Sunday

5th Feb 2023

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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

  • 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.

Investigation

Exclusive: Lukashenko plotted murders in Germany

Belarus president authorised political murders in Germany in recent years, according to a sensational recording of his former spy-chief obtained by EUobserver.

Opinion

Belarusian spring: finding hope in dark times

These are dark times in Belarus, with the government tightening the screws like never before. They are preparing for spring just as much as the opponents of the regime are.

Opinion

The beginning of the end for Europe's last dictator

It is well known that Vladimir Putin has for a long time been deeply dissatisfied with Lukashenko. I consider it highly unlikely, though, that Putin will accept a democratic revolution in a neighbouring country.

Opinion

Europe is giving more aid to Ukraine than you think

'Europeans need to pull their weight in Ukraine. They should pony up more funds.' Such has been the chorus since the start of the war. The problem is the argument isn't borne out by the facts, at least not anymore.

Column

Democracy — is it in crisis or renaissance?

Countries that were once democratising are now moving in the other direction — think of Turkey, Myanmar, Hungary or Tunisia. On the other hand, in autocracies mass mobilisation rarely succeeds in changing political institutions. Think of Belarus, Iran or Algeria.

Latest News

  1. Greece faces possible court over 'prison-like' EU-funded migration centres
  2. How the centre-right can take on hard-right and win big in 2024
  3. Top EU officials show Ukraine solidarity on risky trip
  4. MEPs launch anonymous drop-box for shady lobbying secrets
  5. Hawkish ECB rate-rise 'puts energy transition at risk'
  6. MEPs push for greater powers for workers' councils
  7. How Pavel won big as new Czech president — and why it matters
  8. French official to take on Islamophobia in EU

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Party of the European LeftJOB ALERT - Seeking a Communications Manager (FT) for our Brussels office!
  2. European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual & Reproductive Rights (EPF)Launch of the EPF Contraception Policy Atlas Europe 2023. 8th February. Register now.
  3. Europan Patent OfficeHydrogen patents for a clean energy future: A global trend analysis of innovation along hydrogen value chains
  4. Forum EuropeConnecting the World from the Skies calls for global cooperation in NTN rollout
  5. EFBWWCouncil issues disappointing position ignoring the threats posed by asbestos
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersLarge Nordic youth delegation at COP15 biodiversity summit in Montreal

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersCOP27: Food systems transformation for climate action
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region and the African Union urge the COP27 to talk about gender equality
  3. Friedrich Naumann Foundation European DialogueGender x Geopolitics: Shaping an Inclusive Foreign Security Policy for Europe
  4. Obama FoundationThe Obama Foundation Opens Applications for its Leaders Program in Europe
  5. EFBWW – EFBH – FETBBA lot more needs to be done to better protect construction workers from asbestos
  6. European Committee of the RegionsRe-Watch EURegions Week 2022

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us