Belarus' Arts Underground Chips Away at Regime

The musicians, theater groups and artists of Belarus have been driven underground recent years under the increasingly authoritarian regime of President Alexander Lukashenko. Among the groups that have managed to thrive is the Belarus Free Theater, which is gaining recognition abroad. Its director was a key organizer of the popular protests of last month's president election, which many in the international community say was rigged.

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The former Soviet republic of Belarus is widely referred to as Europe's last dictatorship. But behind a well-policed façade, there is a vibrant political and arts underground in the country. Its members hope eventually to help overthrow strongman President Alexander Lukashenko.

NPR's Gregory Pfeifer filed this report from Minsk.

GREGORY PFEIFER reporting:

The group Drum Ecstasy performs on percussion instruments, as its name suggests.

(Soundbite of music)

PFEIFER: Like many musicians, artists and writers in Belarus, members of Drum Ecstasy have come under attack from authorities, which may seem odd because the band's songs have no vocals and therefore no political messages.

(Soundbite of chatter)

PFEIFER: Sitting in a café near tidy Minsk's sterile Central Square, band leader Phillippe Tschmyr says his group used to perform at state functions, even for President Lukashenko.

Mr. PHILLIPPE TSCHMYR (Drum Ecstasy): (Through Translator) And then we performed at an event organized by the political opposition. Suddenly our band was forbidden to take part in events in the city. We were no longer played on the radio.

FEIFER: But Drum Ecstasy has survived. It sells CDs in Ukraine, Russia and elsewhere and it has sent a political message by publicly backing the opposition in the country's presidential election last March. That vote was widely believed to have been rigged. Lukashenko won with more than 82 percent of the ballot. After the election, protestors set up a tent city in the center of Minsk. They got some of their most important supplies, including loudspeakers, a generator and a grill for cooking from Nicolai Khalezin.

Khalezin runs the country's best-known underground group, the Belarus Free Theater. The troupe started last year and is gaining increasing attention abroad. The project's mentors include former Czech President Vaclav Havel and British playwright Tom Stoppard. Speaking in a Minsk train station, Khalezin said the rise of groups like his spells the beginning of the end for Lukashenko.

Mr. NICOLAI KHALEZIN (Belarus Free Theater): (Through Translator) Before the underground came into its own, it was impossible to speak of the opposition's victory.

FEIFER: But despite his optimism, Khalezin says he's often amazed his theater is able to function under the government's pressure.

Mr. KHALEZIN: (Through Translator) (Unintelligible) various apartments. We're not even allowed to rent a place to store the theater's equipment, and the actors and management all work for no pay.

FEIFER: Gaining admittance to plays can be tough. Actors perform in cafes, bars and apartments. Shows are packed, with spectators cramming onto windowsills and the floor. One of the theater's latest plays is called Bellywood, a title joining Belarus and Hollywood. Khalezin says it's the troupe's first political play, juxtaposing a character's difficult self-examination with sound recorded from Belarus state television.

Mr. KHALEZIN: (Through Translator) It creates a completely absurd situation where virtual television reality has absolutely nothing to do with the characters' real problems.

FEIFER: Since some of the theater's actors have day jobs in state theaters, Khalezin says the culture ministry's latest tactic has been to threaten cutting support for all theaters. The government has also shut down almost all of the country's independent media. Nasha Niva, a newspaper, is one of the few remaining outlets. But it too is now preparing to go underground after its editor was arrested exiting a bus near the election protest last March. Deputy editor Andrei Skorko(ph) says the government's ideological department has since recommended the paper no longer be distributed.

Mr. ANDREI SKORKO (Deputy Editor, Nasha Niva): (Through Translator) What's going on is a total cleaning out of the independent media, and that's true of all independent civil society.

FEIFER: But Skorko says the authorities are finding it difficult to fight the growing underground.

Mr. SKORKO: (Through Translator) The appearance of the underground is very healthy. It represents part of a society that thinks democratically and isn't easily frightened. Those who take part are simply doing what they want.

Aleksandr Milinkevich is the top opposition leader in Belarus. Speaking in the hallway of a prosecutor's office where he was warned not to participate in a recent mass demonstration, he said Belarusian are beginning to confront their own fear.

Mr. ALEKSANDR MILINKEVICH (Opposition Leader): (Through Translator) Of course it's not the majority, but an increasing number of people look at the authorities with courage, even though they're being fired and expelled from universities. Still, each person has a feeling of self-worth.

FEIFER: Milinkevich says the opposition's most important task now is informing the public. His party distributes hundreds of thousands of leaflets in apartment building entrances and elsewhere. Despite the government's warning, Milinkevich did lead last month's protest, which drew around 7,000 people. He and other opposition leaders were arrested the following day and sentenced to 15 days in jail. But theater director Nicolai Khalezin says such tactics show the government is afraid and losing control. Groups like the Free Theatre and Drum Ecstasy say Belarus will one day be free. Until then, they say, they're only more determined to keep the beat going.

(Soundbite of drums)

Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Minsk.

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