Pawns on the March

by Iryna Vidanava


Cartoonist’s impression of Andrei Kim in prison.

Kim’s spirits remain high as he awaits the April Fools’ Day court hearings on two charges against him. He is planning to organize a party for his buddies on one of the rooftops of Minsk after he is released.


The saga of Zmicier Zhalieznichenka has all the makings of a Hollywood thriller. A third-year honors student at HomelStateUniversity and a member of the Belarusian Popular Front, the math whiz was expelled in September 2007 for “chronic violations of discipline”– regime-speak for political activism. A week later, he was arrested as a suspect in a rape case. The charges were soon changed to cursing in public – the preferred means to detain and punish activists – and he was sentenced to eight days in prison and fined about 200 euros. After one court had denied his appeal against the university, a higher court upheld it and he was reinstated in January 2008.


Zmicier Zhalieznichenka before losing his hair to an army barber.

The case was significant because it was the first of its kind in which a political activist won in court. But a week later, Zhalieznichenka was tossed out again. That same month, he was arrested and accused of theft. The next morning he was drafted into the army.

After starting a hunger strike against the repeated violations of his rights, Zhalieznichenka was taken to a military hospital and threatened by Defense Ministry officials with a criminal charge of “avoiding army service through the deliberate imposition of a disability on oneself.” After halting the hunger strike and being sent back to his unit, Zhalieznichenka filled another appeal and continues his struggle.

University students have the right to finish their studies before undertaking mandatory military service. Despite refusing to take the military oath, Zhalieznichenka was sent to a military unit in Zhlobin. In an interview, he said, “I was called up for military service illegally and we will prove it in court as soon as we have an opportunity.”

A court recently dismissed his complaint about the illegal call-up. But even as a private, Zhalieznichenka continues to play the system like a grand master. He demands to be addressed in Belarusian rather than Russian by officers, defends his rights by filing appeal after appeal, and serves as an example of brave and clever behavior to other young activists.


Several other youth activists are being threatened with being drafted into the army this spring. One is Franak Viachorka, a prominent youth leader who was expelled from Belarusian State University in February for failing to pass two exams. A third-year journalism student, he was known for his strong academic performance. In January, he was arrested near a court building where he had come to support his friends who were on trial for taking part in peaceful protests.

Viachorka and several others were sentenced to 15 days in prison. He missed his exams because he was sitting in jail at the time. The state-appointed university officials didn’t consider this excuse to be relevant but did establish a special commission to test him. On one exam in Belarusian stylistics, Viachorka was given a bad mark, even though he is a well-known advocate of the Belarusian language and had done well during class.

Franak Viachorka.

Viachorka’s father, Vincuk Viachorka, who is an opposition leader and well-known Belarusian language scholar, believes that kicking his son out of school is just payback for Vincuk’s views on Belarusian stylistics, which are quite different of those officially taught. One thing is clear: the Viachorka family has caused lots of headaches for the current regime.

Franak Viachorka is not about to give up. He appealed to the minister of education to reinstate him at the university, but was ignored. Viachorka is now filling a legal appeal. In the meantime, he was ordered to appear at a military recruiting office in Minsk on the evening of Independence Day.

“I was simply phoned and told to be there. Maybe they sent a summons, but I didn’t receive anything. … I have other plans for this day,” Viachorka said. So did the police, apparently. Viachorka was taken by police from a café several hours before the demonstration began. He could be sent straight to the army from his detention cell.


Despite the opposition’s
generation gap, the “fathers” have launched a campaign in support of their “sons.” Liavon Barshcheuski, chairman of the Belarusian Popular Front, sent an open letter to the minister of defense, Leanid Maltsau, calling on him to stop using the army as a political tool against democratic youth. Opposition leaders have also appealed in protest to Education Minister Alyaksandr Radzkow against the persecution of student activists.

And since the repressions continue, democratic leaders have called on international partners to stop academic exchange programs with Belarusian universities that violate the rights of students. The Swedish Foreign Ministry and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency are already considering suspending ties with the journalism department of Belarusian State University over the expulsion of Franak Viachorka and crackdown on other pro-democratic students.

“People who stifle dissent and are ready to sacrifice the best and brightest Belarusians have no right to talk about belonging to the freedom-loving academic community in Europe,” Vincuk Viachorka said in a recent interview.

There is no doubt that the regime will continue to come up with innovative methods of attacking youth activism, but it seems to be in a bind. There is a growing tide of brave kids in Belarus who are willing to struggle for the ideals of freedom and democracy. The state can try to restrict, impose, threaten and repress, but it really can’t determine what young people wear, listen to, read, watch or believe. In the 21st century, no matter how hard it tries, the regime cannot fully control young peoples’ hearts and minds and, therefore, it will never be able to rest in peace.

The pawn is the weakest piece on the chess board, but also the only one that can become stronger. The government’s sallies and countermoves against youth seem to be failing. As Lukashenka was playing his diplomatic games with the U.S. Embassy, the Young Front, one of the oldest and largest youth opposition groups, announced the beginning of a “Youth to Europe” campaign. On 19 March, the second anniversary of the rigged presidential elections, Young Front activists flew a white-red-white flag together with the EU flag in one of Minsk’s parks, right in front of the KGB headquarters. What will the next move be?

Sometimes, however, life in Belarus isn’t just a game. As I’m writing this, security forces in Minsk are still hunting for some of the thousands who took part in the Independence Day demonstration. More than 100 people, most of them youth, were detained, including the youth leaders Zmitser Dashkevich, Artur Finkevich, Ivan Shyla, Krystsina Shatsikava and Katsyaryna Salawyova. Many injuries were reported. Twenty-six demonstrators were given short jail sentences and 50 more handed fines.

It was clear from the actions and comments made by officials that they weren’t about to let people peacefully celebrate Independence Day. But despite the threats and preventive arrests, young people took to the streets with national flags, flowers and smiles. There were people of all ages taking part, but the young people wee clearly the leading force. And there were very many new faces.

This time around, the column of protestors had no official “head,” since the opposition leaders were dispersed in the crowd. It was the young people who made the police chase them and who kept the flags flying. Though many were brutally beaten and arrested, they held Minsk’s main avenue for more than two hours, facing men in black who hid their eyes, but not their sticks. The first match ended in a draw, but it's only the beginning of spring. Play on.


Some of the young people arrested during the 25 March demonstration.

28 March 2008
Transitions Online