The Free Theatre as Belarus’ Most Successful PR Phenomenon
I can not call myself a theatre specialist or a lover of contemporary art. I do not know if I could appreciate the artistic value of the performances of the famous Belarusian Free Theatre. I shall admit that, like probably most of the readers, I have never been to a performance by the theatre, which I certainly plan to eventually fix.
Nevertheless, even a superficial acquaintance with the work of the theatre is enough to appreciate its political effect on raising awareness about Belarus problems. The political aspect seems to have been a key component of the theatre’s work almost from the beginning of its public existence.
Hardly anyone now has a bigger emotional power to attract international attention to the problems of freedom in Belarus than this semi-underground theatre group from Minsk. The fact that these people managed to get the attention of London’s theatrical community and how confident they are getting known in the US, deserves great respect. By becoming popular among the Western cultural elite, the theatre is promoting the public interests of Belarus and the Belarusian democracy.
It is no exaggeration to call the Free Theatre the most successful PR-project of the broadly-viewed Belarusian opposition. In Britain, for instance, it is the Free Theatre that has become the main brand of the Belarusian democratic opposition. Nikolai Khalezin and Natalya Kolyada are perhaps better ambassadors of the Belarusian democratic society than some of the opposition politicians.
The democratic movement of Belarus does not have a living prophet, a person-symbol like Aung San Suu Kyi, Andrei Sakharov or the Dalai Lama. The politicians Zianon Pazniak and Aliaksandr Kazulin had a chance to claim this role but the first one seems too much separated from the broad masses of Russian-speaking Belarusians. In addition, Kazulin’s morale was obviously broken by the harsh months in Lukashenka’s prison.
Even the Rada of the Belarusian Democratic Republic, with its unique historical status as the 90-years-old Belarusian government-in-exile, failed to become a true symbol of the Belarusian society. Still, as long as representative institutions in Belarus remain a fake, the Rada will have a great potential for it and will remain such a symbol for many Belarusians.
Without such personifications among politicians, the democratic Belarus is often personified by the Free Theatre. And the snowball thrown by the Free Theatre, after December 19, 2010 could become a big PR-avalanche, unpleasant for the ruling authoritarian regime.
Despite the obvious and deliberately popularised failures of the Belarusian political opposition, the Belarusian democratic society is able to generate successful initiatives and projects. The success story of Free Theatre is a lesson to learn for the rest of those who want changes in Belarus and work for this cause.
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Towards Authoritarian Capitalism in Belarus?
Despite the dark clouds of political repressions Western businesses still express interest in doing business in Belarus. Recent evidence of that is an event in Minsk organized by the Ministry of Economics called “Belarus Capital Markets Day”. Apparently, Belarus authorities want to look serious with their privatization plans.
Deutsche Bank, London Stock Exchange and reputable advisory firms were among the sponsors of the event. The event’s purpose was to educate the largest Belarusian state-owned enterprises such as MAZ, Mozyr Oil Refinery and Belarusbank about international capital markets.
That practical event was preceded by a more theoretical one. Just a few days after the election day crackdown, deputy minister of economics opened an academic conference in Minsk hosted by the Belarusian Economic Research and Outreach Center (BEROC). BEROC is a Belarusian economics think tanks which tries to attract Belarusians working abroad and international scholars to share their knowledge. The initiative belongs to Aleh Tsyvinski and Mikhail Golosov, Yale University professors who left Belarus in their mid 20s to study in the United States.
It is fortunate that Belarus starts opening up, perhaps because of economic pressures from the East and West. But while being so focused on the economics side Belarus authorities often neglect the legal side. No matter how efficient their economic policies are, investors are unlikely to pay a fair price for Belarus property if legal instability will persist in the country.
In countries with established rule of law, it takes many months if not years for a law to be passed. In Belarus, it may take just one day for the President to sign a decree which can override any other law, not to mention a contract. Such decrees can completely change the applicable tax regime, or even expropriate assets of a particular company. Moreover, such decrees occasionally have retroactive effect. Such emergency law making may be good in wartime but not in times of stability. In addition, the Belarus courts do not have reputation of being particularly independent even in matters which are far from politics.
As a result, when serious investors are coming to the country, they have to price in these legal risks in addition to political risks. Therefore, Belarus authorities should not be surprised when foreign investors are ready to pay very modest amounts for Belarus assets. For many of them it just an interesting new lottery with a very uncertain win.
Legal stability, respect of private property and independence of courts does not necessarily come hand in hand with liberal democracy. According to the World Bank, Singapore for many years is the country with the most business-friendly environment. But at the same time political freedoms and human rights are very limited. The country’s regime is often dubbed as “Authoritarian Capitalism” but it still attracts one of the highest foreign direct investments per capita in the world.
Foreign investors have little doubt that Belarus is authoritarian, but convincing that there is capitalism will be a more difficult task.