Category Archives: Belarus

BELGIUM: ARTDOCFEST FILM FESTIVAL: AN OPPORTUNITY FOR VOICING THE TRUTH ·

(Nicolai Khalezin’s article appeared in The Brussels Times, 6/2; Photo: Nicolai Khalezin performing in Generation Jeans, an autobiographical duologue about rock music and resistance.)

This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.

Wear your mask over your nose and mouth and not over your eyes.” That was the motto of Artdocfest, Russia’s largest documentary film festival in Russia, which took place in April. Russian authorities, however, have firmly shown they want the mask over the public’s eyes. 

 Over the course of the film festival, showings were disrupted by the police, the consumer protection agency, homophobic Chechen nationalists and Kremlin loyalists. In St. Petersburg, authorities shut down viewings by sealing entryways into two screening halls. After the police came and didn’t allow any films to be presented, the festival moved on to Zoom and those who bought tickets were able to see films online.

These actions disrupted or stopped stories from being told: about the suffering of locals who opposed Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the government orchestrated torture of gay men in Chechnya, and the repressive measures taken against protestors in Belarus (where 354 political prisoners remain in custody) made possible by Russian support. It is erasure in its purest form.

That erasure is something I know personally. In 2010, I founded the Belarus Free Theatre in response to Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko’s crackdown on freedom of speech. To ensure security, people who wanted to see our shows had to call a phone number to learn its physical location. Even that precaution was not enough; authorities still arrested or harassed every single member of our company. After the authorities brought five baseless criminal charges against my wife and I, we were forced to leave the country and become refugees.

This experience of living with organized harassment is why spaces like Artdocfest are so important to me. That is why we entered two films into the festival, Alone and Okrestin Sisters. They provide an opportunity for voicing the truth when the authorities are silencing it.

For a long time, Russia remained a place where Belarussian creatives were able to showcase their talents. However, the Russian regime is increasingly copying the Belarusian regime and is tightening its control over the world of art and culture. This includes the recently adopted amendments to the education law that requires Russian state permission for educational activities to prevent “foreign interference.” Authentic real- life documentaries, aimed at adults, fall under this category.

Everywhere, authoritarian regimes are locking step in an autocratic push-back against democracy. These regimes want to tell grand stories about states and leaders, which only work if the public cannot see the effects of the government’s policies

Russia, like Belarus, has been increasingly defined by what isn’t televised. Belarus continues to plough ahead in this arena banning the European news channel Euronews and making it easier to block other media.

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NATO, EU POWERS TALK TOUGH OVER BELARUS BUT CAN’T PROTECT EXILED DISSIDENTS ·

(David Brennan’s article appeared in Newsweek, 5/28; Photo: Newsweek.)

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko shocked the world when a fake bomb threat forced a passenger plane to divert to Minsk where security forces arrested prominent dissident journalist Roman Protasevich and his partner.

The operation was shocking in its brazenness, prompting condemnation from the international community and threats of additional sanctions against Lukashenko and his authoritarian regime, clinging to power in spite of mass protests that erupted after last year’s disputed presidential election.

Lukashenko has retained power through brutality and fear. Security forces, keen to suppress the simmering revolution, arrested and tortured thousands. Backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Lukashenko has resisted calls for fresh elections and dialogue and is now intensifying an assault on the country’s surviving free media.

But for all the harsh words, the European UnionNATO, and the U.S. have so far hesitated to apply the most stringent sanctions demanded by Belarusian dissidents and human rights groups. Lukashenko’s vicious reprisals saved his regime last year, and appear to have at least bought him some time in power.

Pro-democracy campaigners and dissidents told Newsweek that Lukashenko’s latest authoritarian stunt could act as a model for other dictators worldwide unless democracies take meaningful action.

“You are not safe anywhere,” said Natalia Kaliada, a Belarusian dissident and pro-democracy campaigner who has been living in exile in the U.K. for a decade.

Kaliada and her husband, Nikolai Khalezin, fled Belarus on New Year’s Eve in 2010, soon after Kaliada was accidentally released from prison by security services thanks to a clerical error.

The couple—who now run the Belarus Free Theater in London—still regularly receive death threats, including those published in the main Belarusian government newspaper, Sovietska Belarus.

Death threats have increased since the recent protests, Kaliada told Newsweek. Asked whether she felt more in danger after Protasevich’s arrest, she replied: “I never felt safe.”

