Pro-democracy Belarusian lawyer praises Canada’s anti-authoritarian stance
OTTAWA – From the safe confines of Washington, DC and his comfortable job at the World Bank, Valery Kavaleuski was powerless to resist the tide of democratic reform that swept through his homeland, Belarus, last summer.
Kavaleuski returned to the capital Minsk in August 2020, plunging headlong into waves of pro-democracy protests that gave hope around an unlikely but inspiring new leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, in the face of a massive backlash from the government.
“I saw the repression. I participated in all the marches, in the solidarity lines and the like. And I stayed a little longer, then longer and longer. I just didn’t want to leave,” Kavaleuski recalled in an interview in Ottawa last week.
Kavaleuski, who once represented Belarus as a diplomat in the United States, praised Canada, the United States, the European Union and Britain for their continued support for the Belarusian democratic movement.
“Canada was among the first countries to show support,” he said, speaking over the bustling din of a Thai fast-food restaurant near the University of Ottawa.
“We have seen a series of concrete steps in terms of aid to civil society, independent media, coordination of sanctions policy,” he added. “I would say this level of engagement is unprecedented.”
Moments earlier, the silver-haired Kavaleuski had pulled out of a white sedan that had dropped him off on the sidewalk of Amnesty International’s Canadian headquarters.
He was returning from a debriefing at Global Affairs Canada before his scheduled meeting with the rights watchdog and found time to sit down with The Canadian Press between appointments.
He was next to attend the Halifax International Security Forum, a global conference of security leaders from democratic governments to be held in Nova Scotia this weekend.
Kavaleuski recalled how he took to the streets of Minsk in the summer of 2020, joining the thousands of protesters rallying behind Tsikhanouskaya.
She was running in her husband’s shoes, whose own campaign to overthrow a longtime authoritarian leader was turned upside down after his imprisonment by Belarusian authorities.
Tsikhanouskaya revitalized the opposition and drew international attention to their struggle. But their hopes were dashed when President Alexander Lukashenko won a sixth term in the August 2020 election, a landslide that Canada and its Western democratic allies called an act of fraud.
Canada joined with its allies in imposing human rights sanctions against the authoritarian leader and his key associates over the violence Lukashenko’s forces directed against protesters who refused to leave the streets .
World Affairs said the sanctions came in response to “gross and systematic violations of human rights.”
Former Foreign Minister François-Philippe Champagne was among the first Western politicians to meet Tsikhanouskaya last October in Lithuania, where she fled to safety after the elections.
Kavaleuski, meanwhile, joined protesters in their regular Minsk marches until November 22, 2020, when he was pinned to the ground and thrown in jail. He was released a few days later after paying a fine of several hundred dollars.
In December 2020, Kavaleuski responded to the call to join the movement for democracy in exile in Tsikhanouskaya. He joined her in Lithuania, becoming de facto her pending Foreign Minister.
Last year, Kavaleuski said Lukashenko’s crackdown reduced the number of political prisoners from 15,000 to 37,000.
Meanwhile, Lukashenko has wreaked havoc beyond the borders of Belarus. He recently allowed thousands of Middle Eastern migrants to enter the country and directed them to the borders with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia in what was widely seen as a step to destabilize Europe in retaliation. for sanctions.
The crisis recently came to a head with thousands of migrants trapped on the Belarusian-Poland border with nowhere to go.
“Lukashenko sent a very clear signal that the border with the EU is open here, you can come here,” Kavaleuski said. “He organized all these supplies of migrants from the Middle East.
On Thursday, a day after its meeting at Global Affairs, Canada and its fellow G7 members released a joint statement denouncing Belarus.
It was the very day that Belarus gave in and emptied its border settlements of migrants and as Iraq repatriated hundreds of asylum seekers on a series of flights.
“These inhuman acts put people’s lives at risk. We are united in our solidarity with Poland, as well as with Lithuania and Latvia, which have been targeted by this provocative use of irregular migration as a hybrid tactic,” he said. said the G7 communiqué. .
“The Belarusian regime’s actions are an attempt to deflect attention from its continued disregard for international law, fundamental freedoms and human rights, including those of its own people.
Solidarity and support are highly valued by the Belarusian people, said Kavaleuski, because they have a burning desire to live in a free country like their democratic neighbors across Europe.
“What is happening in Belarus is like black and white. People want democracy and freedom, and there is no geopolitical connotation,” Kavaleuski said as he prepared to exit the restaurant. noisy.
“This crisis belongs to everyone. It is not a problem that concerns only Belarusians … because it is part of the history of this global confrontation – democracy and autocracy.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on November 21, 2021.