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OSLO — Ukrainians are happy about winning their first Nobel prize since independence, but it stings that they’ll be sharing the limelight on Saturday with fellow laureates from Russia and Belarus.
It’s clear what the Norwegian Nobel committee is seeking to achieve by sharing the peace prize between civil society activists from three nations locked in a war, with Committee Chairman Berit Reiss-Andersen admitting the committee wanted to send a signal that the conflict in Ukraine must end .
In order to send this message, it has awarded the prize jointly to Russia’s now disbanded Memorial Center, jailed Belarusian opposition activist Ales Bialiatsky and Ukrainian human rights watchdog Center for Civil Liberties, which documents Russian war crimes in Ukraine.
From the Ukrainian perspective, however, it leaves a bitter taste that activists in their country — on a very different, democratic political trajectory from Moscow and Minsk — are still lumped together in the post-Soviet sphere with campaigners tackling the regimes of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarus’ Alexander Lukashenko.
Mykhailo Podolyak, adviser to the Ukrainian presidential office, complained that the joint prize boosted the Kremlin’s narrative about the war and Putin’s claims of the unity of Russian and Ukrainian people.
“Awarding three human rights organizations from three countries does not answer the question of protecting peace, but openly promotes the destructive thesis about the same notorious ‘trinity of the Slavic peoples’ that Russian propaganda constantly talks about in global public opinion,” he told POLITICO .
He explained that Moscow sought to portray the people of the three countries as wanting peace but being prevented from reaching a truce by non-Slavic countries. He also issued a criticism that, while Ukrainians were fighting for survival, civil society groups in Russia and Belarus were largely shying away from active actions against the invasion.
“This is an extremely insensitive move at times when Russians are killing Ukrainians with the help of Belarusians,” said Olga Rudenko, chief editor of the Kyiv Independent, and one of the favorites for the 2022 peace prize.
She added that all the candidates deserved the award and that Ukrainians would have no problem if each of them got the prize individually. The problem was putting all three together in a year when the nations they represent are torn by a war sparked by Russian colonial ambitions.
“As if the ‘grown up’ West wants to lock us kids in the same room after a fight and order us to make peace,” Rudenko said.
Reiss-Andersen defended the committee’s decision to award all three at the press conference in Oslo on Friday.
“Sometimes an effort for peace lies with civil society and not with state ambitions alone. Peace is a wish and achievement that comes with a value that all laureates work for [for]: Addressing atrocities, war crimes and rule of law,” she said. “Disregard of these values is also part of the cause of this war and aggression. Exactly in these times this is a very important reminder.”
While aiming for peace, the committee’s decision has triggered undeserved hatred against the local laureates, Ukrainian women’s and LGBTQ+ rights activist Olena Shevchenko said.
Some people even think that Center for Civil Liberties NGO head Oleksandra Matviychuk’s decision to accept the award with Belarusians and Russians was a sort of betrayal of Ukraine.
“I understood our people’s reaction. It is too painful for them, it is too painful for me,” Matviychuk told POLITICO. “But we have to take every opportunity, every award to talk about Ukraine, to bring justice.”
She is using the Nobel award as an opportunity to push for a special tribunal on Russian crimes.
Shevchenko added: “It is highly problematic to connect these countries in any way now in the context of war, even though Belarusian and Russian activists are being persecuted in their countries.”
Memorial Center is the oldest human rights organization from Russia, which had been documenting first Soviet and then Russian crimes and political repressions since the 1980s. In 2022 the Russian government disbanded the organization for allegedly violating Russia’s controversial foreign agents’ law, which is seen by many as Putin’s crackdown on independent thinkers.
Memorial has been repeatedly criticized by Russian authorities for “discrediting the great legacy of the Soviet Union.”
Memorial has also helped Ukrainian laureate Center for Civil Liberties to investigate Russian war crimes in Ukraine, Matviychuk said.
“This Nobel was received by the people who built ties quietly and tried to resist (the oppressors) at times when laws don’t work,” she said.
Belarusian pro-democracy activist Bialiatski has fought for human rights in Belarus since the 1980s, and is best known as a founder of the Minsk-based Viasna Human Rights Centre. Bialiatski has been imprisoned twice in Belarus for alleged tax evasion and smuggling. Currently, the activist is in jail again, facing a 12-year sentence if found guilty. Activist and human rights organizations have called the charges politically motivated.
During the 2020 Belarusian protests, Bialatsky became a member of the Coordination Council of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the elected president of Belarus now in exile after Lukashenko’s violent crackdown against the protesters.
His wife Natalia Pinchuk, who will accept the award on his behalf in Oslo, hopes the prize will help to refocus international attention on the vast scale of ongoing political repressions in Belarus, which has been overshadowed by the Ukraine war. Belarusians are still being arrested, separated from their children, and tortured almost every day, Pinchuk said at a joint press conference.
“The fate of Belarus will partially be decided on the battlefields of Ukraine,” Pinchuk concluded.