My friend, Andrei Sannikov
BRATISLAVA, Slovakia -- If someone asked me to name a person who represents exemplary patriotism, Andrei Sannikov would come to mind. If someone asked me to name people who are true believers in Europe and democracy, Andrei would be among them. If someone asked me to name a person who is brave and able to withstand physical and psychological brutality in the name of truth and dignity, I would definitely point to Andrei. For me, Andrei Sannikov is a trusted friend and a source of inspiration.
Currently in prison at the hands of Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, the freedom fighter is calling for action not only in his beloved homeland, but also in the community of democratic nations. When I met Andrei for the first time about a decade ago, it did not occur to me he would evolve into a true leader, one who is able to mobilize crowds and challenge Lukashenko’s powerful autocratic regime while exposing his own family to harsh treatment and even endangering his own health and life. As a former deputy foreign minister who left the post in protest of corrupt rule in Belarus, he struck me more as a serious diplomat rather than an ambitious leader. After leaving government, he did not have political ambitions but wanted to devote himself to protecting human rights and developing communication channels with democratic Europe. He was among the founders of the respected Charter 97 human rights group, well-known from its excellent trilingual website. Later, he helped created the European Belarus Movement. Because of his intellect and analytical and language skills, Andrei was often invited to speak at important international conferences and contributed numerous articles explaining the situation in his troubled motherland. Although he is a polished and controlled person, he was ready to enter into controversial debates, particularly with those decision-makers and analysts who thought that dialogue with Lukashenko can lead to the liberalization of his authoritarian regime. After serious consideration and discussion with his close friends from the European Movement and encouragement from his wife, the talented journalist Irina Chalip, Andrei decided last year to enter into a serious political game – to run for president against Lukashenko. He knew very well the risks involved, but he had reached the point where he was ready to assume responsibility for challenging the dictator directly. Despite all kinds of domestic and foreign predictions, a lack of resources, and an oppressive environment, Andrei was able to reinvent himself during the presidential campaign and achieved impressive results. He sensitized and convinced numerous personalities from Belarusian public life and created a campaign team and strategy, in the process creating an atmosphere of significant hope for change across the country. And then came the elections. Lukashenko won, to no one’s surprise, and to many allegations of fraud. On December 19, 2010, when tens of thousands of people protested in downtown Minsk against the results and Lukashenko’s authoritarian rule, Andrei was there in front. As an international observer, I saw how people reacted to him while he was addressing them through a loudspeaker. This was a different Andrei than I met 10 years ago. Here was a brave, decisive man standing on barricades and waving a flag signifying his life’s struggle on behalf of decency and freedom. And then, in an instant, he was knocked down and beaten by Lukashenko’s brutal machinery in an attempt to push back the populace’s growing power. Andrei, his wife, and his closest associates – along with four other candidates and many other activists –– ended up in a Belarusian KGB prison. And the world was shocked by the scenes from Minsk.
Despite worldwide protests and demands, harshly treated political prisoners—including Andrei Sannikov—have not been released. In the last few months, prisoners have gone through absurd and manipulated legal procedures and trials. Andrei’s trial was announced to take place April 27, 2011. It is expected that Lukashenka’s most prominent opponent will be charged with the longest multi-year sentence among more than 40 political prisoners. I am sure that Andrei will face his trial with dignity, but I am also sure that the world’s democratic community will continue fighting for his release and the release of all Belarusians from Lukashenko’s grip.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.