Human rights activists from Ukraine, Belarus and Russia won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, a strong rebuke to Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose invasion of Ukraine has ruptured decades of nearly uninterrupted peace in Europe, and to the Belarusian president, his authoritarian ally.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the 2022 prize to imprisoned Belarus activist Ales Bialiatski, the Russian group Memorial and the Ukrainian organization Center for Civil Liberties.
Berit Reiss-Andersen, chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, said the panel wanted to honor “three outstanding champions of human rights, democracy and peaceful coexistence.”
“We are in the midst of a war and we are talking about two authoritarian regimes and one nation fighting a war and we would like to highlight the importance of civil society,” she said.
In Ukraine, there was some resentment at the Nobel committee for awarding the Ukrainian group alongside activists from Russia and Belarus, whose government allowed Russian forces to attack Ukraine from its territory early in the war.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak tweeted that the Nobel committee has “an interesting understanding of the word ‘peace’ if representatives of two countries that attacked a third one receive” the prize together.
“Neither Russian nor Belarusian organizations were able to organize resistance to the war,” he added.
Belarus’ Foreign Ministry denounced the Nobel Committee for honoring Bialiatski, with the spokesman calling its choices in recent years so “politicized” that “Alfred Nobel got tired of turning in his grave.”
Olav Njølstad, director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute, retorted: “Well, I’m quite sure we understand Alfred Nobel’s will and intentions better than the dictatorship in Minsk.”
Asked whether the Nobel Committee was intentionally rebuking Putin, whose 70th birthday is Friday, Reiss-Andersen said the prize was not against anybody but for the democratic values the winners champion. However, she did note that both Russian and Belarusian governments were “suppressing human rights activists.”
It was the second straight year that Putin’s repressive government was implicitly rebuked with the prize. It was awarded last year t o Dmitry Muratov, editor of the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, and Philippine journalist Maria Ressa, for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression. Both have struggled in the past year.
Bialiatski was a leader of the democracy movement in Belarus in the mid-1980s and has continued to campaign for human rights and civil liberties. He founded the non-governmental organization Human Rights Center Viasna.
He was detained following protests in 2020 against the re-election of Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko. He remains in jail without trial and faces up to 12 years in prison if convicted.
“Despite tremendous personal hardship, Mr. Bialiatski has not yielded one inch in his fight for human rights and democracy in Belarus,” Reiss-Andersen said.
Exiled Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, visiting Paris, told The Associated Press she felt “honored and delighted” that Bialiatski was among the laureates and believed it would put more international focus on human rights abuse in her homeland.
Tsikhanouskaya, whose husband is also imprisoned, said Bialiatski “is suffering a lot in punishment cells” in Belarus.
Svetlana Alexievich, a Belarusian journalist and writer who won the 2015 Nobel Prize in literature, called Bialiatski “a legendary figure.” She added that Bialiatski is “seriously ill” and needs medical treatment, but is “unlikely to be freed from behind bars.”
“What Viasna, founded by him, has done and is doing in the current circumstances, is in his spirit, in his philosophy,” Alexievich told reporters.
Memorial was founded in the Soviet Union in 1987 to ensure the victims of communist repression would be remembered. It has continued to compile information on human rights abuses and track the fate of political prisoners in Russia. The country’s highest court ordered it shut down in December, the latest move in a relentless crackdown on rights activists, independent media and opposition supporters.
Tatyana Glushkova, a board member of the Memorial Human Rights Defense Center, said one of the reasons the Kremlin views the group as a threat is because it understands and informs people about the “parallels between Putin’s regime and the Soviet regime.”
Glushkova noted the award was handed to the group on the day it once again had to appear in court in Moscow — this time on a case related to its office building in central Moscow.
The Center for Civil Liberties was founded in 2007 to promote human rights and democracy in Ukraine during a period of turmoil in the country. Following Russia’s invasion in February, the group has worked to document Russian war crimes against Ukrainian civilians.
“The center is playing a pioneering role with a view to holding the guilty parties accountable for their crimes,” Reiss-Andersen said.
A researcher at the center, Volodymyr Yavorskyi, said the award was important for the organization because “for many years we worked in a country that was invisible.”
“Human rights activity is the main weapon against the war,” said Yavorskyi, who is married to a Belarusian and lived in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, until May 2021, when he was expelled along with his 9-year-old son. He is barred from entering Belarus for 10 years and said law enforcement beat him during interrogations.
The prize carries a cash award of 10 million Swedish kronor (nearly $900,000) and will be handed out on Dec. 10. The money comes from a bequest left by the prize’s creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, in 1895.
Olav Njoelstad, the secretary of the prize committee, told the AP that if Bialiatski is unable to receive the award in person, he can ask a representative to collect it for him, like Polish winner Lech Walesa did in 1983. Otherwise, the committee might choose to symbolically place an empty chair on the stage, like it did when imprisoned Chinese rights activist Liu Xiaobo won in 2010.
—Hanna Arhirova, Frank Jordans And Vanessa Gera, The Associated Press