The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion An underground theater troupe flees Belarus, but the fight for democracy goes on

Belarus Free Theatre co-founder Nicolai Khalezin, center, directs rehearsals of "Dogs of Europe." (Kolya Kuprich/Belarus Free Theatre) (Kolia Kuprich/Belarus Free Theater)

Dictatorships and art rarely get along. Totalitarian systems make heavy demands on writers and artists to follow the party line. Creative types know this destroys their integrity, and it presents an imperative to respond by seeking freedom for their endeavors. This is the reality in Belarus under the rule of dictator Alexander Lukashenko. Just ask the 16 members of the Belarus Free Theatre, who have fled their home country after years of harassment and persecution.

The troupe announced Monday that it is going into exile in Poland, no longer able to withstand the pressure. Banned in Belarus for years, the ensemble courageously carried on, performing for audiences through the Telegram messaging service and staging underground productions in homes, garages, courtyards and forests. As The Post’s Karla Adam reported, the Belarus KGB stormed its shows, arresting both performers and people in the audience, and company members were detained for participating in anti-Lukashenko protests. It was after one such round of arrests that the married founders, Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin, claimed asylum in London in 2011, but the company kept going in Belarus.

In August 2020, Belarus voters overwhelmingly elected Svetlana Tikhanovskaya their president, but Mr. Lukashenko, in office since 1994, refused to relinquish power. He forced her out of the country and claimed he had won. Mass protests erupted against this blatant theft of the election results, and Mr. Lukashenko responded with a bone-shattering crackdown. Hundreds of protesters have been arrested and beaten in prison, and more than a year later, detentions continue. There are 909 political prisoners in Belarus, according to the human rights group Viasna. Several hundred nongovernmental organizations have been shuttered; news websites and newspapers have been closed.

Belarus was home to a rising generation of young people — including a thriving community of software coders — who have in recent months fled to neighboring Poland and Lithuania. The current regime is constantly arresting and interrogating journalists, artists, performers and others for such things as social media postings. An activist and mother of five children, Volha Zalatar, was recently sentenced to four years in prison for operating an online chatroom that challenged the results of the 2020 election.

Mr. Lukashenko has shown little sign of changing his ways. But his most recent gambit was a notable failure. He brought migrants from Iraq to Belarus on the false promise that they could enter the European Union by crossing at the border with Poland. He thought weaponizing the migrant issue would pressure the E.U. to lift sanctions, but it badly backfired. Poland smartly stood firm, the E.U. has imposed a new round of sanctions, along with the United States, Britain and Canada, and Belarus is now repatriating the migrants to their home countries. The lesson is not to give in to pressure tactics by Mr. Lukashenko.

Mr. Lukashenko presents a real-time challenge for those who would fight back against authoritarianism as it rises around the world. Fresh ideas are needed for how to effectively struggle for free thinking and an open society under despotic rule, as the Belarus Free Theatre admirably did for so long.

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