Byelorussia. Someone like Khalezin would never say “Byelorussia”, which means “White Russia” and smacks of colonialism. Since its independence from the Soviet Union, his country has officially been called “Republic of Belarus”. In 1991, the only vote cast against independence was by the Vice President of the Parliament: Alexander Lukashenko. Three years later, he would become the first head of the new state, and promise to fight corruption and safeguard the social advantages of communism.
Byelorussia was one of the Soviet republics with a high living standard – the “Germany of the USSR”. Its inhabitants were therefore afraid of the many abrupt changes that would follow independence. But ultimately they paid a high price to maintain stability.
“This isn’t the last dictatorship in Europe, it is the first one in the 21st century”
Between 1991 and 1994, and prior to Lukashenko’s inauguration, liberties increased somewhat in Belarus: political parties emerged, associations were founded, and even the Byelorussian language experienced a slight upswing. Lukashenko put an end to all this. Today, the president controls the machinery of power and reigns on his own, without a political party, relying solely on the secret service which is still called the KGB – the Committee for State Security, which was also the name of the Soviet Union’s former secret service.
Election after election he has managed to stay in power using manipulation whenever circumstances required it, and repression whenever it became necessary. In almost two decades he has established a system that is aesthetically post communist but politically adapted to the new age.
The country’s Soviet aesthetics mask the fact that Lukashenko is also very skilled at moving in the modern world and understands the weaknesses of Western democracies. “Just so there is no misunderstanding,” warns one White Russian activist, “this isn’t the last dictatorship in Europe; it is the first one of the 21st century.”
The most effective way to silence the opposition
On the outskirts of Minsk, in a room a little over 30 square metres that includes a stage with no podium, a grandstand with wooden benches and some cushions for sitting on the floor, Nikolai Khalezin, his wife Natalia Kaliada and the other members of the Belarus Free Theater stage their performances. “We speak of the things no one ever talks about, we allude to this country’s every taboo: the ethnic and sexual minorities, social problems and, of course, politics”, explains Kaliada.