Andrei Sannikov: Portrait on a background of prison bars

If I were asked to name the people who represent a paradigm of patriotism, I would think of Andrei Sannikov. If I were asked to name people who truly believe in Europe and in democracy, Andrei would surely be amongst them.

If I were asked to name the brave people who are able to withstand physical and psychological suffering for the sake of truth and dignity, I would surely nominate Andrei Sannikov.

Andrei, to me, is a loyal friend and a source of inspiration, a fighter for freedom and a person who calls for action, not only for his beloved homeland of Belarus, but also for the community of democratic states.

When I met with Andrei for the first time about ten years ago, it never entered my head that he would become a real leader, able to mobilize society and to challenge the mighty autocratic regime of President Alexander Lukashenko, that Andrei’s family would face the threat of brutal persecution, or that there would be a threat to his health and life.

With voters in Brest

As a former deputy minister of foreign affairs, who gave up his post as a mark of protest against the corrupt leadership of Belarus, he struck me as a serious diplomat, not an ambitious leader. After his departure from the government, he did not have any political ambitions; he wanted to devote himself to defending human rights and the development of links with democratic Europe. He was amongst the founders of “Charter-97” – a group fighting for civil rights, which is well known for its remarkable site in three languages. Later, he initiated the creation of the movement “European Belarus”.

On account of his intellect and his analytical and language skills, Andrei was often invited to speak at major international conferences; he was asked for numerous articles about the problems in his homeland. And although he is a polite man with strong self-control, he was always ready to join the debate, especially with politicians and analysts, who believed that dialogue with Lukashenko could lead to the liberalization of his authoritarian regime.

After considerable discussion with close friends from the movement of “European Belarus”, and supported by his wife, the talented journalist Irina Khalip, he decided last year to join the great political game – the race for the presidency. He knew very well that this was a very risky game, but he had reached the point where he was ready to assume responsibility for a personal challenge to the dictator.

Despite all the domestic and international forecasts, the shortage of resources and the repressive environment, Andrei was able – during the presidential campaign – to bring out a new personal quality and achieve results that are impressive. He drew to his side many influential people from different spheres of public life, and created a team and strategy which generated hope throughout the whole country for change.

Pre-election meeting on 6 December 2010

On 19 December last year, when at the call of Sannikov and other presidential candidates tens of thousands of people took to the streets in protest against the rigged elections and authoritarian rule, Andrei was at the front. As an international observer, I was able to see how people reacted to him as he spoke to him. He was a different Andrei from the one whom I had met ten years ago; he was a brave, decisive man at the Belarusian barricade, who held the flag of their struggle for dignity and freedom. Then he was beaten by a brutal state machine of Lukashenko, who began to fear the growth of popular power. The presidential candidate Sannikov, his associates, wife, and four other presidential candidates have been put in prison by the KGB. The world was shocked by the scenes from Minsk.

Despite international protests and demands, the political prisoners – including Sannikov – who have suffered brutal treatment have not been not released. The last couple of months, the prisoners have been made the victims of absurd and manipulated legal procedures and judicial processes.

It was announced that the trial of Andrei would take place on 27 April 2011, after the Easter holidays. We can assume that most famous current rival of Lukashenko expects the harshest, longest sentence amongst all the 40 defendants. I am confident that Andrei will retain his dignity at the court. Like many freedom-loving men and women in Belarus and throughout the world, he became a source of inspiration and change. And I am convinced that the democratic world community will continue the struggle for his release and the liberation of all Belarusians from the dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko, who is now facing great socio-political and international problems.

Pavol Demes, a senior fellow of the Bratislava branch of the German Marshall Fund