’s brutal war in Ukraine. Thus the Russian and Belarusian regimes, with inhumane cynicism, stand counter to all that makes up Europe. All that you three are fighting for – peace and freedom, but also democracy and human rights.
To me as German Foreign Minister, it is clear that in future we will have to take an even more critical look – this, too, is the message of today – and act with even more resolve if our values and our freedom are attacked. Not only when thousands are arrested for telling the truth. Not only when the bombs are falling and tanks rolling through the streets. For hindsight always makes us all wiser. No, the time to act is when we see the first warnings of human rights being trampled underfoot. Of injustice taking hold, of fear and oppression gaining the upper hand.
When it took its important decision back in December, the Board could not have foretold that the world, and above all our Europe, would become a different place on 24 February. But since then, since 24 February, your award takes on another additional significance. Particularly in these last few days, because the effects of the war are becoming ever clearer in our European societies, too.
And some people are asking whether we might not gradually have to make some concessions to Putin now, even if he continues the bombing. I believe that today’s event, this Charlemagne Prize, these three laureates are pertinent reminders that the lack of war doesn’t automatically mean peace and freedom. Anyone who has sense and a heart would like nothing more than for this brutal war of aggression against innocent people to end today rather than tomorrow. But an end to the defence of Ukraine, an end to our solidarity, a victory for Russia or pseudo-referendums held in oppressive conditions of occupation and dictatorship – whether in Minsk or in the Donbass – do not mean an end to the violence, do not mean freedom. Quite the opposite, in fact. If we were to accept that, we would be betraying everything the courageous men and women in Ukraine are fighting for. Everything Svetlana, Veronica and Maria stood up, took to the streets, went to prison and went into exile for: the simple wish to say what one thinks and feels; the simple wish that children can live in freedom.
You are showing us how precious our freedom is. You are showing us that a self-determined life in peace and security, a life that I and people of my generation in Western Europe could enjoy untroubled, is not something that can be taken for granted, but a hard-won treasure. The urgent message of your commitment is this: we must not close our eyes when freedom is at risk. We must not look away, but rather act promptly. That is the responsibility each and every one of us has.
And part of this responsibility will also be to recraft Germany’s and Europe’s policy vis‑à‑vis our eastern neighbours in a new security environment. We did not choose this, but we owe it to our eastern neighbours. How do we want to shape our relations in this environment in future? Our relations with Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, the Western Balkans? And what about Belarus and Russia? This is the crucial question of our age. We must not shrink from tackling it.
It is clear that, for the foreseeable future, in terms of our relations with Putin’s Russia, it will not be a matter of security with Russia, but only of security against Russia. And it is also clear, particularly with an eye to our eastern neighbourhood that the values the brave people in Ukraine are defending are values shared not only by us here in Germany and the EU, but by millions of people in Eastern Europe. For too long, we ignored their wishes and needs. And to me that clearly means that even if these countries are not yet part of the European Union, they are already part of the European family. That is why it is of course the case that they can become members of the European Union if they meet the necessary conditions. The European Union, which is after all not merely an economic union, but above all a union of shared values, which ties all members together.
Europe has always grown – and this, too, is what makes the Charlemagne Prize so special, because work in the service of European unity and cooperation is what the laureates are rewarded for – Europe has always grown not thanks to everyone going with the flow or saying “we’d better keep quiet”. Rather, Europe has grown and flourished and guaranteed that our generations can live in peace thanks to courageous people and political decision-makers who were prepared, after its darkest hours, of which there have been several, to move forward. I believe we are again at such a historic juncture. Now is the time to build Europe further, not least in terms of foreign and security policy. Geographically and in intensity.
And that means – these aspects are closely linked – continuing to support the people in Russia and Belarus who are committed to freedom and democracy. Through political support at all levels, through projects, visas and scholarships. Because the protests by the people in Belarus are not over just because they are no longer visible on the streets.
That is why I want clearly to stress, today and at this time, when we are rightly talking so much about Ukraine and the people there and less about the situation in Belarus: we stand with you. We hear you. And we have not forgotten you. Not Svetlana, not Veronica, and especially not Maria. Not the men and women from the human chains in Minsk and other towns and cities. Not the 1200 political detainees still in prison, in atrocious conditions, in overcrowded cells, tortured, humiliated. We will not rest until Lukashenko ends the violence and repression against your people. We stand together for our and your freedom, for the freedom of the security of our shared life.
That is the promise we are making to you laureates today in awarding you the Charlemagne Prize. Dear Tatsiana, you are receiving the prize today on behalf of your sister Maria. You have been able to phone her occasionally. When you told her that you would be flying to Paris again soon, she was excited and told you that you definitely should go to the Centre Pompidou. I am profoundly sad, we are all profoundly sad, that Maria cannot fly to Paris herself. But she also said: “I have so many ideas for projects, enough to last a lifetime.” Next time you speak to her, please tell her that her hope is not in vain. We are looking forward to hearing her music. We know that her warning and her appeal will be heard and will have an effect.
“Freedom is worth fighting for.”
And we are fighting with you. Together, for a free Belarus and for our shared European order of peace