When asked what he considers his biggest loss in his struggle against dictator Alexandr Lukashenka, former Belarusian presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov answers: ‘My country.’ Even though he strongly feels that he has worked for the benefit of his country, Sannikov can no longer live in Belarus. By working for his country, he lost it.
Andrei Sannikov has been a public figure in Belarus for over twenty years. He became internationally known when he ran for president in 2010. He came second in the elections, that were rigged on a large scale.
After the elections, Sannikov and most other candidates took part in a mass protest. Sannikov got arrested and sentenced to fifteen years. His wife Iryna Khalip was imprisoned too. Their toddler son was not allowed to stay with his grandparents, but was going to be taken into a juvenile institution. Only after international uproar was Khalip freed and allowed to take care of their son. Sannikov was pardoned and released in 2012, and moved to the UK.
Yes, Andrei Sannikov regards himself a human rights activist. But he quickly notes that this word has a different meaning in Europe’s democratic countries than in Belarus: ‘A human rights activist in most of Europe might be someone who works for Amnesty or Human Rights Watch. In Belarus, it could be a journalist who aims at writing the truth.’ Or the actors of the Belarus Free Theatre, he says, who are the protagonists in Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus. ‘For human rights activists in Belarus, there is an inherent risk to their activities. In Europe, there is not.’
Sannikov never aimed to achieve the label ‘human rights activist’. And he never considered whether he was willing to take the risks. When the Soviet Union collapsed, he joined the Belarusian ministry of Foreign Affairs. Only after Lukashenka came to political power and moved steadily towards dictatorship, did Sannikov decide he could no longer work for government. Now, he works for progress from the UK. At the moment, he is lobbying the EU asking for a more strict position on his country. ‘Europe let Belarus be a dictatorship for twenty years,’ he says. ‘And now Ukraine and Russia are going in that direction too. That should be stopped, before it spreads.’
By Franka Hummels