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Belarusian democracy advocate praises Canada’s anti-authoritarian stance

OTTAWA – From the safe custody of Washington, D.C. and her comfortable World Bank job, Valery Kavaleuski was powerless to fight the wave of democratic reforms that swept his native Belarus last summer. .

Kavaleuski returned to the capital Minsk in August 2020, immersed in a wave of pro-democracy protests that are giving hope around an unlikely but inspiring new leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, in the face of with the government’s backlash.

“I witnessed the persecution. I participated in all the marches, in solidarity and things like that. And I stayed a little longer and then longer and longer. I just didn’t want to leave,” Kavaleuski recounted in an interview in Ottawa last week.

Kavaleuski – who represented Belarus as a diplomat to the US – praised Canada, the US, the European Union and the UK for their continued support of the Belarusian democracy movement.

“Canada was one of the first countries to show support,” he said, referring to the buzz of a Thai fast-food restaurant near the University of Ottawa.

He added: “We have seen a series of practical steps in terms of supporting civil society, independent media, sanctions policy coordination. “I can say that this level of engagement is unprecedented.”

Just before that, white-haired Kavaleuski emerged from a white sedan that dropped him off at the curb of Amnesty International Canada headquarters.

He came from an interview at Global Affairs Canada ahead of his scheduled meeting with the rights watchdog and found time to sit down with The Canadian Press between appointments.

He is next scheduled to attend the Halifax International Security Forum, a global conference of security leaders from democratic governments taking place in Nova Scotia later this week.

Kavaleuski recalls how he took to the streets of Minsk in the summer of 2020, joining thousands of protesters who were gathering behind Tsikhanouskaya.

She is running for office on behalf of her husband, whose own campaign to oust a longtime authoritarian leader was fruitless after he was jailed by the Belarusian government.

Tsikhanouskaya revived the opposition and drew international attention to their fight. But their hopes were dashed when President Alexander Lukashenko won a sixth term in the August 2020 elections, a landslide that Canada and its Western democratic allies see as an act of violence. fraud action.

Canada has joined allies by leveling human rights sanctions against the authoritarian leader and his top associates for the violence Lukashenko’s forces targeted at protesters. bear down the road.

Global Affairs said the sanctions were put in place in response to “serious and systematic violations of human rights.”

Former foreign minister Francois-Philippe Champagne was one of the first Western politicians to meet Tsikhanouskaya last October in Lithuania, where she fled to safety after the election.

Kavaleuski, meanwhile, joined protesters in their regular Minsk marches until November 22, 2020 when he was taken to the ground and sent to prison. He was released a few days later after paying a fine of several hundred dollars.

In December 2020, Kavaleuski answered Tsikhanouskaya’s call to join the pro-democracy movement in exile. He accompanied her to Lithuania, becoming its de facto foreign minister in the meantime.

Last year, Kavaleuski said Lukashenko’s crackdown had increased the ranks of political prisoners from 15,000 to 37,000.

Meanwhile, Lukashenko has sown turmoil beyond the borders of Belarus. He recently allowed thousands of Middle Eastern migrants to enter the country and direct them to the borders with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, in what many see as a move to destabilize Europe in retaliation. for sanctions.

The crisis has recently culminated with thousands of migrants stranded at the Belarus-Polish 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 the supplies for the migrants from the Middle East.”

On Thursday, the day after his meeting in Global Affairs, Canada and the G7 member states issued a joint statement on Belarus.

It was also the day when Belarus made concessions and cleared the border areas of migrants and when Iraq repatriated hundreds of asylum seekers on a series of flights.

The G7 statement said: “These callous acts are putting people’s lives at risk. We stand in solidarity with Poland, as well as with Lithuania and Latvia. .

“The actions of the Belarusian regime are an attempt to deflect attention from their disregard for international law, fundamental freedoms and human rights, including the rights of the people.”

Solidarity and support are appreciated by the people of Belarus because they have a burning desire to live in a free country like democratic neighbors across Europe, said Kavaleuski.

“What’s happening in Belarus, it’s like black and white. People want democracy and freedom, and there’s no geopolitical element,” Kavaleuski said as he prepared to step out of the noisy diner.

“This crisis belongs to everyone. This is not just a Belarusian problem … because this is part of the story of this global confrontation – democracy and autocracy. “

This Canadian Press report was first published on November 21, 2021.

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