Belarus: 19-Year-Old Activist Fights For God And Country
By Heather Maher
(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."
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)
Independent Belarusian Newspaper Threatened With Closure
A Minsk court this week began hearing a defamation case that could result in the closure of one of the last independent newspapers in Belarus.
Christina Gallach, spokeswoman for EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana, told the Belapan news agency on December 5, the day the hearings began, that the bloc is concerned about the case.
"We have been following this issue very closely, and with increasing concern," Gallach said. "The importance of the freedom of the media is one of the key issues the European Union has repeatedly raised with the Belarusian authorities."
In the case, parliamentarian Mikalay Charhinets, a close associate of and possible successor to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, is seeking an unprecedented 500 million Belarusian rubles ($230,000) from the newspaper "Novy chas" and another 100 million from the author of a purportedly libelous article published in September.
Charhinets, a former senior Interior Ministry official who claims to be the author of dozens of literary works, is also the head of Belarus's official writers union. "Novy chas" publishes a monthly supplement organized by an independent writers union that was closed down by the authorities last year.
"I think that this blow has been dealt not to me but to the 'Novy chas' newspaper, which currently publishes writers who do not belong to the so-called correct union of writers," journalist Alyaksandr Tamkovich, the author of the disputed article, told RFE/RL's Belarus Service.
In a November 26 press release, "Novy chas" Editor in Chief Alyaksey Karol said the amount of damages sought is more than 20 times the amount sought against the independent "Narodnaya volya," which has been the target of similar complaints three times in recent years.
The article at the heart of the case questions Charhinets's authorship of the plays and novels published under his name and tries to connect him with the so-called Vitebsk case from the 1980s. In that case, several innocent people were convicted, under heavy pressure from Soviet authorities, in connection with a spate of killings. The article also accuses him of exaggerating his service in Afghanistan during the Soviet war there.
Charhinets also made headlines in June 2003 at the funeral of renowned patriotic writer Vasil Bykau. Charhinets attempted to remove the nationalist red-white-red flag, a historic Belarusian symbol that has been banned by Lukashenka, from the coffin during the service.
"Novy chas" began publication in March after its predecessor, "Zgoda," was closed down by the authorities last year in connection with the country's presidential election. The amount of damages being sought in the Chahinets case equals several times the paper's annual budget.
(For more on Belarus, see 19-Year-Old Activist Fights For God And Country)
Ukraine Set To Pay Much More For Gas In 2008
Yulia Tymoshenko has attacked the deal as "brainless"
December 5, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Ukraine's outgoing government has agreed to a significant price hike in a deal for supplies of natural gas from Russia, sparking an immediate denunciation from the incoming prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko.
But she and other opponents of the agreement appear less concerned about the nearly 40 percent price rise than the specifics of the deal, which include the services of a murky intermediary, RosUkrEnergo.
Prime Minister-designate Tymoshenko called the government's continued use of the middleman company's services part of a "corrupt" and "brainless policy."
If she is confirmed at the head of a new government, however, Tymoshenko will have little alternative but to comply with the deal, which appears to have the consent of Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko.
Russian monopoly gas provider Gazprom announced after the conclusion on December 4 of negotiations with Ukrainian Fuel and Energy Minister Yuriy Boyko that it will charge Kyiv $180 per 1,000 cubic meters for gas supplies next year, up from the current $130.
The EU was watching the talks closely for signs of a repeat of a price dispute in 2006 that led Gazprom to briefly shut off supplies to Ukraine -- through which 80 percent of Europe's Russian gas supplies travel.
In October, a similar crisis was averted when Ukraine and Russia came to an agreement on unpaid gas debts that had led Moscow to threaten to cut supplies again. Ukraine eventually paid RosUkrEnergo nearly $920 million to end that dispute.History Of Shady Middlemen
The potential involvement of the Swiss-based intermediary in supplying Russian gas in 2008 had also placed the recent negotiations under intense scrutiny in Ukraine.
Tymoshenko had urged Boyko during negotiations to cut RosUkrEnergo out of any new deal, and in the run-up to September 30 parliamentary elections, Yushchenko was highly critical of the company's role as intermediary.
RFE/RL analyst Roman Kupchinsky says this is because RosUkrEnergo's services "will cost Ukraine about $1 billion a year."
When negotiations began in the fall, Gazprom Chairman Dmitry Medvedev said that "we will probably revise the scheme of our relations [with Ukraine] and give up any intermediary structures that are not clearly understandable -- at least those structures whose existence is not quite clear to us and who were proposed by our partners in a certain historical context."
During negotiations for the 2006 supplies, Yushchenko supported the entry of RosUkrEnergo into the arrangement, over the objections of Tymoshenko.
Kupchinsky explains that the company receives a commission -- in the form of gas -- on transit fees for the 50 billion to 55 billion cubic meters of Turkmen natural gas that Ukraine buys from Gazprom.
"They then resell [that gas] in Europe and make even more money," Kupchinsky says. The market rate for gas imported to Europe is about $230 per 1,000 cubic meters. Moscow's Least-Favorite Prime Minister Returns
It took nearly two months of maneuvering after Ukraine's recent parliamentary elections for a coalition to emerge of the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc and President Yushchenko's Our Ukraine party.
The same day Gazprom announced the gas deal, Tymoshenko's bid for confirmation as prime minister got a boost with the election of former Foreign Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk to the post of parliament speaker. Our Ukraine member Yatsenyuk received 227 votes in the 450-member parliament.
"What is very strange is that they tried, and they succeeded, in signing the deal before the new government comes in -- which will lock either Tymoshenko or whoever becomes prime minister into this deal," Kupchinsky says. He says it's a "bad deal" to which RosUkrEnergo "does not add any value."
During Tymoshenko's seven-month stint as prime minister following the 2004 Orange Revolution, Kyiv's relations with Moscow fell to an all-time low. Moscow previously sought her extradition relating to corruption charges that stemmed from her role as president in 1995-97 of Unified Energy Systems of Ukraine -- which served at the time as middleman for Russian gas imports.
The new agreement was not unexpected, as it follows a jump in the price that Gazprom pays Turkmenistan for imported gas. Last month, it was announced that the Russian company would pay $130 per 1,000 cubic meters of Turkmen gas for the first six months of 2008, and $150 for the second half of the year.
Ukraine is the end user of much of the Turkmen gas imported by Gazprom.