Tikhanovskaya and Belarusian activists receive Europe’s top honour for services to unity

Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and pro-democracy activists Veronica Tsepkalo and Maria Kalesnikava have been honoured in Germany with the Charlemagne Prize.

The award, the oldest and best-known of its kind with a history going back to 1950, is awarded each year in the city of Aachen and recognises work to foster and further European unity.

Both Tikhanovskaya and Tsepkalo are living in exile, while the third laureate Maria Kalesnikava, is imprisoned in Belarus and was represented by her sister.

In an address at the ceremony on Thursday, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock told the recipients: “We stand by your side… we hear you, and we have not forgotten you.”

In Belarus the authorities have begun to bring domestic terrorism charges against opponents and critics jailed since follows the mass arrests of May 2020 onward. That year, hundreds of thousands of Belarusians took part in nationwide street protests against the country’s ageing authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko.

With those demonstrations, Tikhanovskaya said in her acceptance speech, “We united Europe again. I couldn’t imagine seeing such strong solidarity with Belarus despite borders and political divisions.

“Today this unity is as important as ever,” she went on. “It is important for peace in Ukraine. It is important for democracy in Belarus. Dictators are blackmailing the world with hunger, migrants, and nuclear weapons. They hope that someone will give in, get scared, and then retreat. This should not happen.

“This unity must remain no matter what. Also, stay brave, strong, and principled. Europe must stand up for its values… I often hear that what happens in Belarus and Ukraine is the fight between the West and the East. it’s not true. It is the fight between democracy and tyranny.”

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