Minister for Foreign Affairs Tobias Billström delivered policy speech on Belarus
On 6 November, Minister for Foreign Affairs Tobias Billström delivered a policy speech on Belarus. The speech was delivered during a visit to Vilnius.
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It is an honour to stand here today in Vilnius, more than thirty years after Lithuania rightfully regained its independence. I believe that I am not the only one still moved by the images of the Baltic Chain of Freedom – a peaceful demonstration that became one of the most important steps towards renewed independence for Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
The Lithuanian people’s struggle for freedom remains an inspiration. Sweden and Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are united by historical, cultural, social and economic ties. The bonds that bind us together are strong and, in the face of common challenges, are only growing stronger.
Sweden has a proud history of supporting freedom and democracy in its neighbourhood. One clear example of the popular support for this struggle is the Monday Movement. Starting in March 1990, the Monday Movement was a grassroots initiative to support the Baltic struggle for freedom and democracy.
It mobilised thousands of people throughout Sweden who gathered every Monday to voice support for the freedom struggle of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
For natural reasons, these gatherings ended in 1991. But after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, they have started again. Recently, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya participated in person at one of the gatherings in Stockholm to show support for Ukraine. I was also there, as was the Minister for International Development Cooperation and Foreign Trade and almost all of Sweden’s ambassadors. This shows the importance that we attach to Ukraine as well as that of other parts of Eastern Europe.
This support is also shown through concrete government policy. Sweden has long been one of the biggest donors of reform support to the region, and one of my predecessors – Carl Bildt – helped launch the EU Eastern Partnership. The Eastern Partnership has been a great success story. For example, it has produced association agreements, and deep and comprehensive free trade agreements with Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. They are the most wide-ranging agreements that the EU has signed with any third country and they introduced visa liberalisation regimes to bring our peoples closer to one another. Three of the Eastern partners have been given a European perspective, and two of them have been granted candidate status.
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This long-standing Swedish support to the region also includes Belarus.
Belarus has a long history, and its interactions with Sweden and the Nordic-Baltic region stretches far back in time. From the Viking age through the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Great Northern War, our people have crossed paths and once even shared a common head of state in Sigismund Vasa. In Stockholm in 1916 – in the middle of the First World War – Belarusian democrats Vaclau Lastouski and Ivan Luckievich demanded autonomy for Belarus.
Today, appallingly, war is once again raging in Europe – a war in which Ukraine is not only fighting for its freedom, but for the security and values of Europe. The independence of Ukraine was, as you know, established with the signing of the Belovezha Accords in Belarus in 1991.
With the Belovezha Accords, Belarus also ceased to be part of the Soviet Union, and became a sovereign and independent country.
Shortly afterwards, during this period of optimism, the European Humanities University was established in Minsk to support the revival of European values during the period of transition from totalitarianism to democracy. Its purpose was to educate a new generation of young professionals capable of leading Belarus on its way towards democracy and human rights, and to support a vibrant civil society. I have just met with its current rector and expressed our support for the important work the university still does.
Sweden is one the European Humanities University’s main donors, and I am happy to see many students from the university in attendance here today. Sweden also remains a committed donor with regard to Belarus. Our support is directed exclusively towards actors that contribute to democratic development, increased openness and the full enjoyment of human rights for all.
The European Humanities University was later forced to leave Belarus because of the regime’s fear of such values. In the same way, thousands of Belarusians have been forced to leave because they stood up against Lukashenko’s regime in defence of independence, democracy and human rights.
Three years ago, hundreds of thousands of Belarusians took to the streets following the fraudulent presidential elections to peacefully defend their right to choose their own future. I know that students from the European Humanities University participated as well, and they have my greatest respect. During the protests – 31 years to the day after the Baltic Chain of Freedom – we witnessed a new human chain, spanning from Vilnius to the Belarusian border, demonstrating solidarity with the Belarusian people.
Today, the situation in Belarus is worse than ever for those who dare to voice any criticism of the system. It is enough to share a post on social media to risk repercussions. People who participated in the protests three years ago have later been sentenced to prison. The Lukashenko regime has repressed all forms of political opposition, civil society and independent media. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has stated that some of the violations of international human rights law may also amount to crimes against humanity.
Let us take a moment to remember the approximately 1 500 people that the human rights group Viasna has listed as political prisoners in Belarus today – including Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Ales Bialiatski. They are being held in appalling conditions, exposed to ill-treatment and even torture. They need our support now and they will need our help after they are released. We are ready to support them.
