Political Theater Is No Laughing Matter In Belarus

As the eastern European nation of Belarus heads towards a presidential election Sunday, one of the few signs of opposition is on stage. The Belarus Free Theatre has been using its plays to highlight the current president's human rights record and demand democratic freedoms. The acting troupe is unregistered and illegal, and their performances have come at a personal cost.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

One of the world's longest-serving leaders is up for reelection today. Alexander Lukashenko has been president of the former Soviet republic of Belarus for 16 years, and he's widely expected to win again. Critics say he'll make sure of it.

Lukashenko's government has resisted giving full access to election observers, and opponents say his government will rig the vote if it has to. Belarus remains a throwback to the Soviet Union, with a centralized government, and an agency - the KGB - that watches citizens closely.

NPR's David Greene is in the capital, Minsk. And, David, as I just said, all the predictions are that Lukashenko will remain president. Have you seen anything today that suggests otherwise?

DAVID GREENE: I think the simple answer is no, Liane. As criticized as he is as a hard-line dictator around the world, a lot of citizens here like him, especially older Belarusians. They like his strong authority. I think they seen scenes of protests and strikes around much of Europe and they enjoy the stability here. But, you know, the truth is a lot of Western countries aren't satisfied and don't really want a relationship with him unless he changes.

HANSEN: Have the other candidates been able to get their message out at all?

GREENE: They've had a hard time. I mean, you know, theres state-run television here. They were given some time but in the weeks leading up to election day, they really haven't been able to get on the air. They've complained of harassment from the government.

You know, there was a small opposition rally here in the capital the other night on the main square and people were out calling for fair voting and an end to Lukashenko's rule. But a lot of times, you know, the opposition voice is very underground. And I remember you actually had a piece on your program back in 2006 about that very thing, about how there's really an underground movement here where opponents get their message out.

HANSEN: Right. The artists and the musicians and the actors.

GREENE: That's exactly where you find them, and that's still the case today, four years later. I actually went to a performance on Friday night here in Minsk, run by the Belarus Free Theater. They're not registered with the government, and you have to register if you're a theater. So, they're illegal. Their performances are in a secret location on the outskirts of town in a dark neighborhood. But we made it to this house and it was a tiny audience, maybe 50 people or so, and we were sitting on the floor as the performance got started.

(Soundbite of music)

GREENE: The show was about a teenage woman in Belarus who finds the man of her dreams. They kiss, they dance, they travel together. But the story turns ugly. The man becomes active in opposition politics.

(Soundbite of performance)

Unidentified Man: (foreign language spoken)

GREENE: He's kidnapped by a roughneck in a black mask, tortured and killed. At the end, the female actress identifies herself.

(Soundbite of performance)

Unidentified Woman: (foreign language spoken)

GREENE: She was playing the role of a real Belarusian woman who lost her husband in 1999. The small audience, some in tears, gave a standing ovation.

(Soundbite of applause)

GREENE: The same night as the show, I went to one of the few artsy bars in Minsk to meet Natalia Koliada. She's one of the founders of the Belarus Free Theater, and she wrote the play we just heard. It's called "Discover Love."

Ms. NATALIA KOLIADA (Founder, Belarus Free Theater, Playwright): It was a truly beautiful love story, but suddenly one day all of it was destroyed.

GREENE: Koliada's theater group has grown, traveling the world to perform. They'll actually be in the U.S. next month. At home, they're still harassed. Koliada says she was leaving for Milan a few weeks ago, and a man dressed in black demanded her passport and detained her at the airport here.

Ms. KOLIADA: They do such small, weird things that like, make pressure on your mind all the time and it just, like, you're disturbed all the time.

GREENE: And why is it worth it? Why do you all keep doing this?

Ms. KOLIADA: I don't know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KOLIADA: I think this is the most complicated question that we get. I mean, we do the theater because we love to do the theater. And we just want to do what we like to do. And we have absolutely amazing actors who are with us for the last six years. We don't have any new actors, because, like, it's very complicated to make such a step that you will lose your job, you will lose your education, you could lose your place where you live, where you could be arrested, you could beaten up, different ways of pressure.

HANSEN: And that's Natalia Koliada, one of the founders of the Belarus Free Theater. She was talking to NPR's David Greene.

And, David, listening to that piece of underground political theater, what do you think the chances are that Belarus, given there's an election today but not much is going to change, that the country itself might change some time soon?

GREENE: I think a lot will depend on Lukashenko, you know, if he wins this election. He seems to act in his best interest. This year, you know, his relationship with Russia seemed a bit strained. He seemed to want to open up to Europe a bit more and try to get some foreign investment. But for that to happen, I think he has to show Western governments that he puts on a fair election. And so we'll hear what the international observers say after the voting is over today and that will say a lot about where this country's going.

HANSEN: Do the people you talk to all tell you stories of intimidation? Is that what life is like for people in Belarus?

GREENE: I don't think so, Liane, everywhere. I mean, a lot of people said they live here very happily and they don't believe the stories about, you know, government crackdowns and kidnappings. But this is a very closed society. Lukashenko does rule like a dictator. I think he's determined to stay in power. He has a formula here that's pretty extraordinary.

I mean, four-fifths of the country work for the government and they're often on one-year contracts, and so they have a lot of incentive to support the government if they want to keep their jobs. And Lukashenko's very suspicious of outsiders. I mean, the government kicked out the U.S. ambassador back in 2008. And, you know, I've certainly been followed around as a Western journalist as I've been reporting here. This is not the Europe that tourists from the United States are used to.

HANSEN: That's NPR's David Greene in Minsk. David, thank you very much.

GREENE: Always a pleasure, Liane.

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