Jude Law and Kevin Spacey bring drama to the Commons
After a performance in the House of Commons in support of Belarus's imprisoned opposition activists and journalists, Denis MacShane warns the leaders of Europe's last dictatorship that justice plays a long game
30 Mar 11

After a performance in the House of Commons in support of Belarus’s imprisoned opposition activists and journalists, Denis MacShane warns the leaders of Europe’s last dictatorship that justice plays a long game

The House of Commons likes to think of itself as theatre, as the epicentre of political drama. But occasionally real actors, not us ham MPs, and really important politics combine to stage a play that tells an important story.

So it was in the Grand Committee Room on Monday when the politics of Europe’s last dictator were presented in a remarkable performance by Jude Law. The actor is a Hollywood star and number one British heart-throb in the celebrity pages of our tabloid press as well as Hello, Heat and OK. But he has a second passion — for human rights — and that was on display on behalf of the oppressed people of Belarus.

Together with fellow actor and Old Vic artistic director, Kevin Spacey, as well as the playwright, Tom Stoppard, whose commitment to pro-democracy politics goes back to Charter 77, Jude Law came to the Commons to make his plea for freedom in Belarus. British ministers are fulminating about the odious Colonel Gaddafi as they call him every name under the Libyan sun as they work up public opinion to support the military intervention against the dictator of Tripoli. But there is another dictator a bit closer to home and that is the Macbeth of Minsk, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who has held sway over his people since 1994. Lukashenko has to allow periodic elections under the Belarus constitution but he makes sure they are rigged. The OSCE has declared invalid every Belarus election since 1996.

There was one late last year. When 50,000 people demonstrated for democracy in Minsk on 19 December 2010 they were attacked by police. Several presidential candidates are still being held in KGB prisons. Twenty journalists are also detained.

There are so many places around the world where the political opponents of regimes are locked up. So how does one draw attention to Belarus? Index of Censorship, under the energetic leadership of the former political editor and Moscow correspondent, John Kampfner, has been working with Belarus Free Theatre and supported the link-up with Jude Law, Kevin Spacey and Sir Tom Stoppard (why a humble K and not a peerage for our greatest living playwright, by the way?) to present a production by the Belarus actors at the Commons.

The actors from Belarus have left their country as the alternative was to risk rotting in prison. They are stateless, homeless, and like a wandering set of players from Shakespeare’s time go from country to country seeking to play their parts and highlight oppression back home. (Memo to Teresa May: Allow them visas to stay here. Don’t be mean.)

Jude Law performed an amazing double-act satire with Nikolai Khalezin — Law speaking English and Khalezin his native Belarussian. The play, Generation Jeans, explains the market for blue jeans and rock music in Berlarus where trade in Western commodities, is as difficult as trade in democratic politics. Despite the two languages, the audience from different parts of the Commons were held spell-bound and grabbed the souvenirs of cut-up denim Jude and Nikolai handed out at the end.

Sadly, some of the Belarus Free Theatre ensemble could not make it in time for the performance as Commons security held them in an eternal queue. It’s not the police’s fault — they are only obeying orders after all — but surely someone can sort out the impossibility of getting visitors into the Commons? John Whittingdale, Pamela Nash and I sponsored the event and it was a dramatic (yes, that is the right word) evening that told us what we need to know about Europe’s last dictatorship.

What to do now? Everything has been tried. Travel bans. Economic sanctions. Withdrawing ambassadors. Being nice to Lukashenko. Being nasty to Lukashenko. He has to his east Russia under the neo-authoritarian Putin. The last thing Russia’s strongman wants is a fully democratic, Russian-speaking nation on his border. Minsk and Moscow quarrel but sadly as with Mugabe, Burmese generals, octogenarian Castro hermanos, there are some regimes that just go on and on. We can simply bear witness and show solidarity and Jude Law and the Belarus Free Theatre did that wonderfully in the Commons. But Lukashenko should ponder the fate of his fellow ex-Soviet era leader, Leonid Kuchma, who was booted out of power in Kiev during Ukraine’s Orange revolution in 2005. In 2000, the body of the Ukrainian journalist, Georgiy Gonadze was found a few hundred metres from his head. The political murder was meant to intimidate other investigative reporters highlighting the corruption of the Kuchma regime. Last month Leonid Kuchma went on trial, protesting his innocence, in connection with the Gonadze murder. So justice can catch up and one day the Berlarus Free Theatre will invite Jude Law to perform in Minsk.

Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and was a PPS and Minister at the FCO 1997-2005.