Exiled opposition leader, and presumed winner of last year’s elections, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, addressed the plenary in a formal session – an event title that does not capture the sentiments the encounter evoked.
In his introductory remarks, European Parliament President David Sassoli reminded the house that Tsikhanouskaya had been a joint recipient of the 2020 Sakharov Prize, awarded to the Belarusian opposition, and called her a “symbol of the fight for democracy and freedom, and a voice for many political prisoners who are currently languishing in jail in Belarus and who we don't want to forget”.
Tsikhanouskaya herself, having been greeted with a standing ovation, delivered the details: “882 of my fellow citizens have been recognised to be in prison for exercising basic political rights that people in the rest of Europe take for granted”.
But, she added, that is by no means the total number of all her fellow countrymen and women illegally jailed: “If we invite all the Belarusians unjustly imprisoned for wearing the wrong colour of the dress or socks, even four halls like this one would not be enough room”.
Acknowledging that she was “surrounded by allies and partners” in the hemicycle, Tsikhanouskaya nevertheless urged that more needs to be done on the part of democratic Europe, and soon: “Pardon my straightforwardness, but I must say it. It is getting late”, she warned.
Describing the last year as being dominated by speeches and gestures rather than action, she added “we don't have another year. Neither does Belarus. Neither does Europe”.
“If we invite all the Belarusians unjustly imprisoned for wearing the wrong colour of the dress or socks, even four halls like this one would not be enough room” Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya
As for the action needed, the opposition leader, comparing dictatorship to a “virus affecting the body” of society and having no “natural geographical limits”, suggested a strategy of three parts.
Firstly, to avoid the “spread of the virus”: isolation and non-recognition of the regime.
Secondly, for treatment, sanctions: “Let me assure you, sanctions do work”, she insisted. “Continue holding a consistent sanction policy. Sanctions split the elites, destroy corruption schemes and divide people around Lukashenko”.
And thirdly, for immunity, “to boost the natural resistance and backbone of Belarusian society”, expanding the “assistance to our people”.
Her passionate pleas did not fall on deaf ears, no doubt helped by recent developments which had led to what she summed up as “both Belarusians and migrants” having become “hostages of the regime” in Minsk.
Michael Gahler, foreign affairs spokesperson of the EPP Group, stated in a press release: "The appearance of Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya in the European Parliament is the right signal at the right time: we stand by the Belarusian opposition and deeply condemn the machinations of the Lukashenko regime”.
The German Christian Democrat added that, “the courageous struggle of the opposition must not be eclipsed by Lukashenko's unacceptable actions on the border with Poland”.
"’Time is measured in tears’, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said today in the European Parliament, describing in excruciating detail how the EU has not done what it can, and how the focus has slipped away from the suffering of Belarusians” Heidi Hautala, Vice-President of the European Parliament's Greens/EFA Group
For the S&D Group, Robert Biedrón, chair of Parliament’s delegation for relations with Belarus, called the speech “very moving”, and agreed with the opposition leader that “we need remedies, and they are European solidarity with Belarusians, a solidarity not only consisting of words but also of actions: More sanctions, more help for the democratic opposition, and more international solidarity.”
“We should never forget that Belarusians are also Europeans holding the same values as we do”, the Polish Social Democrat insisted.
The Renew Group’s Vice-President Dragoş Tudorache tweeted: “Powerful speech from Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. As a European, I felt humbled. As a European politician, I felt in debt about what we still have to do to bring democratic change in Belarus”.
The Romanian liberal concluded: “And she is right. We have to say it loud; Lukashenko is not the Belarusian president”.
Heidi Hautala, Vice-President of the Greens/EFA Group, tweeted: "’Time is measured in tears’, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said today in the European Parliament, describing in excruciating detail how the EU has not done what it can, and how the focus has slipped away from the suffering of Belarusians”.
“The strongest speech in a long time”, was the Finnish Green’s verdict.
Saturday will see this year’s Day of Solidarity with Belarus, when everybody, not only European legislators, can show how much they care about our neighbours in distress.