Why the Belarus Free Theatre’s shows will go on, despite government arrests

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 Riot police detain a demonstrator in Minsk, Belarus on March 25, 2017, during an unauthorized protest known as

Riot police detain a demonstrator in Minsk, Belarus on March 25, 2017, during an unauthorized protest known as “Freedom Day,” which voiced opposition to the unemployment tax. Photo: Viktor Drachev/TASS

A rare and large-scale protest took place in Belarus on Saturday, when hundreds took to the streets to protest a tax — the so-called “tax on parasites” — against the under-employed. By Monday, as many as 1,000 people had been arrested in connection with the unsanctioned demontrations, one Belarusian human rights group told the Associated Press. The detained reportedly included five members of the Belarus Free Theatre, an underground theater group that has held secret performances — often on taboo topics — since 2005.

Authorities have offered no comment on the protests or the arrests, according to the Associated Press. President Alexander Lukashenko, for his part, has said the tax was meant to “stimulate” people to go to work, and punish those who don’t.

On Facebook, the theater group, which has repeatedly been the target of arrests, reported that this was the “worst crackdown over the last seven years.” But the country is also seeing the largest protest in recent memory against authoritarian president Lukashenko, who has held control of the former Soviet country since 1994. Earlier this month, Lukashenko said the government would not collect the tax for 2016, but it will remain on the books and be collected next year. That wasn’t enough for protesters. “People don’t care, they want an end to this dictator. They say ‘basta’ – enough,” the group wrote.

When reached by phone Monday, Belarus Street Theatre artistic director Natalia Kaliada told the NewsHour about why the theater group’s shows would go on, and why U.S. foreign policy toward Belarus is key in preventing future government crackdowns. This conversation has been edited lightly for length and clarity.

FLOCK: How many members of the Belarus Free Theatre are detained, and what is their status?

KOLIADA: Five members were arrested. One is with a concussion in a hospital, with a temple bone fractured. Our leading actor is in jail. But we went ahead with all of our shows over the weekend. Even though we had to replace different shows with other ones, even though artists are in jail and the hospital, the shows went ahead.

We did this in support of political prisoners, and all who are detained, missing and injured. It is necessary for us to show we are stronger than a dictator, and to continue our campaign with [Chinese artist and activist] Ai Weiwei, called “I’m With the Banned,” in support of banned artists.

FLOCK: Journalists and booksellers were also reportedly arrested ahead of Saturday’s protest. Do you believe the government is targeting people in the arts and journalism community?

KOLIADA: There were hundreds of people arrested ahead of the protests Saturday. Since last February, protests have been going on all over Belarus. The internet was blocked. But last week was particularly busy. There were arrests every single day. And Nikolai Statkevich, a major opposition figure, went missing. He was eventually found in jail and released this morning.

In this particular moment, I think authorities got very scared, and so they targeted anyone who was active. They arrested 32 journalists. Human rights defenders also got arrested on Saturday, so that people wouldn’t have anyone to be represented by.

FLOCK: Members of the Belarus Street Theatre have been arrested many times before this. How is this time different?

KOLIADA: Everyone in our company has been arrested or beaten up, there is no exclusion there. It has been happening since our existence. This particular week on March 30th, the Belarus Free Theatre becomes 12 years old. Unfortunately, we have to cancel our show for that. We had an opening of a new show on taboo subjects, but the show will not go ahead, because Sergey Kvachonok, our leading actor, is arrested. He is one of our leading actors and is planning to come to perform in the U.S. We hope in the future American audiences will see him on stage, and not just read news about his jailing. But this canceled show will also be replaced by another one, because we are against the ban against artists, and because we are artists against dictators.

FLOCK: What do you think is the most important thing people outside of Belarus need to understand about these protests and arrests?

KOLIADA: That this is a sophisticated authoritarian regime who cracked down on its own people yesterday. That this figure, [Lukashenko] in alliance with [Russian president Vladimir] Putin, is dangerous for not only the people of our country but for the whole world.

Last week I was in Brussels talking to American and European politicians. Our major meeting was with U.S. Senator John McCain, who has given a lot of support, and who issued an immediate statement on the release of people and on Lukashenko’s need to act on it.

When I and my colleagues had a meeting with [Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton in 2011, she and her staff worked with us for two months, and sanctions went into place against key figures in Belarus. But now the EU [the European Union] and the United States have unfortunately lifted sanctions. And it’s necessary to reintroduce those sanctions again, against those people who are responsible for the crackdown. They have to understand that the world is watching, and that their activities will be punished.

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