Fifteen Years On: An Interview with “Free Belarus” Campaign Founder Åsa Gunvén

, by Elizabeth Sadusky

Fifteen Years On: An Interview with “Free Belarus” Campaign Founder Åsa Gunvén
Photo collage courtesy of JEF Europe.

“Constant vigilance.”

At first, I was not sure why I was reminded of the catch phrase of “Mad Eye” Moody from the Harry Potter series. It most certainly had nothing to do with appearances. No, instead it was her message. Fifteen years from the start of the Democracy Under Pressure (DUP) campaign, initially entitled the Free Belarus campaign, Åsa’s message has not changed.

“We started this campaign so that people would be aware of what’s going on in Belarus, not just every few years when there is an election but every year. It’s not enough to turn our eyes to Belarus every four years. It is there every day and we need to constantly remind people and remember it so that it does not fall into the media’s shadow.”

“Constant vigilance”. That was the message that reminded me of Moody, the one-legged one-eyed Auror who had caught countless dark wizards. That is what democracy needs to be successful.

Prior to Free Belarus, Åsa explains that the Young European Federalists (JEF) strictly provided academic analysis and did little to nothing in the way of activism. Yet, as anyone involved in academia is acutely aware, research and analysis without activism and broader engagement locks this knowledge and information into an inaccessible ivory tower. It does little to nothing to impact that society which surrounds it.

Yet there is so much more scholars can do. “Doing analysis for the EU and what it meant to be federalist, we saw so much that there was in common: federalism, what is Europe, pan-European engagement, citizenship across borders. We are brothers and sisters with those in Belarus, and with this campaign we stood up for and supported them. We pushed the EU to make changes in their policy.”

In addition to its broader goals, Free Belarus was a direct response to a then recent change in EU policy. The EU had set criticism aside to focus on communication. “We were not against communicating with Belarus, but it is possible to do both, and we owe it to the people to do both.” When asked what the best outcome of the campaign was for her so far, Åsa responded that after a few years of the campaign’s mass mobilization on the matter of Belarus the EU changed its policy.

She actually had two answers, the other also correspondeds to what her biggest shock was with the campaign: engagement.

“It was new when we started – the pan-European action. It made it possible to be active even if you were a tiny organization, because now you knew that young people in 100 other cities were doing the same thing and the message was strong. Today, we have lots of campaigns and actions that cross borders, but this was one of the first. It showed us that citizenship is possible across borders; when we saw the action grow exponentially by itself, we knew the seeds were there for this! Our biggest shock was how much the campaign grew especially in non-election years; it showed the strength and importance of the campaign, especially in Russian and Belarussian languages. It was amazing to have feedback from inside Belarus. I became a celebrity and am not able to enter the country as a result.”

This made me think back to May and June of this year. I was obtaining my master’s degree when a horrendous video surfaced and circled the world: the murder of George Floyd. Being from Minneapolis, I watched, feeling helpless, as protestors flooded the streets, as violence ensued. But I was not helpless, because the movement soon became global. Despite being halfway across the world I was able to help organize a Black Lives Matter event outside the U.S. embassy in Budapest. I felt solidarity not only with those physically present in Budapest and my friends and family in Minneapolis, but the millions of people protesting across the U.S. and around the world.

It is this pan-European action, this transnational citizenship, that Åsa emphasized for young organizers today. When something is going on across the EU or even across the world, everyone participating can feel and tap into the transnational solidarity and society. “That is important to show. The civil society is stronger together, across borders.”

She also spoke to the practicality of an annual campaign. “When you do something year after year, you build on past experiences. Unexperienced people can use the past as a textbook. This guide makes it easier for new groups to get involved.”

Thankful for the advice from someone who founded such a successful campaign, I had to know if there was anything she would do differently now. In answering this, Åsa provided more advice to young activists and organizers. “It is important to have political backing and get leaders on board. It is necessary in order to achieve real political change.” She emphasized inviting leaders to events and putting forward suggestions to them. This reminded me of the activist accounts I follow on social media, the templates they provide for reaching out to your representatives, and other various action points.

So, what should our action points be for an international matter such as Belarus? Åsa stressed that engagement with leaders should focus on demands for foreign policy and changing how we grant visas. “We need to cooperate in programs exchanges and visas; I cannot overemphasize the importance of being there for the young.”

Obviously, democracy is in a very different place now than it was fifteen years ago, so I asked Åsa what she thinks the most important issues are for the campaign this year. As she answered, the mental image of Alaster Moody popped into my mind again. “Belarus! Constant coverage and vigilance!”

The events of this past year have me agreeing with her, one hundred percent. Yet already, the media seems to have forgotten. Our job, those leading the DUP campaign and anyone who is a proponent of democracy, is to remember that in Belarus this is a lived reality, every minute of every hour of every day.

Especially during Women’s History Month, the month of March, we must remember all the incredible women leading protests in Belarus, the large majority of whom are now either imprisoned or expelled from their country. As we sit at home in lockdown, or perhaps begin to return to our normal lives now that vaccinations are arriving, we must not forget those who are still under a lockdown that has nothing to do with COVID-19.

Of course, Belarus is not the only nation in need of democracy. Unfortunately, an increasing number of important and necessary threats continue to rear their ugly heads. Yet, underpinning everything is the lesson Åsa learned fifteen years ago, “we need the active engagement of young people on their EU citizenship, without it we cannot change anything. Never stop creating the campaigns that are attractive for young people, the messages, and the possibility to learn and engage.”

This is not specific to Åsa or EU citizens. We all must engage our citizenship, across borders, and be constantly vigilant in order to establish and protect democracy, our rights, and the rights of others.

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