Kaliada recalled how in the past, Belarusian protesters and dissidents would be arrested, abused, and killed “behind closed doors.” But Lukashenko has seemingly unleashed his security apparatus in the wake of the recent unrest.

“They are open to killing in front of the whole world,” Kaliada said. “They are open to hijacking an airplane in front of the whole world. They’ve been badly scared.”

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NATALIA KALIADA, BELARUS FREE THEATRE: ‘THAT’S A HOSTAGE VIDEO’–BELARUSAN EXILE CLAIMS JOURNALIST ‘TORTURED’ AFTER PLANE ARREST ·

(Alastair Lockhart’s article appeared on Express, 5/25.)

The video released of arrested Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich is a “hostage video,” a Belarusian exile has said.

View: https://www.express.co.uk/news/world/1440783/Belarus-news-journalist-tortured-hostage-video-vn?jwsource=cl

The video released of arrested Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich is a “hostage video,” a Belarusian exile has said. Natalia Kaliada, co-founder of the Belarus Free Theatre, told BBC Breakfast that the video also showed clear signs of torture. Mr Protasevich was due to meet Ms Kaliada when his Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania was “hijacked” and diverted to Minsk by Belarusian authorities where he was arrested on his arrival.

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BELARUS THREATENS TO KILL TWO UK DISSIDENTS ·

  • “We will definitely find you … and we will hang you, side-by-side,” the main Belarusian government newspaper, Sovietska Belarus, wrote on 27 December 2020.reetheatre.com)

“Death threats were always part of our life … but this is the first time the main columnist of Sovietska Belarus is using such language,” she told EUobserver from London last week, where they have lived for almost 10 years after receiving asylum and UK nationality.

  •  British citizenship and international awards are not enough to make Belarusian dissident Natalia Kaliada and her husband Nicolai Khalezin feel safe after a high-profile death threat.

Kaliada, a former diplomat, and Khalezin, a journalist, are co-founders of Belarus Free Theatre, which puts on anti-Belarus regime plays around the world.

They also lobby for Western sanctions against regime financiers.

And these include Russian oligarchs, such as Mikhail Gutseriev, whose family also lives in London, and whose intimate links to Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko were recently exposed by British newspaper The Telegraph.

“Clearly, we’ve become a target … it’s getting more tense,” Kaliada said.

“We have British citizenship, so in that [Sovietska Belarus] column, they’re threatening citizens of other countries and the UK needs to take responsibility,” she told EUobserver.

“People somehow continue to be killed and poisoned here [in Britain],” she added, referring to previous Russian murders and attempted murders of Russian émigrés in the UK.

“The [British] government needs to understand the threat is also coming from smaller dictators than [Russian president Vladimir] Putin to citizens of their country,” Kaliada said.

A British foreign office spokeswoman told EUobserver: “The UK condemns the intimidation and persecution of Belarusian political opposition figures by Lukashenko’s regime,” in reaction to the Sovietska Belarus threat.

“We continue to call for a genuine and constructive political dialogue between the authorities, the opposition, and civil society to resolve this crisis peacefully,” she added, referring to pro-democracy protests in Belarus.

“I only hope the economy of Belarus is pretty weak, but if he [Lukashenko] previously found €1.2m for this type of thing, knowing that he has billions in his personal fortune, you never know,” Kaliada said.

She spoke after EUobserver revealed that Lukashenko, back in 2012, put a small fortune in a secret account to finance assassinations abroad.

“Knowing what Lukashenko already did to our friends … we feel like anything could happen,” Kaliada said, referring to the vanishing of four opposition activists in Belarus in 1999 and to what she called the “staged suicide” of eminent Belarusian journalist Oleg Bebenin in 2010.

Kaliada already came close to losing her life.

She was about to fly from Minsk to London to stage a play in the run-up to Belarus elections in December 2010 when it happened.

“It was 5AM when we got to the airport and some people dressed in black came over to me, just before boarding. They took away my passport and my boarding pass and said: ‘Do you understand you’re the leader of a terrorist group? Do you understand you’ll disappear now?’,” she recalled.

