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December 14, 2010

Belarus Free Theatre Group Promotes Democracy

by Jennifer Glasse

His opponents call Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko the last dictator in Europe.  And among those opponents is the Belarus Free Theatre Group.  Since its inception five years ago, the group has been performing pieces that address the problems of their nation and the oppression they say is common including the abduction and disappearances of journalists, human rights activists and proponents of democracy.  Ahead of the presidential elections scheduled for December 19, the troupe held a special performance in London featuring high-profile Western supporters.

Songs from their native Belarus, as these actors prepare to take to the stage in London, in an event to support their message of human rights equality.

This is the Belarus Free Theater Company, the only independent group of its kind in that country.  And because it has been critical of the government, the troupe's members and audiences have been intimidated and harassed. But founder Natalia Koliada says their performances tell a tale of their nation.

"This is the last dictatorship in Europe, and it gives the whole idea what is happening, people are kidnapped,  they are killed, they go to jail, and if it's very briefly all articles of declaration of human rights are violated in Belarus," said Natalia Koliada.

The actors say they have a mission and refuse to be afraid. They have friends who have been hurt or killed. Koliada says that is just the way it is.  

"Everything could happen when you live under dictatorship, but there is no way just to keep silence, if there is a tiny chance to change it, we will do it," she said.

Their play, "Numbers," focuses on the harsh statistics that quantify rights abuses such as human trafficking.   Here in London they have the support of some heavy hitters in the arts world, like actor Ian McKellan who introduced them.

"All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players, they have their exits, and now, resoundingly they have their entrances," said Ian McKellan.

The theater group may be better known outside Belarus than at home. They have performed in Europe and the United States. In Belarus it's not like this.

Because of the underground nature of the theater group in Belarus, they don't often get to perform in a theater this large, they do have a small performance space, but sometimes they put on plays in people's homes.

Here in London it's a sold-out house, including longtime supporter and playwright Tom Stoppard.

"I think it's important that they are recognized for what they are, people who put their souls and bodies on the line for the idea of the free artist," said Tom Stoppard.

The company is especially interested in the Presidential elections in Belarus on December 19. They say they will vote, but are not optimistic about the outcome. John Kampfner is with the freedom of expression group "Index on Censorship," which sponsored the London event.

"I don't think anybody's expectations are great for the elections, anybody as I have done who's worked in the former Soviet Union, knows that where the state decrees a particular result, by hook or by crook, it will happen," said John Kampfner.

Alexander Lukashenko has been president of Belarus for 16 years and is running for re-election.  His critics say the outcome is certain; the European Union has in the past accuse  him of rigging the vote.  But this campaign has differed from previous ones - His challengers have been given TV time. Mark Pursey has worked in Belarus for six years and says that's a good sign.

"You can only say that things are improving in that sense, are they the way that we conduct democratic elections in the let's say the UK or the US, well probably not," said Mark Pursey.

At a recent security summit, Lukashenko agreed to give up his nation's stockpile of enriched uranium. The US Secretary of State called it a significant, important step, and said the United States will watch the election in Belarus closely.

Meanwhile, though their play may be a resounding success here in London, the company eventually wants the freedoms and rights common in the rest of Europe to debut in Belarus.