Hope versus fear in Europe’s neighbourhood: Sakharov prize 2020

Guy Verhofstadt
3 min readSep 3, 2020

The sad truth is, there are all too many people around the world right now who would merit the Sakharov prize.

Human Rights Watch sees a global downturn in terms of rights and liberties, purposely led by what it calls the ‘Chinese template for a prosperous dictatorship’. In Europe’s immediate neighbourhood too, freedom of thought is facing pressure from increasingly brazen autocrats. The whole idea of Europe, its internal workings as well as its global role, is based on individual rights and free societies, on the values embodied and boosted by the EU. The autocratic ‘template’ being used in countries nearby brings the struggle home in a very uncomfortable way. And that makes it even harder for me to choose between two proposals doing the rounds in my group, Renew Europe, for this year’s prize.

One is the democratic opposition of Belarus, for whom my appreciation and respect are, I hope, well known.

The fact that they are so down-to-earth about it makes their struggle even more impressive. ‘I really can’t ask the European Union or other countries for anything special,’ said presidential candidate Svetlana Tichanovskaja recently,‘precisely because Lukashenko is insinuating Europe is helping us. This political crisis is an internal affair, which we need to manage for ourselves.’ Their movement is a triumph of decency in the face of brutal oppression. They are not out to upset any geopolitical balances (‘We’re not the opposition’, she pointed out laughingly, ‘We’re the majority’), they want to live in peace and truthfulness. The movement is often led by women, just because they refuse to live in fear, because they refuse to hide behind their men, because they see a chance to offer their children something they never had: a future in freedom. So many of Europe’s historic battles were fought and won over the same issues and values. So yes, the democratic majority of Belarus now deserves Europe’s full moral support.

And yet, perhaps the other proposal is nearer to the Sakharov prize’s original intent, to support people fighting for freedom of thought in particular. The unbearable fate of Osman Kavala and Ebru Timtik is so painfully telling of what is happening in Turkey today.

Osman Kavala believes in cultural exchange as a way to promote peace and understanding between people from different backgrounds — within Turkey as well as between Turkey and neighbouring countries, including Europe. He fiercely defends the country’s diversity as a strength for its democratic future… and that suffices to make him a public enemy for a regime drifting further and further away from democracy. He was arrested in 2017 on the basis of made up charges, acquitted… and arrested again a few hours after he left prison. He has now been in jail for over 1.000 days.

Ebru Timtik was a lawyer defending free speech in Turkey, notably after the crackdown on the Gezipark protests. She was falsely accused of being linked to Kurdish terrorism, and sentenced to over thirteen years in prison. She went on hunger strike demanding a fair trial and died, tragically, in hospital last month.

There are thousands of political prisoners in Turkey today. There will be countless others if we do not stop the country’s descent into unfreedom, in which censorship plays a key role. We should never allow them to be silenced… which is what the Sakharov prize is all about.

There could of course be others that could symbolise the current struggle for free speech, truth and transparency, for democracy and decency — Aleksej Navalny is one name that springs to mind, who is still in a coma as a result of his efforts for the same ideals.

So who do you think the European parliament should highlight this year through the Sakharov prize?