Belarusian democracy supporter praises Canada’s anti-authoritarian stance

Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press

Published Sunday, November 21, 2021 8:24 AM EST

OTTAWA – Valery Kavaleuski was powerless in the safe environment of Washington, DC and his comfortable job at the World Bank to withstand the tide of democratic reforms that washed over his home country of Belarus last summer.

Kavaleuski returned to the capital Minsk in August 2020 and plunged headlong into the waves of pro-democratic protests that raised hope for an unlikely but inspiring new leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, amid massive government backlash.

“I saw the crackdown. I took part in all the marches, the solidarity lines and so on. And I stayed a little longer and then longer and longer. I just didn’t want to leave,” recalled Kavaleuski in an interview in Ottawa last week.

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

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

“We saw a number of practical steps in terms of helping civil society, independent media, coordinating sanctions policy,” he added. “I would say this commitment is unparalleled.”

Moments earlier, the well-groomed, silver-haired Kavaleuski had stepped out of a white limousine that had dropped him on the curb of Amnesty International’s Canadian headquarters. He had come from a debriefing at Global Affairs Canada prior to his scheduled meeting with the Right Guardian and had found time to meet 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 taking place this weekend in Nova Scotia.

Kavaleuski remembered taking the streets of Minsk in the summer of 2020 and joining the thousands of protesters who gathered behind Tsikhanouskaya. She took the place of her husband, whose own campaign to overthrow a long-time authoritarian leader was dashed after his imprisonment by the Belarusian authorities.

Tsikhanouskaya revitalized the opposition and drew international attention to their struggle. Their hopes were dashed, however, when President Alexander Lukashenko won a sixth term in the August 2020 elections, a landslide that Canada and its Western democratic allies labeled a fraud.

Canada joined its allies in imposing human rights sanctions on the authoritarian leader and his senior officials for using violence against Lukashenko’s forces against protesters who refused to clear the streets. Global Affairs said the sanctions were in response to “gross and systematic human rights violations”.

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

Kavaleuski, meanwhile, joined the protesters in their regular Minsk marches until November 22, 2020, when he was thrown to the ground and thrown in prison. 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 exiled democracy movement of Tsikhanouskaya. He joined her in Lithuania and became de facto foreign minister on hold.

Last year, Kavaleuski said Lukashenko’s raid had swelled political prisoners from 15,000 to 37,000.

Lukashenko has meanwhile sown chaos beyond the borders of Belarus. Recently, it allowed thousands of Middle Eastern migrants into the country and led them to the borders with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia in what was widely viewed as a move to destabilize Europe in retaliation for the sanctions.

The crisis recently peaked when thousands of migrants were stuck on the Belarusian-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,” said Kavaleuski. “He organized all these deliveries from Middle Eastern migrants.”

On Thursday, the day after their meeting at Global Affairs, Canada and its G7 counterparts released a joint statement blowing up Belarus. On that day, Belarus gave way and evacuated its border camps of migrants and Iraq repatriated hundreds of asylum seekers on a series of flights.

“These callous acts endanger people’s lives. We are united in our solidarity with Poland, as well as with Lithuania and Latvia, who have been attacked by this provocative use of irregular migration as a hybrid tactic, ”the G7 statement said.

“The actions of the Belarusian regime are an attempt to divert attention from its continued disregard for international law, fundamental freedoms and human rights, including those of its own people.”

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

“What happens in Belarus is like black and white. The people want democracy and freedom, and there is no geopolitical undertone,” said Kavaleuski as he made his way out of the noisy pub.

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

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

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