The Belarusians forced the world to look at the situation in the country in a new way.
Mall Hellam, head of the Open Estonia Foundation, told Charter97.org why economic sanctions against the regime in Belarus should be tightened and how independent media and self-organization of citizens can change the situation in the struggle for democracy.
- You are the director of the Open Estonia Foundation. Please tell our readers what the focus of your organization is?
- The Open Estonia Foundation is a non-governmental independent foundation whose mission is to build dynamic and tolerant democracies, where governments are accountable to their citizens. To achieve this goal, we launch and support initiatives that build the capacity of civil society, promote inclusive civic dialogue, social cohesion, human dignity, transparency, and democratic practice in decision-making processes. We share experiences and build partnerships in countries with democracies in transition.
- What are the main achievements of the Open Estonia Foundation would you highlight?
- OEF has been the driving force behind e-Estonia: the first broadband internet connection appeared back in 1992 thanks to our organization. We launched an initiative that opened public Internet hotspots all over Estonia, and many young people went to study at the newly established College of Information Technology.
We now offer our own expertise in open government and e-democracy. The Estonian experience has been passed on through our good partner, the e-Governance Academy. We have helped create many new tools for e-participation, including the Voter Compass (the purpose of the tool is to raise awareness of how the country's political landscape looks like, what social and political issues are key at the moment, what positions the parties have on these issues, - ed.), "Guards of Governance" (a civic initiative in which experts from non-governmental organizations monitor the daily actions of the government and assess how plans and promises are actually being fulfilled - ed.), etc.
Thanks to OEF, one of the most influential think tanks in Estonia was born - Praxis. The first umbrella organization of NGOs in Estonia was created with the support of the OEF. This is the Network of Estonian Non-Profit Organizations, NENO, one of the largest public initiative organizations in Estonia. In addition, the OEF implements various public health programs, vocational training programs for doctors, the fight against HIV, and the establishment of the Estonian Genome Foundation.
On our initiative, the "Open Estonian Book" was created, which introduced the world-renowned philosophers and thinkers to the Estonian language and now boasts more than 140 books.
The annual Opinion Festival, which brings together thousands of people in the open air to discuss ideas important to our society, also enjoys the support of the FEF. For many years we have supported the education of students from Belarus, Georgia, and Moldova in Estonia. In recent years, we have been entrusted with the work of grants from Norway and the European Economic Area (European Economic Area) for civil society.
- Recently, the Lukashenka regime attacked independent media and non-governmental organizations. Many employees of such organizations are in prisons or were forced to flee Belarus in order to continue their work. How do you rate such attacks?
- This is completely unacceptable. It is difficult to look at the ongoing struggle, human rights violations, and crimes committed by Aliaksandr Lukashenka and his illegal regime.
Lukashenka's actions after rigged elections, repression against the opposition, civil society, the independent press, and the use of violence against citizens turned a critical mass of Belarusians away from his regime.
- Why is it important for a country to have many independent NGOs and mass media? How do they help in building and promoting the country?
- Both the media and non-governmental organizations have an important role to play in ensuring and strengthening democracy. The media provide information on democratic change and promote social and political issues. Having independent media means the right to freedom of expression. Therefore, independent media are important to everyone. In independent media, journalists are free to criticize the government and demand transparency, accountability, and free access to information. This allows the public to be well informed and vote confidently during elections.
NGOs contribute to democracy and civil society by protecting underrepresented minority groups and setting the agenda. NGOs allow citizens to voluntarily work together to promote local initiatives and problem-solving, empowering them and involving them in decision-making. Civil society organizations can strengthen the voice of communities and drive change at the grassroots level.
- Once Estonia regained its independence from the Soviet authorities, and now it is Belarus's turn to get rid of the Lukashenka regime. How do you assess the current situation in Belarus? Have you been impressed by the massive protests that have been going on almost continuously since the summer of 2020?
“The efforts of Belarusians to seek peaceful political change are incredible. Perhaps the most surprising feature is the sense of solidarity and the ability of Belarusians to continue to demonstrate their position, despite the brutality of the regime.
The Belarusian society has demonstrated unprecedented self-organization both within the country and abroad. This allowed maintaining pressure on the dictatorship, as well as mobilizing the international community to support the democratic aspirations of Belarus.
I admire Belarusian women for their courage, humanity, and creativity. Tallinn hosted a wonderful photo exhibition entitled “Belarus of the Future. The Power of Women's Will,” which documented the peaceful protests of Belarusian women against injustice.
You made the world look at Belarus in a new way.
- After the incident with the Ryanair plane and the organization of the channel for the transfer of illegal migrants to Europe, many politicians assess the Lukashenka regime as terrorist. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Landsbergis openly calls the Belarusian dictator a terrorist. In your opinion, how great is the danger of this regime for the Baltic region and Europe as a whole?
- The EU, including the Baltic states, is faced with a systemic conflict with dictatorships in Belarus and Russia. The Ryanair incident and the establishment of a channel for illegal migration to Europe undermine security and put a lot of pressure on the EU. We must remember that these aggressive and provocative actions would never have happened without the consent and possibly active support of Russia.
Thus, the independence of Belarus is of decisive importance for European and international security, and it can be ensured only by supporting the people of Belarus and the pro-democratic forces in your country.
- Many politicians call Lukashenka's actions against the EU a hybrid war and call for additional sanctions against the regime. Do you think the sanctions should be tougher?
- It is necessary to introduce tougher economic sanctions and stop foreign investments in Belarus. Many people from Lukashenka's inner circle who can support him financially should be included in the sanctions list.
Some observers proposed to disconnect Belarus from the SWIFT system and thereby complicate its international payment transactions. Immediately after the hijacking of the Ryanair plane, Timothy Snyder proposed to stop the construction of the Nord Stream II gas pipeline between Russia and Germany. It is important to enforce sanctions - too often, they are simply ignored.
- What else do you think needs to be done to stop the arbitrariness of Lukashenka in Belarus and the instability that he causes in our region?
- If the international community gives in to Lukashenka, he and other dictators will become bolder. The EU and the US must end the practice of cautious steps and declare comprehensive sanctions on the regime and stand up for what they believe in. This would mean tougher sanctions against the leaderships in Belarus and Russia and allocating resources to protect civil society by providing legal aid, visas, education, and security for those fleeing repression.
Belarusian human rights defenders, activists, and journalists continue their work in various formats in the country and abroad. The international community must stand in solidarity with them, resist the regime's attempts to destroy civil society, and provide long-term support to groups of activists. The decisive and better-coordinated policy of the West will send a clear signal to the Belarusian people - full support for their aspirations for democracy.
- Based on the experience of Estonia, what advice can you give to the democratic movement in Belarus? How can Belarusians defeat an authoritarian regime and gain freedom and independence?
- You need political capacity, organizational capacity, and mobilization capacity. But it's all about people who value freedom and can be responsible for it.