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As it Happened: Harvard Commencement 2023

Belarus Opposition Leader, European Parliament President Reaffirm Support for Ukraine at Harvard IOP Forum

Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, right, and European Parliament President Roberta Metsola, center, affirmed their support for Ukraine during a Friday Harvard Institute of Politics Forum.
Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, right, and European Parliament President Roberta Metsola, center, affirmed their support for Ukraine during a Friday Harvard Institute of Politics Forum. By Claire Yuan
By Miles J. Herszenhorn and Asher J. Montgomery, Crimson Staff Writers

Even the Belarusian opposition believes Belarus should not be the current geopolitical focus for the European Union and the United States.

“The focus now is on Ukraine,” Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya unequivocally stated at the Harvard Kennedy School on Friday. “And we fully support this because Ukrainians now are fighting, defending not only their lands, they’re defending the principles of democracy, common values.”

More than a year after Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a massive escalation in a conflict that dates back to 2014, Tsikhanouskaya and European Parliament President Roberta Metsola reaffirmed that their support for Ukraine has not waned during a joint appearance at the Friday forum.

The forum was co-sponsored by the Harvard Institute of Politics and the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies as part of the University’s student-led European Conference.

Tsikhanouskaya ran against Belarus’ authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko in an August 2020 election that handed Lukashenko a sixth term in office. The election was widely regarded as fraudulent, and hundreds of thousands of Belarusians took to the streets to protest the results.

Exiled after the election, Tsikhanouskaya traveled to Brussels and Washington to galvanize support for the democratic movement in Belarus. However, the escalation of the war in Ukraine shifted the world’s attention to Belarus’ Eastern European neighbor.

At the forum, Metsola said EU leaders have not allowed domestic crises to distract them from providing aid to Ukraine.

Tsikhanouskaya said Belarusians and Ukrainians are united in their desire to escape Russia’s influence and join the EU.

“No matter how the war ends, Russia will come out weak out of it: militarily, economically, politically, and with no allies,” Tsikhanouskaya said.

“This provides us with a unique historical opportunity to get Belarus out of the Russian orbit,” she added. “There was no better way to convince Belarusians of the benefits of Europe than Russia launching a despicable war against our friend.”

Tsikhanouskaya, however, did not mention the tense relationship between the Belarusian opposition and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s administration, despite their mutual enemy in Russia.

Ukraine has yet to establish diplomatic or political relations with the Belarusian opposition movement.

Tsikhanouskaya said in an interview after the forum that she believes the Ukrainian government and the Belarusian opposition should be allies, but she added that she also understands Kyiv’s fear of provoking Lukashenko.

She added that her message to Ukraine is “you can ignore us, but as a nation it’s our moral obligation and actually necessity to support you because we understand that we are facing the same enemy.”

“We will support Ukrainians [in the] Ukrainian fight despite the presence or absence of political dialogue,” she said.

During the forum, Metsola took aim at those who have criticized the EU and the U.S. for providing military and financial aid to Ukraine over the course of the war.

“There are those who question the involvement of the European Union, and the United States for that matter,” Metsola said. “Those who prefer to pretend that what is happening in Ukraine is not real or who seek to excuse war crimes and breaches of international law; those who prefer the simplicity of propaganda to the stark reality of war; those who think they are too far away to care.”

“To those, I say the price of liberty is not too high.”

Metsola also reflected on the start of her political career when she campaigned for Malta to join the EU as a student activist.

“It was a very hard fought campaign, but I believed passionately then that my generation’s place was in Europe,” she said. “That is something I believe, still.”

Metsola said the European dream continues to serve as a guiding light for people in Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, and other countries that aspire to join the EU.

“We must understand that for millions the concept of Europe is everything. It’s not just a destination. It is a way of life and a way of living,” she said. “It is a sometimes lonely light that defends liberal democracies, free markets, social safety nets, and personal freedoms.”

Clarification: March 28, 2023

A previous version of this article referred to Friday’s forum as a Harvard Institute of Politics forum. To clarify, the forum was co-sponsored by the IOP and the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies as part of the University’s student-led European Conference.

—Staff writer Miles J. Herszenhorn can be reached at miles.herszenhorn@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @MHerszenhorn.

—Staff writer Asher J. Montgomery can be reached at asher.montgomery@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @asherjmont.

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