Dreaming together in Belarus

Natalia Kaliada on the women rising up against Alexander Lukashenko. 

Women have played a leading role in protests against dictator Alexander Lukashenko

On 9 August something snapped in the people of Belarus. After 26 years in power, ‘Europe’s last dictator’ Alexander Lukashenko had declared himself winner of fraudulent elections once again. It was the last straw – the economy was in trouble, the president was denying the existence of coronavirus; doctors were being arrested. The popular opposition leader Sergei Tikhanovsky had been thrown in jail, along with various other candidates. When his wife, Svetlana, ran instead, the official result gave Lukashenko 80 per cent of the vote, compared with her 10 per cent.

When the people rose up in mass peaceful protest, the brutal police response – usually targeted against activists, out of sight – played out in broad daylight. Protesters were tortured and raped; dead bodies were found in the woods. Since then, the protests have continued, with women at the helm, wearing white and rejecting violence.

I was forced to flee my country back in 2010, after setting up the Belarus Free Theatre Company with my husband Nicolai Khalezin. Our project – which unites investigative journalism, geopolitics and contemporary arts – stood in direct opposition to the dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenko and celebrated all the things he seeks to oppress and silence: democracy, freedom of expression, the right to peaceful protest, equality of opportunity for all and LGBTQI rights, to name but a few. Our homeland remains at the heart of our productions.

We are watching the Belarusian people express their democratic right to protest in a deeply personal and creative way. If I was to stage a production now, it might feature the courageous 73-year-old woman who joined the protests holding brightly coloured flowers only to be hauled away by two riot police officers.

Or the miner from Solihorsk who handcuffed himself – 300 metres underground – to his machinery to protest what he describes as Lukashenko’s ‘genocide of his own people’.

My personal favourite is a striking young woman who was arrested by two police officers. She’s smoking a cigarette, takes a last drag, and hands it to the officer on her right. It’s at once timeless, elegant and a giant ‘f*ck you’.

These people inspire us in ways that few artists do and remind us of the inextinguishable hope in Belarus today. They will need help – the UK, US and Canada have announced sanctions and, at the time of going to press, pressure is building on the EU to do the same. We also need sanctions on Russia – Lukashenko’s greatest ally – state broadcaster Russia Today, which has become Lukashenko’s mouthpiece, and on the Russian banks, which are currently propping up the regime.

Only then can the Co-ordination Council – set up by our opposition – begin to negotiate a peaceful transition. There is no way back – the people in Belarus have made their choice and there is no place for Lukashenko. The future of the Belarusian people is to be the youngest democracy in Europe.