Stability in Ukraine and the whole region is impossible without freedom in Belarus.
It was said by Natalia Kaliada, the Belarus Free Theatre director, in an interview with CNN's legendary journalist Christiane Amanpour.
- President Obama and fellow G7 leaders meeting in Brussels are warning Russia, whom they suspended from the G8, of more sanctions because of Ukraine and they're demanding that he stop the separatists, who are now dangerously close to full-scale civil war in the East. Now Ukraine borders Belarus, Russia's closest ally and Europe's last dictatorship. Alexander Lukashenko has ruled there with an iron fist for 20 years, stamping out any dissent.
My next guest, Natalia Kaliada, is an outspoken critic of Lukashenko through theater. And that has forced her into exile. But her drama company still performs in Belarus underground and of course at great risk. She joins me here in the studio now. Welcome, Natalia, to this program.
- Thank you. it's a great pleasure to be here.
- Describe to me what it was about your plays that forced you leave, about the crackdown?
- It's not about the plays; it's about the level of dictatorship in Europe. Whatever your do in Belarus becomes prohibited. You will choose either topic, it would be sexual minorities, World War II, economic situation, political kidnappings, everything is prohibited. It was the 19th of December of 2010 when we had the presidential election so-called one and...
- And he was reelected again.
- If it's possible to say so, we have him in a joke, you know, the head of electoral committee's coming to Lukashenko and saying that we have bad news and good news. And he said, "Start from good news." "You are the president again." "So what bad news?" "Nobody voted for you." So this is exactly the situation that has happened in Belarus unfortunately.
- So your plays were raided; is that what happened? Your performances were raided? Did you get arrested?
- We got arrested with all our spectators, our audience, underground in Belarus. And whatever was happening at the very beginning in 2005, it would be a few times a year. Now it's happening on a permanent basis. And recently single show directed by Maria Sozonawa (ph) was raided --
- And that's just Chekhov.
- It's Chekhov. And when KGB arrived, they said we will not allow you to organize a second Maidan freedom square in Ukraine. And it's anti-governmental show. So it's existence of people who are against the dictatorship, this is the question.
- And what about then your troupe that's still there -- and they are trying to put these plays on. How terrifying is that for them, not just for them, but for the people who come to watch as well?
- Our actors there, absolutely unique people and managers, some of them, they have few cases and if there will be additional cases, they would be criminal case. And they might end up in jail. What happened now in -- with people, there are very brave people, dedicated to the theater. And they perform on a weekly basis.
- In secret locations.
- In secret locations. We lost our underground facility, the owner was threatened that the place would be completely leveled if we do not move out. And it was necessary for actors to do that in order not to put the person under danger. Otherwise, it would be Ai Weiwei situation --
- The artist-activist in China, of course. And again, we're talking in the shadow of the anniversary of Tiananmen Square as well. What about you? It became too dangerous for you and your husband to stay and you basically came here to England for political asylum.
- We were smuggled out of Belarus right after the presidential election and crackdown when around 2,000 people got arrested. All our friends, they ended up in jail; they're still in jail. Just recently in May, when it was ice hockey world championship that we tried to boycott or relocate to democratic country, 300 people got arrested. Soldiers were cleaning streets. And now, yes, I mean, we are in exile but we understand that this is the only possibility for us to attract attention to people of Belarus.
- And actually, you have attracted attention, because you mentioned the world ice hockey championships. Apparently this is very sort of close to President Lukashenko's heart. But a whole group of very well- known actors and performers and international celebrities are basically calling for a boycott. Is that going to happen?
- Unfortunately, it already took place. And it was amazing that Vaclav Havel, President Vaclav Havel, who was a great support and patron of the company and the whole country, he was that person, alongside with some supporters who'd started this campaign. Unfortunately, Rene Fasel, president of international federation of ice hockey, didn't care about human rights. And he is just serving the last dictator.
- You now serve your theater here in London. You take it around; you've got a new performance coming out at the Young Vic here. But what more do you think and do you want the world to do about this? Everybody is very, you know, keen to make sure that Ukraine survives this assault on its freedoms whole and intact. Have people forgotten about Belarus?
- I believe it's a very complicated for European and American politicians to accept especially with the Europeans, that there is the last dictatorship right on their doorstep.
It's two and 40 minutes -- two hour and 40 minutes' flight from London to Minsk. You get to completely another reality. They escort our friends; have kidnapped and killed; people now in jail are tortured. Ongoing arrests, nothing -- I mean, no freedom of expression at all.
And if Belarus issue is not solved, just be ready. The dictatorship is coming back in the face of Putin. But it would be absolutely another horrible situation when the whole region would get to the war, back to the Cold War. So it's necessary to stop Belarusian dictatorship in order to stop everything that is happening in that region.
- Natalya Kaliada, thank you for reminding us. Thanks for being here.
- Thank you.