Sunday

24th Oct 2021

Interview

Belarus threatens to kill two UK dissidents

  • Natalia Kaliada with Belarus Free Theatre patrons, British actor Jude Law (l) and playwright Tom Stoppard (r) (Photo: belarusfreetheatre.com)

British citizenship and international awards are not enough to make Belarusian dissident Natalia Kaliada and her husband Nicolai Khalezin feel safe after a high-profile death threat.

"We will definitely find you ... and we will hang you, side-by-side," the main Belarusian government newspaper, Sovietska Belarus, wrote on 27 December 2020.

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  • Kaliada with husband Nicolai Khalezin at home in London (Photo: belarusfreetheatre.com)

"Death threats were always part of our life … but this is the first time the main columnist of Sovietska Belarus is using such language," she told EUobserver from London last week, where they have lived for almost 10 years after receiving asylum and UK nationality.

Kaliada, a former diplomat, and Khalezin, a journalist, are co-founders of Belarus Free Theatre, which puts on anti-Belarus regime plays around the world.

They also lobby for Western sanctions against regime financiers.

And these include Russian oligarchs, such as Mikhail Gutseriev, whose family also lives in London, and whose intimate links to Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko were recently exposed by British newspaper The Telegraph.

"Clearly, we've become a target ... it's getting more tense," Kaliada said.

"We have British citizenship, so in that [Sovietska Belarus] column, they're threatening citizens of other countries and the UK needs to take responsibility," she told EUobserver.

"People somehow continue to be killed and poisoned here [in Britain]," she added, referring to previous Russian murders and attempted murders of Russian émigrés in the UK.

"The [British] government needs to understand the threat is also coming from smaller dictators than [Russian president Vladimir] Putin to citizens of their country," Kaliada said.

A British foreign office spokeswoman told EUobserver: "The UK condemns the intimidation and persecution of Belarusian political opposition figures by Lukashenko's regime," in reaction to the Sovietska Belarus threat.

"We continue to call for a genuine and constructive political dialogue between the authorities, the opposition, and civil society to resolve this crisis peacefully," she added, referring to pro-democracy protests in Belarus.

"I only hope the economy of Belarus is pretty weak, but if he [Lukashenko] previously found €1.2m for this type of thing, knowing that he has billions in his personal fortune, you never know," Kaliada said.

She spoke after EUobserver revealed that Lukashenko, back in 2012, put a small fortune in a secret account to finance assassinations abroad.

"Knowing what Lukashenko already did to our friends ... we feel like anything could happen," Kaliada said, referring to the vanishing of four opposition activists in Belarus in 1999 and to what she called the "staged suicide" of eminent Belarusian journalist Oleg Bebenin in 2010.

Kaliada already came close to losing her life.

She was about to fly from Minsk to London to stage a play in the run-up to Belarus elections in December 2010 when it happened.

"It was 5AM when we got to the airport and some people dressed in black came over to me, just before boarding. They took away my passport and my boarding pass and said: 'Do you understand you're the leader of a terrorist group? Do you understand you'll disappear now?'," she recalled.

"They took me down several floors and into a dark corridor and I thought to myself: 'They're going to shoot me in the back of the head now, like they do with the death penalty [in Belarus]'. But I tried my luck and said: 'Guys! It's a bad idea to kidnap me on the way to London right before elections. If I vanish now, you'll get into trouble and your boss, Lukashenko, will be in such deep shit, you'd better let me go'," she said.

The men-in-black made some phone-calls, then let her board her flight, which had been held up for an hour over the incident.

But Kaliada has vowed to continue her opposition despite the risks. "It's in my DNA," she said.

She also paid tribute to pro-democracy protesters in Belarus, who have kept up demonstrations for over 150 days after rigged elections in August, despite police sadism and the onset of winter.

"I have no words to express how brave they are," Kaliada told EUobserver.

Families watch Belarus Free Theatre courtyard play (Photo: belarusfreetheatre.com)

Opposition DNA

Belarus Free Theatre has also kept putting on plays in Minsk, organised via Telegram, a secure app, in apartment-block courtyards.

Its actors keep being arrested, but go back to work as soon as they are freed.

Two Belarus Free Theatre directors, Nadia Brodskaya and Sveta Sugako, were also jailed in August.

They were held with 34 other women in a 12-square metre cell with no toilet or running water for seven days.

Male guards made them strip naked and bend over to degrade them, Kaliada said.

"They [Brodskaya and Sugako] told me they'll remember the screams coming from other cells for the rest of their lives, because, at that time, male prisoners, who were on a different floor, were being tortured and raped with foreign objects," Kaliada said.

Prisoners have also been deliberately infected with Covid-19, Kaliada added, or made to stand outside in freezing weather.

"While people in the EU were enjoying their Christmas holidays, people in Belarus were standing in the snow with their hands tied behind their backs," Kaliada said.

"I wish [British foreign minister] Dominic Raab and [EU foreign affairs chief] Josep Borrell would get on a plane from London and Brussels [to Minsk] and in a couple of hours they would be in a parallel European reality," she said.

The EU has blacklisted Belarus officials and a few regime financiers in response.

But if the West wanted change, the EU, UK, and US ought to blacklist all the Belarusian and Russian oligarchs who financed Lukashenko in one fell swoop, Kaliada said.

"Otherwise, they just transfer their wealth from one name to another and easily evade the asset-freezes," Kaliada noted.

"It's a very fluid system, like the mafia," she said.

The EU has also stopped short of economic sanctions or threatening to ban Belarus from Swift, the international bank-transfer system, which Borrell's predecessor, former EU foreign relations chief Javier Solana reportedly did in 2008 to stop Lukashenko from recognising the sovereignty of Russia-occupied territories in Georgia.

Belarus Free Theatre's Svetlana Sugako will never forget "the screams" she heard in prison (Photo: belarusfreetheatre.com)

Zone of gag

For Kaliada, the reason why is because the EU would rather leave Lukashenko in place to maintain "so-called stability" than risk change.

"This term 'zone of stability', which comes from Realpolitik, makes me gag," she said.

The two-faced politics, of preaching EU values while doing deals with dictators, was on show on 11 December 2007, when Kaliada went to the Élysée palace in Paris to receive a human rights prize.

The same day the then French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, hosted Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi and his caravan of tents, virgin bodyguards, and a camel in the French capital.

And when the current French president, Emmanuel Macron, hosted Egyptian dictator Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Paris on 6 December 2020, Kaliada felt a sense of "déjà vu", she said.

But if Realpolitik was meant to keep Europe safe, then it was failing, Kaliada said.

The fate of Belarus was tied to that of Russia, she said, because if peaceful protests ousted Lukashenko, then Putin's days might also be numbered.

"Navalny was poisoned, in part, because he gave so much support to the Belarusian [opposition] cause, holding it up as an example to Russian people," Kaliada said, referring to Russia's recent attempt to murder Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

"If we manage to resolve Belarus, it's possible to untie the whole geopolitical knot in Europe - to stabilise Russia, to stop its war in Ukraine, and to really make EU borders safe," Kaliada told EUobserver.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," she said.

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