“Did you bring your passports with you?” a young woman asks a small crowd gathered on the steps outside the appointed meeting place, a glass-fronted commercial building in Minsk. She leads the group down the road to a makeshift stage in a crumbling old house, where people sit knee-to-knee on wood planks laid over concrete blocks. The audience had to phone in advance for the address and know they could be arrested just for turning up.
This is just another typical evening with the Belarus Free Theatre, a dissident underground troupe in the former Soviet republic that has been called Europe’s last dictatorship. President Alexander Lukashenko has ruled there since 1994.
“Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus,” a documentary premiering on HBO July 7, paints an intimate portrait of the Free Theatre, which has continued to perform despite KGB raids and the permanent threat of lengthy prison sentences that forced some members into exile in the UK. In the film, director Madeleine Sackler captures a moment in time when, as one of the actors recounts, “there was a feeling that the regime was about to collapse.” Yet it didn’t.
Sackler’s film follows the group against the backdrop of the rigged 2010 presidential election in Belarus and the wave of popular protest that followed. But while recent protests in neighboring Ukraine ousted Viktor Yanukovych from the presidency, Lukashenko’s regime crushed the movement, detaining hundreds of demonstrators and imprisoning opposition leaders. Belarus remains so restrictive that all the footage shot there for the documentary had to be smuggled out by car over the border.
The events in “Dangerous Acts” are now more than three years old, but feel especially resonant as Ukraine grapples with its post-Yanukovych transition and Russian President Vladimir Putin cracks down on dissent. The beleaguered Belarusian opposition has looked to Ukraine’s Euromaidan protest movement as an inspiration. Belarusians joined Ukrainians on Kiev’s Independence Square and one of the first demonstrators killed in the crackdown was from Belarus.
Belarus has consistently ranked near the bottom of international indices on freedom and democracy, but unlike Ukraine, it has attracted relatively little international attention. Dissident Andrei Sannikov, whose 2010 campaign against Lukashenko is featured in “Dangerous Acts,” told BuzzFeed that Europe should do more to uproot authoritarian rule in Belarus. He called for tougher sanctions against Belarus as well as Russia, where Germany and the United Kingdom have significant business interests.
“Europe must understand that it has to sacrifice something,” Sannikov, who spent 481 days in prison after the election on charges of organizing “mass riots,” said from his current home in Poland. “Because people are sacrificing their lives in Belarus, in Ukraine, fighting for European values.”
Sannikov denounced the new Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko’s decision to invite Lukashenko to his June inauguration when the regime has jailed Belarusians for protesting in solidarity.
“It was kind of contempt of the Ukrainian authorities for the real emotions that Belarusians had for Maidan,” he said. “The new Ukrainian authorities should be committed to the principles that made it possible for them to come to power.”
Though Lukashenko has sometimes appeared to publicly undermine Putin, commenting on his divorce to Russian television host Ksenia Sobchak, and applauding when Poroshenko affirmed Crimea as Ukrainian territory, the Belarusian leader remains firmly in the Kremlin’s orbit. Minsk is a member of the Russian-led Customs Union, which Putin has positioned as a geopolitical, economic and moral counterweight to the European Union.
“He is attacking European values and he is attacking the EU,” Sannikov said of Putin. “It’s a different vision than recreating the USSR. It’s an attempt to create a powerful Russian center that would dominate European policy. ”
Sannikov told BuzzFeed he hopes viewers will feel emotionally involved with the Belarusian opposition movement after watching “Dangerous Acts.”
“This involvement of people who care about Belarus is really the hope for the Belarusian future,” he said, noting that Ukraine’s protesters enjoyed “what we never had in Belarus: involvement of Europe in the situation.”
Though the Belarusian opposition protests flickered out in 2011 after brutal government crackdowns and Sannikov considers the upcoming 2015 presidential election a farce, he remains hopeful.
“People there are no less courageous than in Ukraine,” Sannikov said. “Simply we are in a more difficult situation.
“Dangerous Acts Starring The Unstable Elements of Belarus” premieres 9PM ET July 7 on HBO.