The Sakharov Prize is one of the few awards that the European Union has established during its existence. Named after the famed Soviet dissident and legendary nuclear physicist, Andrey Sakharov, he was also one of the world’s most tireless and foremost activists for human rights who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975.

The Sakharov Prize was established in 1988 by the European Parliament to honor individuals and groups of people who have dedicated their lives to the defense of human rights and the freedom of thought.

From Nelson Mandela and Anatoly Marchenko – the first winners, who shared the prize in 1988 – to Ilham Tohti, the Uyghur economist and human rights activist awarded in 2019, many of the world’s leading personalities and movements have had the honor of being awarded the prize.

This year, the Sakharov Prize was awarded to the democratic opposition in Belarus. In a different than usual ceremony, due to the coronavirus pandemic, on December 16 in the European Parliament, the Coordination Council, an initiative led by Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, accepted the prize on behalf of Belarussian opposition.

The significance of this choice is crucial, especially in a year when human rights were repeatedly tested throughout the world. Back in September, the European Parliament condemned Belarus’ government authorities for their violent repression of peaceful protests against the results of the country’s rigged presidential elections.

By awarding the Sakharov Prize to the democratic opposition of Belarus, the EU has made clear to the world that it stands with the world’s democratic forces.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (L) and Veronika Tsepkalo (R), as well as other representatives of the democratic opposition of Belarus, take part in a demonstration against the Belarusian government after a ceremony for the 2020 Sakharov Prize in Brussels, December 16, 2020. EPA-EFE//STEPHANIE LECOCQ

If the EU wants to play a significant regional role as a political heavyweight and to exercise its influence in its immediate neighborhood, it is vital for Brussels to spread its core values beyond the bloc’s borders. Democratic values and respect of human rights, even in a period when there are different perceptions from countries like Hungary and Poland about how how to define them, the best tools for a better relationship between the EU and other non-member neighboring countries is a way to show European Union residents the social progress that has been made by the EU in the past decades and why it is crucial for the bloc to stay alive, regardless of its many defects.

Belarus’ democratic opposition is an example for all the people that suffer under authoritarian regimes. It is impressive how, despite the pandemic, they didn’t accept the fraudulent results that would have kept the country’s dictatorial leader, Alexander Lukashenko, to retain his iron grip on the former Soviet republic for five more years after having been in power since 1994. Rather than passively allow for this to happen, the Belarusian people have led regular mass protests for the last four-plus months.

During these months of protests, there have been a near-endless number of human rights violations, including horrible violence against the peaceful protestors, the arrest of innocent people, and the forced exile of several leaders of the opposition, Unfortunately, Belarus is not the only place that such undemocratic actions have taken place. On the contrary, many countries in the world still face similar conditions and trying to find their way towards further democratization. The Belarusian people have shown the world the hard path ahead.

Obviously, the world is not changed by awards, but the public’s praise for courageous, fair, and peaceful protests are always a step in the right direction.


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