Oleg Sentsov and David Sassoli at the Sakharov Prize award ceremony. Photo courtesy of Deutsche Welle
“Don’t Believe Putin,” or, What Advice Sakharov Prize Winner Sentsov Gave the European Union
November 26, 2019
Andrei Sakharov, Nelson Mandela… Oleg Sentsov could never have imagined his name would be on a par with these people.
“This is a great honor and a great responsibility,” the Ukrainian filmmaker said during his appearance at the European Parliament.
It was there on November 26 that he was finally given the Sakharov Prize he had been awarded in 2018. This was the second award ceremony. There was an empty chair in the plenary hall in Strasbourg a year ago because Sentsov was still being held in a Russian penal colony. After the exchange of prisoners between Ukraine and Russia in early September, the European Parliament held a new ceremony in which the Ukrainian was able to participate.
Sentsov Warns EU Politicians
The ceremony on Tuesday was simple. The president of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, spoke before yielding the floor to the prizewinner. Sentsov briefly mused about what the Sakharov Prize meant to him before quickly segueing to his main message.
“There is a lot of talk nowadays about reconciliation with Russia, about negotiations. I don’t believe Putin, and I would urge you not to believe him. Russia and Putin will definitely deceive you. They don’t want peace in Donbass, they don’t want peace for Ukraine. They want to see Ukraine on its knees,” Sentsov said.
His words were in stark contrast to the high expectations for the summit of the so-called Normandy Four, scheduled for December 9 in Paris, as well as French President Emmanuel Macron’s desire to normalize relations with Russia. Sentsov thus had advice for all EU politicians.
He said that every time one of them thought about extending the hand of friendship to Putin over the heads of Ukrainians, they should also think about every one of the thirteen thousand people who have perished in the war in Donbass, about the Ukrainian political prisoners still held in Russia, about the Crimean Tatars, who face arrest at any minute in annexed Crimea, and about the Ukrainian soldiers “in the trenches, risking their lives for our freedom and your freedom.”
Laconic as usual, Sentsov spoke for less than five minutes, but it was enough to elicit applause from both MEPs and visitors. The balcony was nearly full with visitors and journalists. Most MEPs were also present for the ceremony. There were only empty seats on the edges of the assembly hall, where left and right populists sit. Members of both groupings took their places several minutes after Sentsov left the dais so they could take part in voting.
Sentsov: “No Happy Ending”
The ceremony lasted less than half an hour: no speeches by or questions from MEPs were on the program. Many of them thought this was not enough, however, so the day before the ceremony, on the evening of November 25, the foreign affairs and development committees, along with the human rights subcommittee, which are responsible for the Sakharov Prize, hosted a conversation with Sentsov.
When Sentsov arrived at the event, MEPs lined up to greet him or have their picture taken with him. The session was thus delayed for five minutes or so.
Many of the MEPs who spoke at the meeting praised Sentsov’s courage.
“I admire and respect you not only for your courage, but also for your perseverance. You emerged a winner. And so we are very happy that you are free. By your example, you can inspire people to fight for freedom not only in Ukraine and Europe, but also around the world where there are dictatorships,” observed Sandra Kalniete, a Latvian MEP for the European People’s Party.
However, the praise did not make a big impression on the Ukrainian. He thanked the MEPs for supporting Ukraine in the struggle against Russian aggression, but reminded them the struggle was not over.
“There was no happy ending when I was released,” Sentsov said, reminding the MEPs that over one hundred Ukrainian political prisoners were still behind bars in Russia, and Russian-backed separatists in Donbass held over two hundred captives.
Sentsov’s Creative Plans
Kalniete’s voice was filled with emotion, and she even apologized for being so flustered. Perhaps it was emotion that made foreign affairs committee chair David McAllister mistakenly identify Sentsov as a “Russian” filmmaker, but he immediately corrected himself.
“As a Ukrainian filmmaker and writer, you have been a very harsh critic of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea,” McAllister said.
The MEPs peppered their guest with questions and requests for political advice, but after the first round of speeches by representatives of all the factions who wished to attend the event, Sentsov had nothing more to say.
McAllister decided to take a creative approach.
“There is a second round [of speeches] in this ‘movie.’ You’re a director, and I’m an actor, but this time it’s the other way around. You can say whatever you want, especially about your experience with the Russians,” he said.
After a few more questions, Sentsov no longer refrained from comment.
Speaking about the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, under which Ukraine relinquished the world’s third largest nuclear arsenal in exchange for assurances regarding its territorial integrity, Sentsov said, “Since they [Russian] took Crimea from us, they can return our bombs.”
If the MEPs had reacted enthusiastically to many of the Sakharov Prize laureate’s statements, there was a heavy silence in the room after he said this. Subsequently, he had to explain what he meant more than once. In an interview with Deutsche Welle, he assured us it had not been an “actual” proposal.
“It’s not a call to return [our] nuclear weapons, but an argument in negotiations: where it all began and what we need to get back to,” Sentsov underscored.
He believes negotiations in the Normandy and Minsk formats are a dead end, and sees the possibility of a real solution to the problem of Donbass and Crimea when Vladimir Putin ceases to be the president of Russia.
“And then Ukraine, Europe, and the whole world should be ready to take a tough stance on the return of those territories,” he said.
The MEPs also asked Sentsov about his plans for the future. The director confirmed he intends to finish shooting the film Rhino first. He interrupted work on the film when the Euromaidan protests, in which he was involved, kicked off. The director has written screenplays for five films, which he would like to shoot in five years. Sentsov warned, however, that he did not mix creative work with public life, so we should not expect him to make films about his time in prison, Maidan or Crimea.
Translated by the Russian Reader