(CN) — The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded Friday to human rights activists in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine with the Norwegian Nobel Committee making a special plea for the release of imprisoned 60-year-old Belarusian activist and opposition politician Ales Bialiatski.
The awards were the latest salvo directed against Russian President Vladimir Putin from leaders in Western Europe aghast at their continent's descent into a widening conflagration sparked by Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Besides honoring Bialiatski's long struggle for an independent and free Belarus, the Nobel Committee recognized the work of Memorial, the Soviet Union's first civil human rights group which was recently banned by Putin's regime under new “foreign agent” laws, and the Ukrainian human rights organization Center for Civil Liberties, which is spearheading investigations into Russian war crimes in Ukraine.
“When civil society must give way to autocracy and dictatorship, peace is often the next victim,” said Berit Reiss-Andersen, chair of the Nobel Committee, in announcing the awards.
She said the committee wanted “to honor three outstanding champions of human rights, democracy and peaceful co-existence in the neighbor countries Belarus, Russia and Ukraine.”
Bialiatski began speaking out against the Soviet Union in the 1980s, advocating for the creation of a democratic Belarus republic. An ardent Belarusian nationalist, he was persecuted in Belarus for his anti-Soviet and anti-Russian rhetoric; later he was jailed for his opposition to Lukashenko, a ruler often referred to as “Europe's last dictator” by Western media.
Lukashenko is Europe's longest-serving head of state and remains the country's first and only president since his election in 1994.
His policy of carrying on Soviet mechanisms, such as a government-run economy and generous welfare system, have helped Belarus prosper. But he's also kept in place a Soviet-style police state. Belarus has not even changed the name of its secret service from the Soviet era – it's still called the KGB.
The cruel nature of his regime was displayed in 2020 when he ordered a massive crackdown on protesters, dissidents and opposition figures who took to the streets in a sea of people to protest Lukashenko's disputed re-election for yet another term in October 2020.
The Nobel Committee said Bialiatski devoted his life to “promoting democracy and peaceful development in his home country.”
He founded the human rights group Viasna (Belarusian for “Spring”) in 1996. At the time, he was outraged by a slew of constitutional amendments passed by Lukashenko that Bialiatski warned gave the president omnipotent powers. Viasna has become Belarus' most prominent human rights groups, documenting government torture and other abuses.
Bialiatski was imprisoned from 2011 to 2014 and again in 2020 during Lukashenko's brutal crackdown on what the president defined as a coup attempt orchestrated by Western powers.
Following the crackdown, Belarus was heavily sanctioned by the European Union and the United States, leading Lukashenko to deepen his embrace of Putin's Russia.
Memorial, Russia's oldest human rights group when its work began in 1987, was shut down last year in the run-up to Putin's invasion of Ukraine. The group became famous for its work to uncover the truth about Stalinist crimes.
Before being shut down, it was deeply involved across Russia in documenting rights abuses. Its members have vowed to carry on the human rights work despite the ban.
Putin's crackdown on dissidents and pro-democracy advocates began in earnest in 2011 after Russia was rocked by massive protests against his re-ascendancy to the Russian presidency following a stint as prime minister.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov, a Russian dissident and renowned nuclear physicist, and Russian human rights advocate Svetlana Gannushkina helped found Memorial, which was given the mission of confronting past crimes in the hope to prevent new ones.
In the 1990s and 2000s, Memorial evolved into Russia's preeminent organization tracking political oppression and human rights violations in Russia. But Memorial's work also became controversial in Russia when it began gathering and verifying information on abuses and war crimes perpetrated on the civilian population in Chechnya by Russian and pro-Russian forces.
In 2009, the head of Memorial’s branch in Chechnya, Natalia Estemirova, was killed because of this work, the Nobel committee said.
“Civil society actors in Russia have been subjected to threats, imprisonment, disappearance and murder for many years,” the committee said.
The Kyiv-based Center for Civil Liberties started its work in 2007 in the wake of the so-called “Orange Revolution,” a pro-democracy and pro-Ukrainian popular uprising that erupted over the winter of 2004 and 2005.
The mass protests broke out following allegations that vote rigging was behind the presidential victory of Viktor Yanukovych, a former prime minister and oligarch with close ties to Ukraine's Russian populations in eastern Ukraine and the Kremlin. Yanukovych, who's acknowledged a thuggish youth, was seen as a vile and corrupt figure by many Ukrainians.
Ukraine's high court overturned the 2004 election, citing widespread evidence of vote cheating, and ordered a fresh run-off overseen by international observers.
The do-over election resulted in the victory of pro-Western and pro-NATO politician Viktor Yushchenko, a figure who rose to international fame after his face became disfigured from chemical poisoning. Yuschenko won 52% of the vote and installed a pro-Western government in Kyiv, sowing the seeds for the current war in Ukraine.
The Nobel Committee praised the center for taking “a stand to strengthen Ukrainian civil society and pressure the authorities to make Ukraine a full-fledged democracy.”
It lauded the Center for Civil Liberties for seeking to bring Ukraine into the International Criminal Court and for its current work “to identify and document Russian war crimes against the Ukrainian civilian population.”
“The Peace Prize laureates represent civil society in their home countries,” Reiss-Andersen said. “They have for many years promoted the right to criticize power and protect the fundamental rights of citizens.”
Last year, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Dmitry Muratov, a co-founder of Novaya Gazeta, an independent newspaper and media outlet critical of Putin.
The news outlet has been heavily restricted in Russia and six of the newspaper’s journalists covering the Chechnya and Caucasus wars were murdered, the best known among them being Anna Politkovskaya.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
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