“They took me down several floors and into a dark corridor and I thought to myself: ‘They’re going to shoot me in the back of the head now, like they do with the death penalty [in Belarus]’. But I tried my luck and said: ‘Guys! It’s a bad idea to kidnap me on the way to London right before elections. If I vanish now, you’ll get into trouble and your boss, Lukashenko, will be in such deep shit, you’d better let me go’,” she said.

The men-in-black made some phone-calls, then let her board her flight, which had been held up for an hour over the incident.

But Kaliada has vowed to continue her opposition despite the risks. “It’s in my DNA,” she said.

She also paid tribute to pro-democracy protesters in Belarus, who have kept up demonstrations for over 150 days after rigged elections in August, despite police sadism and the onset of winter.

“I have no words to express how brave they are,” Kaliada told EUobserver.

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BELARUS FREE THEATRE’S REBEL TROUPES STAND UP TO THE LUKASHENKO REGIME ·

(Shaun Walker’s article appeared in the Guardian, 8/31; Svetlana Sugako in rehearsals for the Belarus Free theatre. Photograph: Misha Friedman.)

For 15 years, the acclaimed company has been a voice of dissent. Will it finally perform in a free country?

In the 15 years of its existence, the Belarus Free theatre has never had an ordinary season, being forced to perform in makeshift locations as it eked out a clandestine existence under Alexander Lukashenko’s authoritarian rule.

But the season due to start in a couple of weeks is the most uncertain yet, as massive protests against Lukashenko’s continued rule rock the country. Will the theatre, which has won increasing acclaim on tours abroad but puts on plays in a garage when in Minsk, finally be performing in a new, democratic Belarus? Or will Lukashenko launch a fresh crackdown that makes things even more unbearable for the arts?

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Already, several members of the theatre have found themselves at the heart of the repression that followed the aftermath of Lukashenko’s declaration of victory in a flawed election three weeks ago.

Svetlana Sugako, one of the theatre’s administrators, was meant to spend much of August preparing for a planned tour to New York. That, along with a run at London’s Barbican earlier in the year, was postponed due to Covid, and instead, she spent five days in August in prison, caught up in a crackdown in which about 7,000 people were detained.

Sugako, her girlfriend and fellow BFT administrator Nadia Brodskaya and actor Daria Andreyanova were all arrested on 9 August, the night of the elections, while standing outside a polling station shortly after voting closed.

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BELARUS FREE THEATRE: VIDEO SHOWS ARMED BELARUS PRESIDENT AS PROTESTS ROIL CAPITAL ·

(Yuras Karmanau’s article appeared in the Mercury News, 8/23; photo: Thousands of people gather for a protest at the Independence square in Minsk, Belarus, Sunday, Aug. 23, 2020. Demonstrators are taking to the streets of the Belarusian capital and other cities, keeping up their push for the resignation of the nation’s authoritarian leader. President Alexander Lukashenko has extended his 26-year rule in a vote the opposition saw as rigged–AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky.)

 

 

Video shows armed Belarus president as protests roil capital

Thousands of people gather for a protest at the Independence square in Minsk, Belarus, Sunday, Aug. 23, 2020. Demonstrators are taking to the streets of the Belarusian capital and other cities, keeping up their push for the resignation of the nation’s authoritarian leader. President Alexander Lukashenko has extended his 26-year rule in a vote the opposition saw as rigged. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky)

MINSK, Belarus — More than 100,000 protesters demanding the resignation of Belarus’ authoritarian president rallied Sunday in a vast square in the capital and later marched through the city, keeping up the massive outburst of dissent that has shaken the country since a disputed presidential election two weeks ago.

Sunday’s demonstration overflowed Minsk’s sprawling 7-hectare (17-acre) Independence Square. There were no official figures on crowd size, but it appeared to be 150,000 people or more. The demonstrators then marched to another square about 2.5 kilometers (1 1/2 miles) away.

Protesters say the official Aug. 9 presidential election results that gave President Alexander Lukashenko a sixth term in a landslide are fraudulent. The size and duration of the protests have been unprecedented for Belarus, a former Soviet republic of 9.5 million people that Lukashenko has ruled with an iron fist for 26 years.

Video from Belarus on Sunday showed the beleaguered president carrying a rifle and wearing a bulletproof vest as he got off a helicopter that brought him to his working residence amid the 15th straight day of protests.

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BELARUS FREE THEATRE: BRITAIN IS IN DANGER OF AUTHORITARIANISM ·

(Natasha Tripney’s interview appeared in the Guardian, 4/21.)

