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Here's what to know about the Nobel Peace Prize winners

Ales Bialiatski, the head of Belarusian Vyasna rights group, stands in a defendants' cage during a court session in Minsk, Belarus, on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2011.
Sergei Grits
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AP
Ales Bialiatski, the head of Belarusian Vyasna rights group, stands in a defendants' cage during a court session in Minsk, Belarus, on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2011.

Updated October 7, 2022 at 7:33 AM ET

BERLIN, MOSCOW, KYIV — This year's Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to human rights advocate Ales Bialiatski from Belarus, as well as two human rights organizations, Memorial in Russia and the Center for Civil Liberties in Ukraine.

The awards were named on Friday by Berit Reiss-Andsersen, chairperson of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, and came as war rages in Eastern Europe.

The recipients all come from a region still grappling with the legacy of the collapse of the Soviet Union, growing political repression, and the consequences of Russia's war in Ukraine.

Russia invaded Ukraine earlier this year and has attempted to annex whole regions from its neighbor. Belarus has sided with Russia in the conflict — even allowing Moscow to stage its forces on its territory. The leaders of both Russia and Belarus have suppressed democratic movements at home through a growing web of repressions.

The prize marks the second year in a row the Nobel committee has turned its attention on the region. Last year, Dmitry Muratov, the editor of Novaya Gazeta, an independent Russian newspaper known for its critical stance on the Kremlin, shared the prize with journalist Maria Rezza of the Phillippines.

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who died earlier this year, also won the award, in 1990, for "the leading role he played in the radical changes in East-West relations" and "greater openness" he brought to Soviet society. Gorbachev later became a founder of Novaya Gazeta.

Observers said the Nobel Committee's decision reflected a sense that Europe's future was at stake in a region that has seen a rise in authoritarianism but could one day see democratic change.

"I think the message is clear: 'We are not pro- or anti-country,' " says Kadri Liik, a Russia and Eastern Europe expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, in assessing the Nobel committee's choice.

"'We are pro-democracy and human rights,' " is Nobel's message, added Liik.

Ales Bialiatski

Bialiatski is one of the early founders of the democracy movement in Belarus, starting in the 1980s, and one of the country's most well-known human rights activists. Bialiatski has led a 30-year campaign for democracy and freedom, first under the former Soviet Republic and, since 1996, as founder of a human rights center to help political prisoners in the country's capital of Minsk.

Since then, the Viasna Human Rights Centre — the word viasna means "spring" in Belarusian — has become the country's leading civil society organization through documenting human rights abuses and monitoring elections.

"He has devoted his life to promoting democracy and peaceful development in his home country," said Reiss-Andsersen in awarding the prize.

Bialiatski has been persecuted for years by the regime of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who's been in power since 1994. Bialiatski has been in and out of prison and is currently in prison on what many believe are trumped-up charges of tax evasion — charges for which he never faced trial.

Indeed, Bialiatski's colleagues admitted they weren't entirely sure if Bialiatski was aware of receiving the Nobel, given his confinement.

"I think he will learn through some informal channel or meet his lawyer some day ... or receive a telegram," says Viasna's Natallia Satsunkevich in an interview with NPR.

"He was a five-time nominee and now a winner. My first thought was, finally!'' added Satsunkevich.

Other Belarusian activists described Bialiaski as a tireless campaigner for democratic rights.

"Ales Biliaski defined how Belarus should develop in the future," Siarhei Kastrama, a Belarusian activist based in Prague told NPR.

"This movement is not about political change. It is about reforming an entire society."

Russian human rights campaigner and Memorial member Svetlana Gannushkina speaks during an AFP interview in Moscow in March.
Yuri Kadobnov / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Russian human rights campaigner and Memorial member Svetlana Gannushkina speaks during an AFP interview in Moscow in March.

Memorial

The human rights group 'Memorial' emerged out of a push for new freedoms in the late Soviet era.

Founded by Nobel laureate and human rights campaigner Andrei Sakharov, Memorial initially sought to document Stalinist-era repressions and preserve the memory and experiences of the millions of Soviets who vanished in the labor camps known as the gulag.

Yet it was the organization's work documenting human rights abuses in the new Russia that put Memorial increasingly at odds with Vladimir Putin's Kremlin.

In 2021, the organization was "liquidated" for failure to meet reporting requirements under Russia's "foreign agents" law. A parallel case found Memorial's human rights wing guilty of "promoting terrorism" through a list it keeps of current-day political prisoners.

Memorial insisted both trials were politically motivated and continued its activities informally despite the court rulings, says Memorial member Svetlana Gannushkina, who was cited by the Nobel Committee as an early supporter of the group's work.

"No one can ban us from fighting for human rights and we continue that work in different forms," said Gannushkina in an interview with NPR.

Memorial has long been rumored as a potential Nobel finalist — a factor Gannushkina said convinced her to tune out the announcement long ago.

"I only found out from journalists when they started calling," said Gannushkina.

"It's important. It's a show of solidarity," she added when asked about the Nobel Prize. "An acknowledgment that not all Russians are bad and that there are those of us who are against the war in Ukraine."

Staff members of the Center for Civil Liberties pose for a photo and celebrate winning the Nobel Peace Prize in their office in Kyiv on Friday.
Ed Ram / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Staff members of the Center for Civil Liberties pose for a photo and celebrate winning the Nobel Peace Prize in their office in Kyiv on Friday.

The Center for Civil Liberties

The civil society group was founded in 2007, when Ukraine's human rights activists began to reach out across borders, learning how to better organize and use international courts to defend vulnerable populations.

In 2013, when the Ukrainian government arrested activists and journalists during a popular uprising, that knowledge came in handy.

It was a similar scenario a year later when Russia invaded parts of eastern Ukraine.

Attorney Yuriy Bilous has worked with the center, building war crimes cases against Russian troops and documenting crimes committed by Russian soldiers, in this year's invasion.

"First of all, they tell the world about what's going on in Ukraine," Bilous told NPR, speaking about the center's work. "They hold international institutions accountable so as to prevent crimes in the future. Their work creates opportunities to discuss the future of international criminal law."

Hayda reported from Kyiv; Maynes reported from Moscow; Schmitz reported from Berlin.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.
Julian Hayda