Last weekend I was in Amsterdam where the European Cultural Forum produced a series of cultural events, under the banner 'Imagine Europe'. A very grand affair with an introduction from the Queen of Holland at The Stadsschouwburg, an 800 seat former Opera House. It was the Press Night of 'Trash Cuisine', a new work from the Belarus Free Theatre, (BFT) an underground theatre company whose anti-establishment productions are regularly raided by the authorities in their home city of Minsk. Many of their colleagues have been arrested and some imprisoned for their views. They now find themselves working as travelling performers and political activists. Earlier this year the two artistic directors were granted political asylum in the UK, where they now live in exile.
Trash Cuisine was a powerful and bold study of capital punishment. The message was obvious: Belarus is the only country in Europe that still carries out this barbaric act. Directors Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin had visited every continent in which capital punishment takes place and were it not for Belarus, they would not have had to visit Europe.
Imagine Europe without capital punishment. The flight from London to Amsterdam was just over an hour: the flight time to Belarus is two and a half. The US put it strongly with the Department of State repeatedly criticizing the Lukashenko regime, describing it as "a brutal, authoritarian dictatorship that blatantly ignores human rights and fundamental freedoms."
I became aware of BFT's work when Kevin Spacey told me that he was going on a protest march, I nearly fell off my chair. I'd worked with him for 7 years but this was a first. The next thing I knew, movies by Kevin and Jude Law were banned in Belarus. This was due to them protesting outside the Embassy in London. BFT asked me to become a trustee. I accepted. They probably have the most glamorous theatre board in the whole of London, with Michael Grandige, David Lan and Jude Law as trustees and Kevin Spacey as patron. Due to busy schedules I was the only trustee to make it to Holland. Hard shoes to fill but after a couple of glasses of champagne I did my best.
At the reception, I set about finding out who was funding the event and how we could get more financial backing. I met a German, who looked the part, slick blond hair, round rimmed glasses, he said his money came from America through an organization that had the intriguing nouveau/retro title: The East German Marshall Plan Fund, he'd long been a big fan of the work of BFT. It started to feel a little Graham Greene when he told me his personal opinion was that 'we' should spend more money on bribing spies within the regime who could be bought very cheaply.
At the press night of Minsk 2011 at the Young Vic Theatre, the end of the play was interrupted. A man got up, held his hands high and shouted "BFT is funded by foreign powers trying to take down the government." It turns out he was from the Embassy and had been taking photos throughout the play. They were deleted before he was allowed to leave as it could have meant the performers being persecuted on their return to Belarus. As a trustee, I know the financials of the theatre company are in dire straits and it desperately needs more funding. Any suggestion of shady government backing for counter-revolutionaries is just not true. BFT has only just launched its 'text giving' number and the artistic directors struggle to meet their own living costs.
It's a tricky diplomatic situation, you have a dictator, Alexander Lukashenko in power, a man who has deep ties with both Russia, his country's old ruler, and Europe, his new partner, but with no real reason for Europe to take a clear stand against human rights abuses and risk complications with Russia. There are no natural resources, such as oil or gas in Belarus the only real resource being its people. The mechanisms to effect change in these circumstances are limited and the way the diplomatic system works, I'm told, is that European countries send 'special ambassadors' to these tricky situations, and by special I mean those less likely to kick up a fuss: the ones who enjoy a dinner party more than they do the rigors of the job.
Later, during the press night, I was also introduced to the former Swedish Ambassador to Belarus. A legend in diplomatic circles, he learnt to speak Belarusian in under a year and stayed for seven. Eventually he was kicked out for speaking out about some of the worst state atrocities. Seven years is a long time to spend in one place in the diplomatic world. Perhaps he knew too much about the murky world of post USSR politics? What is certain, is that Sweden says all of its diplomats have been expelled from Belarus, which has also closed its embassy in Stockholm.
It was widely reported that Belarus was angered when a Swedish public relations firm dropped about 800 teddy bears with pro-democracy messages from a light aircraft, which as far as political PR stunts go, is quite a good one. But perhaps not a good enough reason to close an Embassy.
The best joke I heard about Lukashenko that night was this. He's waking up the morning after election night and his henchmen say, "Do you want the good news or the bad news, sir?" "Good!" Shouts Lukashenko "Congratulations you've been elected Prime Minister again; the bad news is, nobody voted for YOU!" The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said parliamentary elections last weekend in Belarus were "not competitive" nor were general political freedoms respected.
Great art and culture can cross borders and even ignite the spark of change in people during times of revolution; it's often a song, a poem or a book that inspires people to take action. Anyone lucky enough to see a performance by The Belarus Free Theatre will feel that it has a certain urgency and potency that a Broadway musical can never posses. It was the dissident poet, playwright and political activist Vaclav Havel, whose plays were banned in his own country, who went on to lead the Czech Republic as president. It might not be the last time this sort of thing happens in that part of the world.
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