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‘I was around my own people. This matters to me.’ Ales Bialiatski’s sixth Nobel nomination finally brought him the Peace Prize. What makes his work in Belarus important?

Source: Meduza

‘I was around my own people. This matters to me.’ Ales Bialiatski’s sixth Nobel nomination finally brought him the Peace Prize. What makes his work in Belarus important?

Source: Meduza

On October 7, the Nobel Committee announced the 2022 winners of the Nobel Peace Prize. This year, the award is divided between representatives of three countries now involved in a devastating war: Ukraine’s Center for Civil Liberties; Russia’s human rights organization Memorial; and the Belarusian human rights advocate Ales Bialiatski, currently imprisoned by Alexander Lukashenko’s regime. For Bialiatski, the award comes after his sixth nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize, and fifteen months into his current prison term. This article is based on a profile of Bialiatski published earlier today by the Belarusian media project Zerkalo, with its editors’ permission.

Ales Bialiatski entered the Belarusian national movement when he was very young. Born in 1962 in what is today Russia’s Karelian region, at the age of three Bialiatski was taken back to his parents’ native Belarus. He grew up to study history and literature at the Gomel University, then served his mandatory term in the army and returned to graduate study in Minsk. It was there that he co-founded the literary association Tuteishyia, which fostered many of the voices of contemporary Belarusian literature, like the poet Anatoly Sys and Andrey Fedarenka, the writer known in Belarus for his sometimes miniature essays and other prose.

From museum work to human rights

Soon after finishing his graduate degree in 1989, Ales Bialiatski became the director of the Maxim Bogdanovich Literary Museum, which preserves the legacy of Belarus’s foremost writer. Curiously, Bialiatski was elected to his post by the museum staff, which wasn’t the usual way of doing things. He remained the director until 1998, turning the Bogdanovich Museum into one of the leading literary museums in the country, and opening a Russian branch in Yaroslavl.

1996 saw the start of brutal repressions in Belarus. Political prisoners suddenly became a distinct social group. Some of Bialiatski’s museum staff became spontaneously involved in helping the victims of repression and their families. This led Bialiatski to set up the human rights center Vesna. Eventually, Vesna and its work took first place. Resigning from the museum, Bialiatski immersed himself in human-rights advocacy. The need for it was obvious, and urgent.

Politics and native roots

Bialiatski’s interest in politics was rooted in his love of Belarus and its national history. He first faced politically-motivated charges in 1988, for taking part in an unsanctioned parade on Dziady — the Belarusian Day of the Dead, traditionally celebrated on October 30. Having refused to approve the application made by several community organizations for permission to have a parade, the authorities and the police brutally scattered the crowd, arresting a number of organizers, including Bialiatski.

As a co-founder of the Belarusian Popular Front, Bialiatski was voted onto the Minsk City Council, elected by “alternative vote.” He remained a councilor from 1991 to 1996. In his first year in office, he condemned the August coup in Moscow, bringing the Belarusian red-white-and-red flag into the council chamber. The flag that had been official in 1918–1919 was, once again, raised over the Minsk City Council building. The parliament complied with this gesture, and from 1991 to 1995, the two-color flag was official in Belarus.

This was a time when he was the BPF’s deputy head and also one of the leaders of the new opposition, which consolidated in the Minsk Spring. But sometime around 2000, Bialiatski began to concentrate more and more on human-rights advocacy, and on Vesna. During the presidential election in 2001, Vesna was among the most vigilant monitors who reported the numerous violations of fair vote. In 2003, the center was stripped of its official registration. For close to two decades since, Bialiatski and his team continued to work without a license.

Arrest and prison

In August 2011, Bialiatski was arrested. Under a bilateral cooperation agreement, Lithuanian and Polish authorities reported to Minsk on Bialiatski’s foreign bank accounts. Those accounts were, in fact, necessary for Vesna’s continued advocacy work: without a license, the organization could not open a bank account in Belarus. Bialiatski denied any guilt, but was charged with tax evasion and sentenced to four-and-a-half years in a high-security penal colony. His personal property was confiscated. He was also required to pay an equivalent of $90,000 to compensate the state for the “damages.” This sum was raised and paid by Bialiatski’s supporters.

The human rights advocate Valentin Stefanovich — who is currently in jail himself — recalled that Bialiatski had a hard time in the Babruysk Second penal colony, where he was disciplined seven times in seven months (once, for meditating at the “wrong” time). His packaging job paid the equivalent of $1 per month. Although he wasn’t met with outright brutality, he was always under pressure. In an interview to, a Belarusian media project, Bialiatski described the conditions in prison this way:

You are part of a unit of more than 100 people. You live in a section of 15. None of them make any contact with you, because if someone says hello to you or something about the weather or the soccer game, tomorrow he’ll be gone. When I arrived at “the zone” in Babruysk, the unit was cleared of anyone who subscribed to the Will of the People. Four people were moved at once to another unit. So, I lived in this vacuum until my very last minute there.

Although the Pervomaysky regional court ruled three times that Bialiatski should be able to visit his dying father, those rulings were ignored. Bialiatski finally saw his father — when he came to view his body at the morgue.

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In 2006, 2007, 2012, 2013, and 2014, Bialiatski was nominated, again and again, for the Nobel Peace Prize. In 2012, the hopes that he would win were especially high: human-rights advocates expected that, if he got the award, he might be released from prison sooner. This did not happen, in spite of 600 petitions for his release filed in August 2011 alone, by both Belarusian and foreign human-rights leaders. Only in 2014, Bialiatski was released, following an amnesty.

In his 1,052 days in prison, he had written two books. One of them, a collection of literary essays on what he called “prison literature,” was immediately banned in Belarus as a danger to state interests.

On coming out of prison, Bialiatski said: “The feeling is as if you’ve sat in the dirt for three years. Now you’ve come out and have to wash it off.” Still, he did not plan to leave the country:

I’m not planning to leave. I am completely comfortable here. Even at “the zone,” I was fairly comfortable, because I was around my own people. This matters to me. Maybe I’m a bit old, but I care about the atmosphere of the Belarus society. Such as it is. When I’m in the West, I feel out of place.

Ales Bialiatski steps off a train in Minsk after his release from prison, June 21, 2014
Sergey Gapon / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

The awards Bialiatski received that decade — the Lech Wałęsa and Václav Havel Human Rights awards, and another prize from the US State Department — could easily have enabled him to move abroad. Instead, he remained, to face a second prison term.

New arrest, old charges

Ales Bialiatski was arrested again on July 14, 2021. Charged, once again, with tax evasion, he spent a year in jail while the investigators toiled on his case. That process appears to have ground to a halt for lack of evidence.

In September 2022, completely new charges were pressed on Vesna and its staff. They now stood accused of “organized smuggling of large sums of money” and financing “activities” that “violate public order” — an organized-crime article, punishable by up to 12 years of prison. Although Bialiatski’s tax evasion charges were dropped, the state is once again demanding a fine of roughly $90,000.

Memorial, another 2022 Peace Prize winner

‘Something needed to be done’ A brief history of Memorial, Russia’s oldest and most prominent human rights group

Memorial, another 2022 Peace Prize winner

‘Something needed to be done’ A brief history of Memorial, Russia’s oldest and most prominent human rights group

Translated by Anna Razumnaya

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