Can a Nobel Prize open up Belarus?

Belarus Nobel winner Svetlana Alexievich
Belarus writer and journalist Svetlana Alexievich leaving a press conference in Minsk on Thursday, following the announcement of her Nobel Literature Prize earlier in the day.
Maxim Malinovsky

Even before writer Svetlana Alexievich became the first Belarusian to snag the Nobel Prize for literature on Thursday, there were some faint signs of change for her closed country.

Recently, Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko — despised for crushing dissent and sidelining the political opposition — has played a valuable host for international negotiations and freed political prisoners.

He’s expected to sweep Sunday’s presidential election again — for the fifth time in a row. But barring any major violations, the vote might even bring the mustachioed autocrat closer to the West. Some European officials suggested the European Union might temporarily suspend its sanctions against him and his country if all goes well.

Still, says Andrei Yahorau, director of the Center for European Transformation think tank in Minsk, the vote has virtually “no meaning” for the country’s political landscape, which Lukashenko has dominated since 1994.

Enter Svetlana Alexievich, a 67-year-old journalist and prose writer. Her work serves as a “a monument to suffering and courage in our time,” the Nobel judges said. Many hope that her literature prize provides an alternative source of pride for a population long controlled by a heavy-handed, Soviet-style state. A dose of international prestige could seriously boost her moral voice, force state-run media to pay attention to her, and stimulate Belarusian culture.

“All of this is not a mean feat for a country that is usually only associated with dictatorship,” Joerg Forbrig, head of the Fund for Belarus Democracy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, wrote Thursday.

No one in Belarus expects quick political change. Even Alexievich herself said she wouldn’t vote in Sunday’s election “because we know who will win.”

But Yahorau, the political analyst, says Alexievich’s victory could be an example for other Belarusians who are discouraged by the stifling political climate at home.

“It shows that there is a different culture in the country and completely different people who are understood and respected throughout the world,” he said.

Senior Correspondent Dan Peleschuk is based in Kyiv, Ukraine.