Natalia Kaliada and Nikolai Khalezin explain how political exile prepared them for lockdown and why their latest project is about fairytales

The coronavirus outbreak has forced theatre-makers to change the ways in which they collaborate, with many starting to make work remotely. But Belarus Free Theatre’s founders, Natalia Kaliada and Nikolai Khalezin, have had to work this way for years. Exiled from their home country for a decade, and living in London, their circumstances have obliged them to find creative new ways of continuing to make work. “We were one of the first theatre companies to use Skype,” explained Khalezin when we spoke earlier this year, “but this was a necessary measure. In 2011, when we ended up here and our cast was back in Belarus, we still needed to make shows, so we started trying out different technologies.”

Their latest production is an adaptation of Alhierd Bacharevic’s 2017 novel, Dogs of Europe, a 900-page dystopian political thriller with a section written in a language of Bacharevic’s own design. It is considered one of the most important literary works ever published in Belarus. Kaliada and Khalezin, who are married, have been working with a composer in Toronto, one in Berlin and a video director in Kiev. From their kitchen in London, we watch a scene play out in a warehouse in Minsk, before Khalezin embarks on a discussion with one of the cast members about the feasibility of him running around the stage naked for the duration of the interval.

In the last few weeks, BFT has doubled its activities. When the UK went into lockdown they instructed their company in Minsk to self-isolate, though there had been no official guidance in Belarus about doing so. They then set about creating the Love Over Virus project, an attempt during a time of fear to “let people dream again”. Actors will be reading fairytales they were told as children, or that they tell their children, with contributions from trustees and supporters, including Juliet Stevenson and Samuel West, as well as Kaliada’s own actor father, Andrej.

They are also resurrecting their Kitchen Revolution project, an online space for provocation, conversation and communal dining. A recipe is shared with participants, before they debate, among other things, how it is possible to survive our current situation, survival being an area in which the theatre-makers have considerable experience.

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BELARUS FREE THEATER: A DISSIDENT COMPANY CELEBRATES 15 YEARS UNDERGROUND ·

(from The New York Times, 4/16; photo: The New York Times;  via Pam Green.)

The Belarus Free Theater, founded in 2005 by dissident artists in the former Soviet republic, has operated clandestinely in the capital, Minsk, and in London, where the artistic directors, Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin, have lived in exile since 2011. For performances in Belarus, where most of the 12-person ensemble is still based, the troupe rehearses its provocative productions over Skype and puts them on in changing “underground” locations, in defiance of a government ban.

Their plays, which often lay bare political corruption and social decay in the authoritarian country, have been raided by the K.G.B., Belarus’s secret police. Audience members and actors alike have been jailed.

The Belarus Free Theater has nevertheless been able to present its productions abroad, and it has performed in over 40 countries. The troupe was getting ready to celebrate its 15th anniversary with an ambitious lineup of productions and workshops and the premiere of a documentary film. But then the coronavirus struck.

With its performing activities on hold for the foreseeable future, the company has opened its digital archive. (A spokeswoman said it hoped to reschedule as many of the anniversary events as possible for later in the year). This month, it began streaming 24 productions, roughly half its repertory, on YouTube, with English subtitles.

Although recordings often fail to capture the excitement of live performance, these documents of the troupe’s intimate performances convey what makes the Belarus Free Theater such a unique and artistically thrilling company. New videos will be made available each week until late June.

In the early works that have streamed so far, all of which predated the government’s ban in 2010, you have to marvel at the troupe’s ability to achieve startling theatrical effects with extremely modest means. Performing in underground clubs and black box theaters, the actors often have little more than a chalkboard, bed or chair to work with. This is theatrical minimalism born of privation and necessity. Eschewing flashy stage effects, the four productions I saw achieved a remarkable theatrical purity.

While the political situation in Belarus looms large in the productions, the country’s specific struggles take on a degree of universality that all revolutionary art strives for. Politically urgent though they are, these productions are not agitprop.

A stark staging of the British playwright Sarah Kane’s feverish “4.48 Psychosis,” the Belarus Free Theater’s first production, from May 2005, kicked off the online programming. It premiered at the Graffiti Club in Minsk, a bar in an industrial neighborhood that hosted the group’s first three productions before the authorities pressured it to stop.

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