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Belarus: 19-Year-Old Activist Fights For God And Country

  • Heather Maher --> Zmitser Fedaruk (RFE/RL) (Editor's note: This profile was originally published on December 7, based on an interview conducted the previous day in Washington. On December 12, Zmitser Fedaruk was severely beaten by riot police while taking part in a peaceful demonstration in Minsk. Fedaruk is now hospitalized in serious condition after sustaining internal injuries and being knocked unconscious. The U.S. State Department "condemn[ed] the use of brutal force" against the protesters and accused Belarusian police of "specifically targeting" Fedaruk when they dispersed the rally. "This incident is another in a long series of repressive acts by the Belarusian authorities against their own citizens," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. The U.S. Helsinki Commission, which hosted Fedaruk and other opposition activists at a briefing during the Washington trip, has condemned the beating as "outrageous and tragic" and said "the intimidation and abuse by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's regime does not seem to be coming to an end any time soon." The commission's chairman, Congressman Alcee Hastings (Democrat, Florida), vowed in a statement, "My colleagues and I on the Helsinki Commission are determined to stand by young Mr. Fedaruk and all those in Belarus -- young and old -- struggling for freedom, democracy, and respect for human rights.") WASHINGTON -- For a man with a mission, Zmitser Fedaruk laughs more than one might expect.

He chuckles when asked what it's like to be 19 years old and leading 1,000 young democracy activists in Belarus, a country many people call the last dictatorship in Europe.

He laughs softly as he talks about the role Christian faith has played in his work opposing the regime of Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the country's Soviet-style leader.

And he can't supress a nervous giggle as he relates how his predecessor as head of Malady (Youth) Front, the country's largest youth protest group, was arrested after returning from a trip to the United States. Fedaruk, who has traveled to Washington with a delegation of Belarusian activists, flies back to Minsk in three days.

On the question of freedom, however, the laughter stops. Fedaruk, a lanky youth with deep-set blue eyes, turns serious. He spent five days in prison early this year, after a group of Malady Front activists were detained simply for holding a meeting in a private flat, and he says the experience taught him a critical lesson.

"This year, when I was in the KGB prison, I finally felt how people take freedom for granted," he says. "It's only when people lose their freedom that they begin to value it. God gives all human beings freedom, and people need to value it."

Early Choices

Fedaruk has led Malady Front since September, stepping in for 26-year-old Zmitser Dashkevish, who was sentenced to an 18-month prison term for working for an unregistered organization. Malady Front, which was founded more than a decade ago, has never been granted legal status; the omission has often served as a pretext for crackdowns against the group.

Wearing an oversize gray suit jacket and a light purple dress shirt, the diminutive Fedaruk doesn't look the part of a political activist at first glance. A former professional-level soccer player, he'll still kick a ball around when he has time. But a closer look reveals clues about Fedaruk and his mission.

His necktie is emblazoned with the phrase "I love Jesus." On his right wrist, he wears a band with "Jesus" in block letters. And on his lapel, he bears a square red pin with an engaving of a charging knight on horseback -- a historic symbol of Belarus, now adopted by the opposition, known as "Pahonia," or "chaser."

The two influences, God and country, are both deeply significant for Fedaruk, and deeply irritating to the Lukashenka regime.

The young activist insists on speaking Belarusian, a politically charged decision in a country where the official language and dominant culture is Russian. Against the recommendation of his peers, Fedaruk studied the Belarusian language in secondary school, and kept up his skills at home by keeping a diary. The more his friends objected to the risks of such a move, he says, the more determined he became to keep it up.

Fedaruk is also a devout member of the Pentacostalist faith, a form of evangelical Christianity viewed with profound suspicion by the Belarusian authorities. Fedaruk's pastor, Antoni Bakun, was imprisoned earlier this year after the activities of his Minsk-based church were condemned and its premises confiscated.

Undaunted, Fedaruk now prays at a church that has lent some space to the abandoned congregation. "I believe in God," says Fedaruk. "And I fear only God."

'Freedom To Perform Good Deeds'

Religion, the 19-year-old says, has played an important role in helping him find his voice as an activist, and a leader. Filling in for Dashkevich, Fedaruk has found himself running meetings, organizing street actions, and coordinating protests with other opposition leaders. But he says he has also sought to serve as a spiritual and moral guide to the group, whose members regularly risk intimidation, beatings, and arrest.

"When I joined Malady Front I couldn't understand how people could stand up and be strong, and not be afraid," says Fedaruk. "Later, when I received this faith I understood that only God and faith can help you be brave. In fact, the young people who come to Malady Front are also like this -- they are the new generation who can get to this new land."

Police detaining Malady Front activists in September (RFE/RL)

Fedaruk's trip to Washington has put him on equal international footing with the "old" generation of the Belarusian opposition. The seven-member delegation, which met with Condoleezza Rice, George W. Bush, and members of the Helsinki Commission to spread information about their efforts at home, includes 2006 presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich, Anatol Lyabedzka of the United Civic Party, and Syarhey Kalyakin of the Belarusian Communist Party.

It's heady company for a 19-year-old. But a powerful mix of patriotism and youthful determination make Fedaruk a convincing member of the group. His easy laugh quickly gives way to passionate eloquence, and his bearing is calm and confident.

Does he ever stop and ask himself what he's doing leading 1,000 activists and risking prison at age 19? Fedaruk laughs, slightly embarassed. As a child, he says, one of his favorite books was "Ivanhoe," Sir Walter Scott's swashbuckling historic novel about the battle between Normans and Saxons in 12th-century England. Early on, it cemented Fedaruk's notion of the ideal life: one dedicated to defending your country.

"Many people believe freedom means to be free to go shopping, to drink alcohol, to walk freely on the streets," Fedaruk says. "But to me and my colleagues, freedom means being free to perform good deeds."

He stands to go, and points to his lapel pin -- the chaser. When his Belarusian ancestors conquered an enemy, he says, they would chase him to the very borders of Belarus.

Fedaruk is cautious of openly criticizing Lukashenka's regime, often opting for Biblical analogies over literal critique. But his smile is wry as he shows off his pin. The enemy is the current regime, he seems to be saying, and his goal is to chase it away.

(For more on Belarus, see Independent Belarusian Newspaper Threatened With Closure)

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