Even though it may not be obvious to members of the Visegrad Group, the fact is that Belarus has connections with the Czech lands, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia that go back many centuries. And while state formations in this part of Europe have changed many times, and few borders have remained where they were originally drawn, Central Europe has always been, for the citizens of our small country, a window into Europe and a symbol of hope.
Historical ties have linked Belarus territory with Poland, with whom, over the centuries, we have shared both the good and the bad in a single state. But Belarus has also enjoyed broad political, cultural, and trading associations with the other countries of the Visegrad Four. Many of our young scholars have gone there to study. The most important Belarusian humanist, František Skaryna, the founder of printed book production in Eastern Europe and the translator of the Bible into Belarusian, was active in Prague at the beginning of the 16th Century. Stefan Bátory, who was king of Hungary and Poland, was also a grand duke in our country.
Although the citizens of the Central European nations often stood on opposite sides in the First World War, when the conflict was over they all lived in independent states where they were free to develop their own cultures and educational systems. Belarus citizens had no such luck, and the Belarus Democratic Republic, after a brief period of existence, was divided between Poland and Soviet Russia. Here, in particular, our culture and language were systematically liquidated along with the intelligentsia, a social class that had embraced the idea of an independent, democratic, and free Belarus.
The Second World War had a tragic impact on all of Europe. Our country was levelled and lost a quarter of its population. Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland became a part of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe, and the 40-year rule of communism brought yet another calamity to their citizens, devastating almost every aspect of their lives. Yet despite all of this, it was precisely to those countries that a great majority of Belarusian people looked with hope. The Polish and Hungarian uprisings of 1956, the Czechoslovak Spring of 1968, and the Polish events of 1970 and 1980 strengthened our faith in the possibility of positive changes in our own homeland as well. While the nomenklatura and the party cadres clung to Moscow, the West, so damned by Soviet propaganda, was the centre of interest for an enormous number of people. Once again, Central Europe for us was a window into that "West" because that was where the books, newspapers, magazines, rock music, and blue jeans came from.
The "miraculous year" of 1989 brought freedom to those countries, and to us. It gave us the motivation and provided the impulse that helped bring about the final collapse of the Soviet Union and led to the declaration of independence in Belarus in the summer of 1991. The countries of the Visegrad Group achieved the aim they set for themselves when they came into being. Despite a number of problems, they successfully managed their economic and political transformations and built for themselves stable, democratic states based on the rule of law, and became members of the North Atlantic Alliance and the European Union. In our country, unfortunately, with a lot of help from Moscow, the neo-Soviet regime of Alexandr Lukashenko, who considers Belarusian citizens to be his serfs or a herd of dumb animals to be manipulated in any way he wants, emerged victorious.
And thus, entirely correctly, Belarus has been labelled the last dictatorship in Europe. It is certainly no accident that, in this difficult situation, we have been getting the most help and understanding from the countries of the Visegrad Four. At the same time, their important and necessary assistance is not limited to mere declarations and high-sounding pronouncements, but has taken the form of concrete joint projects, scholarships, and other activities that, along with aid from the US, enables us to preserve and develop the foundations of civil society, which represent the greatest threat to the dictatorship in Belarus. I am extremely glad that the International Visegrad Fund has joined this support, and I believe that its scholarship and grant programs for Belarus will continue to grow. At the beginning of the 21st century, the countries of Central Europe have remained a symbol of hope for Belarus. We all believe that with their support, these hopes will be fulfilled and that Belarus will soon join a democratic and free Europe.
Belarusian scientist, physicist and mathematician, opposition candidate in the presidential elections in 2006.