KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — A day after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize with fellow human rights campaigners from Belarus and Russia, the head of the Ukrainian Center for Civil Liberties praised the work of her fellow laureates but cautioned against lumping the three together in a Cold War-like narrative.
“We don’t see — and we shouldn’t see — this prize … as a Soviet narrative about brotherhood nations,” said Oleksandra Matviychuk at a press conference on Saturday in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. “This is a story about fighting against a common enemy.”
Matviychuk’s comments came a day after some in Ukraine voiced mixed reactions to the Nobel committee’s decision to award the prize to her organization along with imprisoned Belarus activist Ales Bialiatski and Russia’s best-known human rights group, Memorial.
The Ukrainian Center for Civil Liberties was founded in 2007 to defend human rights, democracy and the rule of law.
Berit Reiss-Andersen, chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, said the panel decided to honor “three outstanding champions of human rights, democracy and peaceful coexistence.”
Some Ukrainians expressed resentment for what they saw as lumping Ukraine in the same category as Russia and Belarus, whose territory Moscow has used to wage its war on Ukraine.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak mocked the prize in a tweet Friday, saying the committee had an “interesting understanding of the word ‘peace.’”
Belarusian and Russian human rights defenders are “fighting for the rights of people in dictatorships,” while in Ukraine, groups like the Center for Civil Liberties are documenting “the war crimes of these dictatorships because missiles fly to Ukraine from Belarus and Russia,” Ukrainian journalist Anastasia Magazova tweeted Friday.
“Despite all the merits of the laureates from Russia and Belarus, Ukrainians do not want the struggle for human rights in the three countries to be perceived equally,” wrote Magazova, who has covered Ukraine for German and Ukrainian publications since 2014.
Matviychuk, the head of the Ukrainian civil liberties group, on Saturday dismissed suggestions that awarding the prize to representatives from the three countries at the same time diminished its importance.
The prize, “which belongs to all the people of Ukraine who fight for freedom and democracy,” is a symbol of the fight “for your freedom and ours,” she said, referencing a phrase that was often repeated by Soviet dissidents.
“Russia still hasn’t overcome its imperial complex. This is a threat. The same as in Belarus, where Lukashenko gave up his land to occupation,” said the center’s executive director, Oleksandra Romantsova.
Romantsova praised the work of Bialiatski and Memorial, which she pointed out was the first organization to document Russian war crimes during the first war from 1994 to 1996 in Chechnya, the majority Muslim region on Russia’s southern flank that has fought two wars with Moscow for independence.
“Perhaps if the world had paid attention to the war crimes in Chechnya from the start, we wouldn’t have the war in Ukraine today,” Romantsova said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as of Saturday had not called the Ukrainian group to congratulate it on the prize, which both Matviychuk and the organization’s executive director brushed aside as insignificant, given the ongoing war in Ukraine.
It was unlikely Zelenskyy would have been able to reach either of them Friday after the news broke, she said.
“I don’t wish to anyone to go through war, but this complicated time gives us time to show our best qualities that we have, from the farmer protecting his land or tractor to the president who doesn’t flee the country during the war,” Matviychuk said.
AP journalist Hanna Arhirova in Kyiv, Ukraine, contributed.
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