< Distinguished speaker series

Belarusian Political Dissidents

Three key figures from the Viasna Human Rights Centre and the Life Charitable Foundation

DATE: July 18, 2024 6:00 pm

LOCATION: World Trade Center

Event information

Almost without the world noticing, Belarus – the former Soviet republic that borders Ukraine, Poland and Russia – has become a totalitarian state. Led for 30 years by Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, it has imprisoned leaders of now banned opposition parties, human rights campaigners, journalists, and citizens whose only offense is wearing colors associated with the opposition groups or having attended political rallies a half decade ago. Lukashenko has meanwhile become a political and military ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin in Russia’s war against Ukraine.

The Baltimore Council on Foreign Affairs is honored to welcome to its Distinguished Speakers Series leaders of Belarusian civil society working to support political prisoners and their families. Our program, in partnership with the World Trade Institute, features key figures in the Viasna Human Rights Center and a former political prisoner. These women and men, working in exile to avoid imprisonment, promise to provide insight into the country’s – and Europe’s – possible future.

Background

Belarus, a nation sandwiched between Russia, Poland, and Ukraine, was part of the “bloodlands” of World War II – the territory where the Nazi and Soviet regimes waged a pitiless war against civilians, as well as each other. Belarus is now distinguished by its long-time president, Aleksandr Lukashenko, who has ruthlessly suppressed dissent and virtually all of civil society, creating a human rights and political crisis with no end in sight. He has also become a key ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin in Russia’s war against Ukraine.

International human rights organizations have documented thousands of arbitrary arrests and politically motivated prosecutions, as well as censorship and intimidation as chilling norms in Belarus. The harshest measure to date was a crackdown during Lukashenko’s 2020 re-election campaign. When his challengers gained popularity, authorities arrested Lukashenko’s leading opponent, Sergei Tikhanovsky. He was sentenced to 18 years imprisonment after being convicted of “inciting social hatred.”

Sviatlana Tikhanovsky, his wife, ran for president in his place, claimed victory at the polls, but was forced into exile in Lithuania with her children the day after the vote. She was later sentenced in absentia to 15 years imprisonment for treason. The number of political prisoners has continued to rise, as authorities use “anti-extremism” laws to prosecute political opponents.  The government has designated the Viasna Human Rights Center, the Belarusian Association of Journalists, and the Union of Mothers of Belarus antiwar movement as “extremist formations,” effectively criminalizing any cooperation with such organizations as “aiding extremism.”

In 2023, Nobel Peace Prize winner and head of the Viasna Human Rights Center Ales Bialiatski was sentenced to 10 years in prison for alleged “smuggling” and “financing group actions grossly violating public order.” A court sentenced the editor-in-chief and the CEO of the largest Belarusian media outlet to 12 years in prison on charges ranging from tax evasion to harming national security. More than 200,000 Belarusians have gone into exile out of fear of prosecution. Authorities have subsequently required Belarusians living abroad to return to Belarus to renew their passports, increasing the risk of arrest.

 

Useful Background:

 

Speaker Organizations:

A Country to Live in 

A Belarussian foundation aimed at assisting political prisoners and developing civil and political society from outside the country. Olga Zazulinskaya leads their project to support prisoners and their families from inside Lithuania.

  • Much of their work has been a response to increased government oppression since the contentious 2020 election and the Belarusian regime’s hostility towards human rights organizations. 
  • A Country to Live In provides aid to refugees, prisoners, and their families in the form of euros, legal assistance, visa support, groceries, and therapy.
  • Their mission is to ensure that victims of Lukashenko’s regime receive proper support and that humanitarian law becomes respected in Belarus.

 

Viasna Human Rights Center               

  • Viasna (meaning “spring” in Belarusian) is a national NGO, founded in 1996 as a response to government suppression of democratic protests, with the aim of supporting arrested demonstrators and their families. 
  • The Supreme Court of the Republic of Belarus liquidated Viasna in 2003 due to members’ observation of the 2001 presidential elections.
  • In 2004, the organization gained membership into the International Federation for Human Rights.
  • Viasna advocates and provides assistance for political prisoners in need of legal defense against the state.
  • Viasna also conducts research on the state of civil society in Belarus, hosts seminars and conferences, and publishes educational material in the areas of democracy and human rights.
  • There are central headquarters in Minsk, regional organizations in other Belarusian cities, and 200 members throughout the country.