Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock honored the three recipients of this year’s International Charlemagne Prize from Belarus as “the bravest women in Europe”. In her laudation on Thursday in Aachen, the Greens politician praised the commitment of opposition politicians Svetlana Tichanovskaya, Veronika Zepkalo and Maria Kolesnikova to freedom and democracy.

Tichanowskaja and Zepkalo, both living in exile, received great applause at the award ceremony. Kolesnikova, who is imprisoned in her authoritarian home country, received the award from her sister Tatjana Chomitsch.

Baerbock was critical of the assessments made after the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989/90 that there would now be an automatic development towards more freedom and democracy throughout Europe. The belief that cooperation with dictators like Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus is possible to a certain degree has “perhaps made us act too hesitantly towards the Belarusian regime”. Hopes that trade alone would bring about change have proved to be an illusion. “That was wrong.”

The minister accused the ruler in Minsk, who has been in power for more than a quarter of a century, of supporting Russia’s war in Ukraine. “Lukashenko is taking action against his critics with frightening severity,” said Baerbock.

“The Russian and Belarusian regimes are using inhuman cynicism against everything that defines us in Europe, everything you three are fighting for: peace, freedom, democracy and human rights.” look even more critically, act even more decisively when our values ​​and our freedom are attacked”.

Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier also paid tribute to this year’s Charlemagne Prize winners from Belarus for their courageous commitment in the country. The German head of state wrote personal letters to civil rights activists Svetlana Tichanovskaya, Veronika Zepkalo and Maria Kolesnikova, as the Office of the Federal President announced on Thursday.

“In Belarus, the peaceful and still brutally suppressed start into the future has a female face,” the letters said. “As courageous and strong women, you defied the dictatorship.”

Steinmeier also wrote that the focus is currently increasingly on Ukraine. “In Europe, including here in Germany, we unfortunately have to see that we must not take freedom and security for granted.” And: “In Belarus, you have known for a long time that defending freedom entails costs.” The Charlemagne Prize has been awarded since 1950 for services to Europe and European unification. Numerous statesmen and women have received it.