On 8 and 9 November, the eve and anniversary of the Berlin Wall being breached and made redundant, many of us have gathered in the atrium of the Allianz Forum next to the Brandenburg Gate.
For the last 19 years, we have pulled together politicians from many countries, arts organisations, business people and young people under the banner ‘A Soul for Europe’ to discuss how to make the idea of European integration more inspiring and less technocratic.
Once, back in 2006 I think, I managed to drag along a cross-party trio of British Parliamentarians: Robert Maclennan, Gerald Kaufmann and Nigel Evans. The only one still extant is Evans, now a Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons, and he became a Brexiteer, so the exercise clearly failed there.
Among all the workshops and coffee meetings this month there was one formal speech that concentrated our minds soberly on that original reason for meeting in that place, on those dates. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya stood on stage to point out that there are still large chunks of the old Soviet Union that have not achieved true democratic freedom and that, among them, Belarus is a festering sore.
Tsikhanouskaya is the embodiment of that struggle. She led the peaceful resistance to the current regime, standing in and winning the Presidential election of 2020 after her husband Siarhei was arrested for standing himself. The dictator Lukashenko allowed her to stand because he could not believe that a woman in Belarus would be taken seriously. She won and promptly had to flee.
Siarhei is still imprisoned and she has not heard from him since April. Meanwhile she does her best to lead a government in exile, rather as the Polish resistance did in London during World War II. Tsikhanouskaya reminded us that, although Belarus is not at war, it is under occupation by Putin’s allies. “Nine million people are being held hostage.”
Putin’s attack on Ukraine happened after he saw that Ukraine had firmly turned against Russian domination. After Belarus tried to do the same and stage a peaceful revolt via street protests, he decided that it was time to retake control or obliterate the country. With war now raging across one country and the other cowed into submission, the two issues are inextricable.
Tsikhanouskaya urges Western countries not to forget the plight of Belarus, just because there is no fighting or bombing in Minsk.
Her message in Berlin was direct and moving: “One of my first visits in my still dawning political career was to Berlin. Yesterday I had a chance to walk through the Brandenburg Gate again. It amazes me every time.
“This city witnessed the greatest tyranny but it is also a symbol of unity and freedom. It shows us how fast and sudden changes can happen and the Fall of the Berlin Wall is a great proof of that. I remember my meeting with Chancellor Merkel during that visit.
“She was so kind and spoke to me as if I was her granddaughter. Perhaps she saw me as too idealistic or naive when I spoke about our fight for freedom. I am sure that sometimes experienced politicians also see you as too idealistic, but don’t lose your idealism because of that. Don’t be afraid to dream BIG about Europe’s future.
“I also have a dream of a Europe that we will build together. Europe that includes Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova. Peaceful. Prosperous. Free of tyranny and oppression. A Europe based on the values of freedom, human rights, and the rule of law. Values that we all share. But the main value of Europe is democracy. It’s democracy that makes Europe so attractive and so successful.
“What we saw in Poland last month was truly remarkable. The peaceful transition of power through elections. This is something that we in Belarus can only dream about. Democracy is much more vulnerable than it seems. I was the age of my son when we lost democracy in Belarus.
“We didn’t even notice how quickly the new home-grown president dismissed the parliament and courts and established a dictatorship. He appealed to people’s emotions. Promised to bring order. Soon, he got rid of political opponents who dared to challenge him. They just disappeared, leaving no traces.
“We were taught: it’s not your business. Government knows better. They told us: sit quietly, don’t stick out. And I was one of those who lived her life and was not interested in politics. But as Pericles said, ‘If you don’t take an interest in politics, it doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.’
“For our desire to live in democracy, we are paying a big price. Thousands were imprisoned, tortured. Dozens were killed. This is also the price we pay for that mistake we made 30 years ago, when we neglected democracy and allowed dictatorship to settle in our country. Don’t make this mistake. Cherish and protect your democracy. Participate in politics. Don’t allow anyone to seize your freedoms and your rights.
“Remember, losing democracy is easy. Winning it back is the hard part.
“Today, as democracy is under attack by tyrants and terrorists, it’s more important than ever to unite against the forces that want to undermine our values. The fight for democracy is not a local issue, but a global one, because tyranny is like cancer. If it is not treated completely, it only grows and spills over to other nations.”
Those were Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s stirring words.
I came back from Berlin politically reinvigorated, only to find the government in Westminster behaving in a now typically schizophrenic way; firing Suella Braverman for her intemperate language but at the same time desperate to be portrayed as just as hardline. Wasn’t it Wellington who sighed that the right wing of the Tory party would never be satisfied, whatever repressive measures were taken?
The European intergovernmental organisation that oversees democracy, human rights and the rule of law – and cultural expression, by the way – is not the European Union that the Faragist Europhobes so hate, but the 46 member Council of Europe, of which Attlee and Churchill were founding fathers.
This is the organisation that has never allowed Lukashenko’s Belarus to be a member and expelled Russia when it invaded Ukraine. It is also the organisation that the rabid right of the Conservative Party in Britain wants to leave because it does not allow the barbaric treatment of undocumented immigrants.
Now Rishi Sunak and his ideological fraternity want to misuse domestic law in the same way as Putin does – passing illegitimate acts that remove the human rights of those they regard as irritants.
Those are our human rights too and they are worth fighting for, however inconvenient for governments and their allies.
They are too easily lost by apathy – because once they are removed for immigrants, they are removed for all of us.
I am grateful to Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s office for making the text of her speech in Berlin available to me. The views on British politics are my own.