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On 24 February 2022, Russia launched its war of aggression against Ukraine. This was motivated by Russia’s ambition to recreate its former colonial empire and undermine the European security order as well as the UN Charter. And by allowing its territory to serve as a launchpad for attacks against Ukraine, Belarus is also responsible for an act of aggression.
Ukraine is in a fierce fight to defend its freedom, sovereignty and territorial integrity. It is defending the right to choose democracy and prosperity, and to uphold respect for the international rules-based order. Russia, on the other hand, seeks to export its domestic repression and in direct violation of the set of laws and norms that have been the pillars of international peace and security since World War II. Russia’s actions have led to a structural, long-term, and significant deterioration of the security situation in Europe and globally.
The defence of Ukraine’s freedom, sovereignty and territorial integrity will be the main focus of Sweden’s foreign policy in the years ahead. Ukraine’s fate is intertwined with that of Europe as a whole. Ukraine is our largest development cooperation partner. Within the framework of our support, Ukraine has received some of our most advanced weapons systems. Sweden will continue to support Ukraine for as long as it takes.
The regime in Belarus is dependent on the Kremlin’s support. Lukashenko’s inner circle fears that if Russia fails in Ukraine will give its own population hope for change in Belarus. This is why support for Ukraine is also support for a free Belarus.
Belarus has become part of the problem. But it could also be a part of the solution. If Belarus stops supporting Russia’s aggression, it will have a detrimental effect on Russia’s war effort.
In summary, the Belarusian people have not been forgotten. Freedom and the rule of law, respect for international law, including human rights law and democracy in Belarus. remain important issues for Sweden and the EU. We call on the Belarusian regime to end violence and repression, release all political prisoners and detainees, respect media freedom and civil society, and start an inclusive national dialogue. We call on the regime to stop its support for Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine.
International law and a rules-based world order are central and long-term Swedish foreign and security policy interests. The European security order as a normative system is still valid and must form the basis of relations between all European states, including Russia and Belarus.
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Going forward, we will focus on three pillars in our Belarus policy.
Firstly. We will continue to put pressure on the regime. We will continue to work with our EU partners to adopt and implement further sanctions in response to both the internal repression and the regime’s support to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.
We will also continue to support initiatives that promote accountability. In this context, I am happy to announce new Swedish support to the civil society initiative International Accountability Platform for Belarus, an organisation working to collect, consolidate, verify and preserve evidence of gross human rights violations constituting crimes under international law in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election and its aftermath.
Secondly. The democratic forces in exile, led by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, are keeping up their tireless work for a democratic Belarus. We will further strengthen our dialogue with them.
Therefore, I am pleased to announce the appointment of Swedish Ambassador to the Eastern Partnership Christina Johannesson as the Swedish Government’s official representative to the Belarusian democratic movement in exile. The aim is to intensify the dialogue with the democratic forces so as to better understand how we best can support the movement. I also hope this sends a clear signal of the importance that the Swedish Government attaches to Belarus.
Thirdly. We also want to broaden and deepen our dialogue and cooperation with like-minded partners on these issues. Democratic forces, civil society representatives, journalists and other media representatives, human rights defenders and many other Belarusians have had to flee Belarus due to the repression. Many have fled to Lithuania and Poland. These neighbouring countries have carried a heavy burden in supporting Belarusian democratic forces in exile. We want to increase our cooperation with Lithuania and Poland – to learn, to coordinate and to contribute.
We also want to work more closely with our Nordic and Baltic neighbours in relation to Belarus. In 2024, Sweden will be chair of both the N5 and NB8. These are informal formats that bring together the Nordic (N5) and Nordic-Baltic (NB8) countries to coordinate and act together in areas of common interest in the field of foreign and security policy. Belarus will definitely be on the agenda at our meetings.
Using these three pillars, we will work to ensure that Belarus is high on the foreign policy agenda.
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In closing, I want to emphasise that Belarus is greater than the Lukashenko regime. The determination of the Belarusian people, who continue to stand up for human rights and democracy at great personal risk, are a source of hope. It is my sincere wish that all Belarusians in exile will be able to return home without risk of persecution, and that the sense of optimism that permeated the early 1990s will return.
Because Belarus is a country of great and untapped potential. It could achieve so much more with other political choices. I hope for a future Belarus in which freedom is not questioned and where human rights are respected. Where elections are free and fair. A country to which people feel an urge to return, rather than forced to leave.
I began this speech by highlighting Sweden’s long-term commitment to freedom in all parts of Europe. We will continue with this commitment. Sweden stands with the Belarusian people on their path to an independent and democratic country, as part of a European family.