In January 2008, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in Minsk to protest a presidential decree concerning employment regulations and a restrictive tax on small businesses. Belarusian entrepreneurs said the decree would destroy small businesses in the country, and they threatened to go on strike. In response to the non-violent protest, plain-clothes police arrested journalists and peaceful demonstrators, who claimed they were assaulted by officers in the process.
“Riot policemen started to beat up people,” Andrei Kim, 22 years old at the time of the protest, recounted in an interview to news organization Charter 97.
“Mikhail Pashkevich (the “Young Democrats” leader) was the first one to be beaten, as he was sitting in the front row,” Kim said. “The [police] hit me several times, and then a riot policeman kicked me in the head. A clear trace on my cheek-bone is left.”
Kim was charged with assaulting a Belarusian police officer, despite video evidence to the contrary from Belarusian TV and the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Human rights defenders and opposition leaders said the charges were meant to deter other activists from further political participation and demonstration.
Kim was found guilty and sentenced to 1.5 years in prison; when the sentence was read, his mother Tatsyana Kim shouted to the courtroom, “I’m proud of you, son,” as Andrei’s friends’ eyes filled with tears.
While in prison, Kim remained a strong voice for a democratic Belarus, urging the government to commit to free and fair elections and writing statements that the “struggle for freedom in Belarus” will continue. He was released in August 2008.
To continue fostering youth activism in Belarus, Kim founded the youth group Rukhavik—a former NED partner—that engages apathetic youth in positive events. Rhukavik organizes “street happenings”—creative and social events that young people attend in groups—which raise awareness about political, cultural and social issues. The organization also manages travel, film and sports programs that engage youth on civic issues like solidarity with political prisoners and a campaign against mandatory membership in the state-run Belarusian Republican Youth Union.
Beyond his political and youth activism, Kim has invented democracy and history board games, manages an active and popular blog about Belarus, translates movie trailers into Belarusian and is the leader of the youth organization “Initiative.”
Kim is a committed young leader who is supporting democracy by building the skills of the country’s next generation of leaders. He has chosen a turbulent road—imprisonment, harassment and threats—but through it all, he continues to work for a more free Belarus.