Dissidents of the theatre in Belarus pin their hopes on denim revolution

By Andrew Osborn in Minsk

In a spartan flat in Belarus, a country that America calls Europe's last dictatorship, seven bright young actors and actresses are risking their jobs, their health and their freedom to rehearse a new play.

Called Belivud, it hints at what it is like to live in Belarus under the authoritarian, Soviet-style leadership of President Aleksander Lukashenko.

The main character, a young Belarussian man, is tormented by "voices". His despair drives him out of his mind and, in a disturbing finale, he dies.

It is a fitting and depressing metaphor for modern-day Belarus, which feels like a cross between George Orwell's 1984 and the Soviet Union of around 1950.

Mr Lukashenko, a former prison guard and collective-farm boss, has ruled this former Soviet republic since 1994 as if Stalinism had never gone out of fashion. He is up for "re-election" on 19 March and few expect him to lose what his opponents say is a rigged contest of spectacularly unfair proportions. Ominously, he warns that he will use force to disperse public protests, which he fears, perhaps rightly, could be a prelude to a Ukraine-style velvet revolution.

His critics claim that freedom of speech in Belarus has been crushed, that people who disagree with a man who likes to be known as Batka [Father] are thrown into jail, and that citizens who show signs of subversion are sacked or lose their university places.

Mr Lukashenko counters that he has delivered stability, that the economy is on the up and that, thanks to him, Belarus has avoided the anarchy that has beset many other former Soviet republics.

State television portrays Belarus as a mini-idyll where pensions are paid on time, where wages are rising, and where order prevails. The streets of Minsk, the capital, are spotlessly clean and devoid of the beggars, stray dogs and prostitutes who occupy neighbouring Russia's streets.

Advertising is scarce, police, uniformed and non-uniformed, seem to be on every street corner and people act and address one another with a civility that expired in Russia when the USSR collapsed.

But if art really does imitate life and the underground theatre scene in Belarus is a microcosm of society, then the signs are less encouraging. Belarus appears to have turned into a country that time and the outside world have forgotten. The Free Theatre Company, which is patronised and part-financed by the playwright Tom Stoppard and the former Czech president Vaclav Havel, officially doesn't exist.

It has no premises, cannot afford to pay salaries, and performs to small, hand-picked audiences in flats and nightclubs whose location is disclosed to ticket-holders the day before a performance. Most of its actors have official day jobs in state theatre, though many have found themselves blackballed.

Meanwhile, state theatre churns out an inoffensive classical repertoire that has changed little since Soviet times and whose relevance to modern-day Belarus can only be guessed at.

The Free Theatre project, the brainchild of a playwright, Nikolai Khalezin, 41, and his wife Natalia, 32, is very different. Khalezin, who has been jailed in the past for taking part in anti-government protests, has penned a play called Jeans Generation that is perhaps his most daring.

The production is openly anti-Lukashenko because, if Belarus ever does have a velvet revolution, it will probably be called the denim or jeans revolution. Denim because when a protester, Nikita Sasim, was beaten up last year for brandishing first a national Belarussian flag, and then a youth group flag, he took off his denim shirt and made an improvised denim flag.

The bewildered riot police didn't know what to do and Khalezin says the gesture and the jeans shirt became the symbol of freedom and resistance. Many young people who oppose the government now attach denim ribbons to their bags as a sign of solidarity.

"Jeans have become a symbol of freedom," Khalezin told The Independent. "You'll never see Lukashenko in jeans. He only ever dons a dark suit or an ice-hockey outfit."

Watching Khalezin perform Jeans Generation, declaiming a long counter-culture ode that is a semi-autobiographical account of a freedom fighter, is to see what he believes are the beginnings of an irreversible anti-Lukashenko backlash.

As his words pour forth, a DJ spins a succession of hip records whose heavy bass lines give the project a glamorous Trainspotting-like feel. Mr Khalezin, a former journalist who says all three of the newspapers he worked for have been shut by the government, says many Belarussians have had enough of living in a climate of fear but are too afraid to say so.

"At first, it was interesting to observe a small monster [Lukashenko], then it was funny, and now people have simply had enough. They are sick of it."

One person for whom the demise of the Lukashenko regime cannot come too soon enough is Svetlana Zavadskaya, 33. Her husband, Dmitri, was a cutting-edge television cameraman who used to be the President's personal cameraman. He is one of what Belarussians call "the disappeared". Their bodies have never been found, the government death squad that murdered them has never been tried, and their funerals have never been held.

Dmitri Zavadsky, 28 at the time, disappeared on 7 July 2000 after giving an interview to a newspaper in which he accused government ministers of selling arms to Chechen rebels fighting against Russia, Belarus' most important ally.

The story was embarrassing and threatened to disrupt relations with Moscow which props up Mr Lukashenko with a steady flow of cheap oil and gas.

"He [Dmitri] was critical of the authorities and the regime and of Lukashenko," said Svetlana, her voice cracking with emotion. "They tortured him, broke his spine and killed him."

"For me and my family, regime change is important so we can find out exactly what happened and have the guilty punished."

The man she accuses of ordering her husband's murder, Viktor Sheiman, heads Mr Lukashenko's re-election campaign, while the man she believes who pulled the trigger is Dmitri Pavlichenko, who still works for the police and recently beat up one of Mr Lukashenko's rivals. The Council of Europe has called for both men to be charged and they have been banned from visiting the EU or the US.

Mr Lukashenko, who is accused of ordering a cover-up, does not even pretend to care about the disappearances. Last week, he mockingly told a congress of loyalists how Ms Zavadskaya recently held a meeting with the US President, George Bush. He claimed he couldn't even remember her dead husband's name.

In an interview with The Independent, Aleksander Milinkevich, the main rival to Mr Lukashenko, said he would call on people to take to the streets of Minsk, the capital, on 19 March. Anxious to stress that he wished to avoid bloodshed, he said that, if independent exit polls showed he had won more than 50 per cent of the vote, he and his supporters would move to take power with the help of the security forces, some of whom he thinks are ready to switch sides.

He frets that what he calls "the zombification" of the population by state media will work against him. "Some of the slaves don't want to be free. A portion of society will always vote for Lukashenko because they need a vojd [dictator]."

Life in Europe's 'Last Dictatorship'

* Belarus was one of the Soviet Union's 15 republics and suffered appallingly in the Second World War. One in three people died.

* Minsk, the capital, has been largely rebuilt since 1944, and is a prime example of Stalinist architecture.

* With a population of 10 million, Belarus relies heavily on agriculture but is also well known for making tractors, trucks and fridges. It also trades on upgrading Soviet-era weapons systems, mainly for African countries and the Middle East.

* Belarus became independent in 1991 but it has a long history of being occupied by Poland and Russia. It is now propped up by Russia, which sells it oil and gas at Russian prices in exchange for influence and a reliable anti-Western ally.

* The average wage is $225 (?130) a month but rural people are said to get by on as little as $50.

* Belarussians claim Kirk Douglas as their most famous son. The Arsenal footballer Alexander Hleb is also a native son.