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Belarus: Editor Of Banned Opposition Newspaper Refuses To Bow Down

Prague, 4 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The editor-in-chief of Belarus's independent "Svaboda" (Liberty) newspaper, which was recently shut down by the government, says he will not bow down to the authorities and intends to resume publication.

Speaking to RFE/RL in Prague today, Ihar Hermianchuk said the staff of "Svaboda," which was the most widely-read independent newspaper in the country until its closure two weeks ago, expected President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to try to silence them. But Hermianchuk said that he and his colleagues, anticipating the closure, had registered themselves under several new publication names, to enable their paper to quickly reappear under a different masthead.

"Svaboda" was closed by the authorities on November 24 after two of its articles were deemed to "incite discord in society as well as between the citizens and the government." One of the pieces in question portrayed opposition politicians in a favorable light, while the other quoted a speaker at an anti-government rally who compared current government crackdowns with the Stalinist repressions of 1937.

Hermianchuk said "Svaboda" will reappear next month under the new name "Noviny" (News). He said that if publication proves impossible in Belarus, the paper will be printed in neighboring Lithuania and then brought across the border to Belarus for distribution. This option remains legal and is how the five other non-government Belarusian newspapers are forced to operate, even though their content is largely economic and apolitical.

Hermianchuk noted that in the past year, Lukashenka has succeeded in crushing the country's opposition political structures and driving most of their leaders underground or into exile. Now, said Hermianchuk, Lukashenka has turned his attention to the media in a final drive to silence all opposition to his regime.

As a short-term solution, the strategy appears to be working. Hermianchuk said that soon after Lukashenka came to power, when there were still several opposition publications giving the public uncensored information, his approval rating began to fall sharply. But since his campaign to suppress all dissent, Lukashenka's popularity, especially among rural and older residents, has actually risen. Hermianchuk estimated that 40 percent of the population, who have no independent access to information, support Lukashenka.

But he predicted the situation will not last. Young people, he said, are fed up with the country's increasing isolation from the rest of Europe and its economic stagnation. "They are a completely new generation, who grew up without the Soviet value system," he said. They will not tolerate a return to that dark age. And their parents, who are increasingly unable to subsist on their salaries and have to till their land allotments to feed their families, are growing tired of the Lukashenka administration.

As for Hermianchuk and his colleagues, they will continue their mission to spread the truth. Hermianchuk recalled how he began publishing his first newspaper, while still in university. "I used to work as a typesetter in a state-run printing house. Little by little, day by day, I would steal a few of the lead type letters and bring them home. Eventually I had gathered all the letters in the alphabet, and that's how I started printing my own paper."

Hermianchuk smiled, but his expression quickly refocused. "In 1937, some of Stalin's policemen came to seize my grandfather's property, and he called them 'bandits' to their face. He got 10 years in a labor camp for that. Today, if you call Lukashenka's police 'bandits', you'll get 10 days in prison."

"It's not yet the same with Lukashenka, but the trend is clear," Hermianchuk said. "It's our job to try to reverse it."