Last week in Vilnius, Laura Boldrini and I met Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. The meeting had two aims. We wanted to acknowledge the true result of the Belarusian elections, which the regime had hidden. This is why we met with the Belarusian president-elect in the Italian embassy in Vilnius. We also wanted to better understand the demands of the opposition and to discuss with Tikhanovskaya how we could support the Belarusian people.
We met with a very conventional woman: a 37-year-old former English teacher turned housewife, who is devoted to her family – a woman who never dreamt of being a politician. Her character is testament to the fact that the protests in Belarus are a true uprising of the people, a rebellion involving ordinary citizens across the whole country (and not only in Minsk): teachers, workers, the young, the elderly, men, and women.
At the same time, we met with a truly unconventional and extraordinary woman: somebody who has the courage to completely change her life to serve her people. Tikhanovskaya is somebody who doesn’t want to exploit her newfound international fame – a woman who is well aware of her inexperience in politics and who is just asking for a free and fair election: the best instrument to give Belarus the president it deserves.
Since our meeting, the repression in Belarus become much worse – with the authorities arresting every prominent opposition figure, including six of the seven members of the opposition council. On Wednesday, the arrest of Svetlana Alexievich, a Nobel laureate, was prevented thanks only because a handful of European diplomats decided to join her in her home. The reasons why we met Tikhanovskaya have, if anything, become more compelling than ever.
We need to respect the wishes of the people of Belarus. They do not deserve to be drawn into a geopolitical quagmire.
Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s lack of legitimacy and the pressing need to support the opposition demand urgent action from policymakers across Europe. We need to call for the immediate release of political prisoners and an end to indiscriminate violence against the demonstrators. We need to be prepared to protect the opposition, which continues to resist state repression in a peaceful and non-violent way. The diplomats of some EU member states did so when they prevented Alexievich from being arrested. As the repression grows, so does the need to protect dissidents. We will have to grant them refuge if need be. Our embassies should be ready for this – as they were in the Chilean capital, Santiago, in 1973.
We also need to be prepared for an inflow of refugees into the European Union. Many Belarusian people will be forced to remain abroad, while others will flee their country. Welcoming Belarusian refugees cannot be the sole responsibility of neighbouring countries. All 27 EU member states must be ready to open humanitarian corridors. Protecting the opposition also means being prepared to assist those that want to bring Lukashenka and his Omon (police special forces) before the European Court of Human Rights for their alleged involvement in torture, forced disappearances, and other forms of mistreatment.
Furthermore, we need to nurture the protesters’ experiences with political participation and their demands for democracy. Belarus has never experienced true democratic politics. No matter how the crisis unfolds, August 2020 marked a turning point for the country. Hundreds of thousands of citizens mobilised to reject the regime and demand democracy. This is a starting point. And we will have to devise ways to support opposition movements outside Belarus, fund Belarusian NGOs and civil society groups, and create opportunities for civic participation within the country.
We will have to take a firm stance once Lukashenka is sworn in as president once again, on 9 October. Can we really dare to recognise him as a legitimate leader, given the extent to which his regime manipulated the vote and violently repressed the Belarusian people? I think not. And the EU should revisit its decision to exclude Lukashenka from its sanction list.
Last but not least, we need to respect the wishes of the people of Belarus. They do not deserve to be drawn into a geopolitical quagmire. They are just asking to decide on their future freely and independently, without changing the history of their country or their relationship with Russia. Mediation by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe is the right tool to engage in this debate and facilitate a frank discussion with the Kremlin on the future of Belarus, making it clear that the country must retain its independence. The EU should firmly oppose the transfer of Belarusian sovereignty to Russia that Lukashenka discussed with Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin.
It is not only the future of Belarus that is at stake. Our willingness and capacity to defend democracy in Europe will signal our commitment to standing up for freedom and human rights. If we are not able to do so on our continent, we won’t be credible anywhere else in the world.
Lia Quartapelle is a member of the Italian Parliament and an ECFR council member.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.