Tom Stoppard On Belarus's Lukashenka: 'He's Made Monkeys Out Of Us'

Born in Zlin, in the former Czechoslovakia, in 1937, Tom Stoppard is one of the worldís most celebrated playwrights. The winner of an Academy Award for best original screenplay ("Shakespeare in Love") and four Tony Awards, he is the author of such acclaimed works as "Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead," "Arcadia," and "Rock 'N' Roll," which details the lives of a set of Czech dissidents from the 1960s until the fall of the Soviet Union.

In recent years, Stoppard has made common cause with opposition activists in Belarus, collaborating with the Belarus Free Theater. Stoppard spoke with RFE/RL writer at large James Kirchick on the sidelines of the annual Brussels Forum international affairs conference.

RFE/RL: Why Belarus?

Tom Stoppard: Accident. Well, [the Belarus Free Theater] wrote to me. I responded. I met them. And weíve been on and off in each otherís company ever since.

RFE/RL: Certainly thereís an element of your history, feeling a connection or responsibility?

Stoppard: My personal history? Not really. It was the theater. Iíd come across the figure of the banned actor, the banned director, the banned writer in Prague 20 years earlier -- 30 years earlier, for heaven's sake. And I was responding to the idea of the banned artist, really, more than which country was relevant.

RFE/RL: You wrote in "The IndependentĒ a couple of weeks ago that the situation in Belarus is an embarrassment for Europe.

Stoppard: Well, I believe it is. I think that people are slightly embarrassed to actually have Belarus put on their agenda again and again because they donít know what to do about Belarus. They talk a good game, itís quite long-term, itís quite abstract, but in the meantime [President Alyaksandr] Lukashenka does pretty much what he wants to do.

RFE/RL: Youíre an artist. You donít claim to have the answers. But what should be done?

Stoppard: I donít claim to have the answers. If there were answers, thereíd be no problem. But I think somebody said yesterday, if there were people dying in the main square in Belarus, then something would be done. In other words, there are things which would be done in other circumstances, which is a situation you would need, for example, Joseph Heller to do justice to. Or Jonathan Swift, say. Itís like saying, ďWell, we canít really get deeply involved because nobody's dead. Nobodyís being killed.Ē Itís not actually true. There have been people killed, but theyíre not being killed on television.

Stoppard on Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka: "My own view is...that heís played his hand a lot better than Europe has."

RFE/RL: Lukashenkaís wily enough, smart enough, to know not to pull the guns out.

Stoppard: My own view is -- and Iím an amateur here -- is that heís played his hand a lot better than Europe has. I mean, heís made monkeys out of us, encouraged us enough when itís suited him, then turned around to face the other way, leaving Europe looking a little foolish, frankly.

RFE/RL: So what can be done? You hold your protests. You write your newspaper articles.

Stoppard: Thereís an argument at this conference, which goes roughly: Well, we canít really do serious economic sanctions because then the population suffers. But have they heard from the population lately? The population has been suffering for the past 15 years and the population -- OK, well, not the population as a whole; thereís a section of the population which would prefer the stability of the dictator to the uncertainties of a true democracy -- but broadly speaking, the people who are getting hammered there economically would like the foundational cause remedied.

So I think economic sanctions actually would be probably preferable if they weakened the dictatorís position, which they surely would. In the end, I think that, as we found in the '80s with the U.S.S.R., there are two things which make certain kind of closed societies impossible finally. One is largely economics, but the other one is the flow of information.

My personal view -- whimsical though it may be -- is that the video finally brought down the Soviet empire because you could jam television and radio, but when the video became available progressively -- this is more than a joke, though it sounds like a joke -- you couldnít keep the bad news out. The bad news being that life outside is a hell of a lot better than life inside. Because theyíre being told that life outside is corrupt and abusive and, of course, some of it is. No Western society is utopian.

So I think the information -- the leverage of information -- no longer applies. The Internet has done that job. Thereís now as much information as you need to have about what life is like in Poland compared to Belarus, or in France, or anywhere. But my understanding is that without the Russian revenue -- oil and gas, that whole industry -- the economy just couldnít survive. And when the economy collapses, I donít think that Lukashenka could carry on as though it was Mugabe in Zimbabwe.

When the economy collapses in the heart of Europe, then itís over, I would have thought, for him.

RFE/RL: But he has the Russians, as Mugabe has the Chinese.

Stoppard: Well, thatís exactly what Iím saying. The problem for the Europeans is they canít close the circle. The side facing Russia is open and therefore an economic assault -- if thatís the word -- itís very hard to make that stick. I find that my own knowledge of this is constantly being adjusted in some detail while Iíve been here in the last 24 hours talking to people for whom itís their day job. Itís not my day job.

Thereís only one thing I want to say, really, which is by the nature of these peopleís jobs and by the nature of the way operations work between ministers, between countries inside and outside a conference like this, everything becomes an abstraction which could be distilled into an arithmetical table. So much of what goes on here can be distilled into an addendum which would take the form of, essentially, numbers in a table.

And itís really, really hard to change the mindset so that people say, well, actually, behind these numbers there are these individual people with children and parents, and Iím not very far away from a place where theyíre arrested without cause, theyíre put through a rigged trial, theyíre given a sentence of years in jail. This is already happening now, for doing stuff which you could do in the streets of Brussels with impunity or any of the other 27 countries. And to try and make them focus on the fact that there are actual people waiting for this to be resolved is difficult.

RFE/RL: You spoke in your speech of how standards are falling in the West. Could you elaborate on that?

Stoppard: Itís not just Europe. In a certain sense, the imminent elections in Russia are about as fake as the election in Belarus. Itís just a different kind of fake. That's what I mean about saying that itís not as though Belarus were an anomaly in the map of utopia. Look at Italy. If one starts talking about corruption and control of the media, you could leave that country blank and you could write in Belarus. In a different sense, you could write in Italy.

I mean, even in England, media monopoly is an issue, with [Rupert] Murdoch and BSB Sky. So trying to get a perfect democratic society, trying to get that blueprint to come alive, is very, very hard when youíre trying to reconcile it with the freedom to be a media baron.

RFE/RL: You speak to a lot of young people, theater students. Do you sense a feeling of complacency when it comes to Belarus, Russia, these problems?

Stoppard: [With] the students, it's not complacency. Itís just that they donít know, they donít know about it. Very few know about it. Iíll tell you, why would they know? Belarus is barely a story now. Itís completely overwhelmed by much more photogenic stories in North Africa.

Iím not complaining about that; itís the nature of the beast. But there are people at the conference on whose desks is the Belarus dossier. Itís those people one is talking to. What actually are you going to do?


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