A free Belarus

14.02.2024 - Article

Guest essay by Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.

By Annalena Baerbock (43), Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs, and Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (41). Both are mothers of two children.

Irina likes to go ice-skating. At the indoor rink, or when the lakes freeze over in winter. Her grandmother, who raised her, remembers how they used to do puzzles together. Sometimes for hours.

In the summer of 2020, Irina – not yet 20 years old – went to a protest against the government of her country. Shortly afterwards, the police came and arrested her. Irina has been in prison ever since. We don’t want to use her real name here, to avoid the guards making her situation even worse. Irina is in the same situation as 1500 other detainees in Belarus whom Alexander Lukashenko’s regime has had arrested for political reasons.

Citizens who took part in peaceful protests. Journalists who reported on these protests. Students who wrote signs of protest at their universities. Grandmothers who handed out flowers to the security forces at women’s marches. Fathers who took to the streets for their children’s future.

These people inspired all of Europe. And we will not forget them.

As politicians, we each have a different perspective on Belarus. Our places of birth, Mikashevichy and Hanover, are 1200 km apart. They are the places that have shaped our lives. A life in free and democratic West Germany. A life in the Soviet Union and the dictatorship of Belarus.

As different as our stories are, we are united by a clear conviction – that every human being has the right to be free. That it is not a crime to take to the streets to express one’s opinion. And that every society should be able to choose by whom it is governed.

This freedom is the foundation of our peaceful Europe. It is for this freedom that the people in Belarus took to the streets in 2020. And it is this freedom that the regime of Alexander Lukashenko so hates.

As a result, his critics face ever harsher treatment. Not least women. Women like Irina. Because it is women like Irina whom dictators worldwide fear. Because it was women who made the peaceful protests in Belarus so powerful.

Just a few weeks ago, Lukashenko’s security forces once again targeted the families of political prisoners. With arrests and raids on their homes. Meanwhile, as of last year, Belarusians abroad can no longer apply for passports at the country’s consulates and embassies. They are to return to where the state apparatus can lock them up.

A dictatorship that so brutally harasses its citizens will eventually direct its aggression outwards, too.

And so it is no coincidence that Lukashenko forced a European aeroplane to land in order to intercept and detain a blogger travelling to Vilnius. Or that his regime had people flown in from crisis hotspots in order to destabilise an EU border area. That Lukashenko allowed Russia to use his country as one of the launchpads for its war of aggression against Ukraine, a base for soldiers to march out and fighter jets to take off from. That he continues to stand by the Russian President – despite the fact that this war is anything but popular in Belarus.

What often escapes public attention in the shadow of Putin’s brutal imperialism is that the apparatus of power in Belarus, too, is a repressive and aggressive regime. A dictatorship, not a victim of Putin. The suffering of the people there did not begin in 2020; they have been living without freedom for decades.

We will therefore continue to put pressure on the rulers in Minsk. We, meaning the European Union, which is sanctioning the regime’s supporters – the members of the military as well as the security and justice apparatus, the propagandists, the oligarchs and financiers – with listings and import bans. And we as politicians who are supporting the democratic forces in Belarus and in exile. With protection programmes for democratic forces and for relatives of political prisoners, with emergency assistance for exiled media. And, in light of the passport ploy against citizens in exile, also with efforts to find alternatives to Belarusian passports.

Because we will not sit by and watch as the people in Belarus disappear behind a new Iron Curtain. These people belong to Europe. They are Europeans.

And so we will not give up the hope of a free, independent Belarus.

For Irina, who has not been able to go ice-skating for years now. Just as for the students, the grandmothers, the journalists and fathers.

And also for our friend Maria Kolesnikova, who is in prison because she gave the protests of 2020 a face. When she was first detained, Maria was still able to send letters to her family. She wrote to her father: “Not for a minute do I regret my decision. Freedom is worth fighting for.”

For a year now, neither her family nor her lawyers have had any contact with her. We do not know how Maria is faring. But we know that her fight for freedom endures, that it was not in vain – because courageous people are continuing it.

We stand by her side. Because the right to freedom cannot be locked away.

Published in the German newspaper Welt (14.02.2024)


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