Writer's support for Belarusian theatre has put him up at loggerheads with an autocratic regime
By Roland Oliphant
He is the "last dictator in Europe" with a ruthless streak and a Soviet-inherited belief that any opposition to the state is wrong. In short, the word of Alexander Lukashenko, the President of Belarus, is law. Step forward the challenger: the most lucid master of English letters, Sir Tom Stoppard.
The regime of the nation described by the US administration of George W Bush as an "outpost of tyranny" has invited the playwright and long-term champion of human rights to visit Belarus, after he led a protest against the country's use of repressive powers. The invitation is the outcome of Sir Tom's backing of the dissident Belarus Free Theatre - a group that has been subject to constant harassment since its formation in 2005 - and a protest against draconian new laws regulating internet access in the former Soviet republic.
"I'm not sure what I feel about that," Sir Tom told The Independent. "When I first got involved with Belarus I asked my friends who lived there whether they wanted me to go and have a talk with the Minister of Culture, but they said 'Don't do that, it's exactly what they want'."
President Lukashenko - known as "Batka" or "Papa" - changed the constitution in 1996 to make himself a virtual dictator. But after a series of unsolved disappearances of Lukashenko critics in 1999, he has been effectively unchallenged as supreme ruler of the landlocked state. He maintains a secret police - still called the KGB - and laws that make "insulting the President" punishable by five years in prison.
The latest law gives a monopoly to a single state-owned service provider, and requires anyone using an internet cafe to present their passport so their details can be recorded, and gives the KGB the right to access personal browsing histories for any individual user.
The Belarusian government says it is needed to fight terrorism, pornography and paedophilia and that it is no different to laws in other countries - they have produced a three-page document outlining the similarities to legislation in France and the UK. But critics say it will give Lukashenko's authoritarian regime a stranglehold on the internet, unrivalled even by the "Great Fire Wall" created by the Chinese government, and is a clear sign of a clamp-down ahead of elections in February next year.
Sir Tom went with supporters of the theatre group to the Belarusian embassy in London to protest the 1 July introduction of the laws. It resulted in a 20-minute verbal duel with the ambassador, Aleksandr Mikhnevich, who emerged to meet the protesters. In a bizarre exchange, Mikhnevich repeatedly asked Stoppard to explain what he was concerned about. "Those who spend some time in Belarus understand that the United Kingdom has the same problems, sometimes even worse problems with human rights than we do," argued the ambassador.
"Yes, we don't consider the United Kingdom to be a particular ideal paradise of human rights," Sir Tom, who has been to Belarus, replied. "But..."
Undaunted, the ambassador ended the conversation with a sudden offer for all present - artists, writers and journalists - to visit Belarus to check the situation themselves. The embassy later confirmed to The Independent that the invitation still stands. But Natasha Koliada and Nikolai Khalezin, the founders of the Belarus Free Theatre, maintained that the offer was an attempt to burnish the image of the regime. "They'd like nothing better than for someone like Tom to be seen to converse with them. No matter what he would say to them, the only thing that would appear on television would be an image of him with the government, and it would be a great propaganda coup for them."
Czech-born Sir Tom has had a long involvement in supporting actors subject to repression in the former Soviet states. A similar theatre group in Communist Czechoslovakia is the focus of Sir Tom's 1979 plays Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoots Macbeth.
The group now has a permanent base, in a tiny single-floor house on the outskirts of Minsk, the capital of Belarus, but they have gained strong international support. By 2007, the Free Theatre's patrons included Sir Tom, Mick Jagger and former Czech President Vaclav Havel, who made a video for the people of Belarus about the importance of an open society, artistic freedoms and democratic rights. The video was posted on the internet, and soon went viral.
Three weeks later, the theatre's entire cast, crew and audience were arrested at the beginning of a performance in Minsk. Not only was it the first time an entire auditorium had been detained, but the situation was so surreal that it took many in the audience several minutes to realise it was not part of the show. "We'd just dimmed the lights and told the audience the show was about to begin, when a policeman strode in and asked in a loud voice 'Why is the floor here so black? And why is everyone sitting in silence?' You couldn't have scripted it," said Ms Koliada.
After a night-long interrogation, the actors and the audience were all released. However, almost everyone at the theatre has lost their job and the theatre now says audience members have been warned to keep away or face a similar fate. Last May, Mr Khalezin, his father-in-law and his brother were beaten up, an hour before they were meant to fly to London, by an assailant who they said told them: "Don't call the police - I'm from the police."
Additional reporting by Albina Kovalyova
Profile: Arguing for freedom from Britain to Darfur
Tom Stoppard - who has previously described his politics as "timid libertarian" - has nonetheless spoken out boldly on a range of domestic and international affairs, including trenchant criticisms of Britain's "highly regulated society".
The Czech-born playwright was active in the 1970s on behalf of Soviet dissidents and travelled to Eastern Europe with Amnesty.
He supported Charter 77, the campaign and manifesto for human rights formed in the Communist-era Czechoslovakia. He spoke out on behalf of other dissidents including the playwright Vaclav Havel, whose work he admires, and went to Prague to meet him after his release from prison.
The role of Mr Havel in the Czech Velvet Revolution and the playwright's rise to the presidency is dramatised in the Stoppard play Rock'n'Roll.
His passionate concern with human rights has been the subject of other plays. Professional Foul - a play about a visit to Czechoslovakia by a Cambridge don, dealing with issues of repression and ethics - was written for Amnesty International's Prisoner of Conscience Year in 1977.
In 2007, on the fifth anniversary of the European Union, he joined other writers in calling on the EU to tack action over Darfur.
In an article in The Independent, he was fiercely critical of the role of the UN, suggesting that sanctions required a "degree of collective determination, of which the UN appears constitutionally incapable".
In the same year, he joined more than 100 members of Britain's political and cultural elite who signed a letter to Vladimir Putin urging him to use his final year as Russian President to restore "peace and justice" to Chechnya.