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Poles help Belarus, recalling own repressive past

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Sept. 20, 2012, 10:26 a.m. | Russia and former Soviet Union — by Associated Press

Belsat TV journalist Volha Starastsina working on a uncensored news program for Belarus at the TV station's studio in Warsaw, Poland on Wednesday, September 19, 2012 as the station is focusing on the upcoming parliamentary elections in Belarus, expected to be a rubber stamp procedure.
© AP

Associated Press

Associated Press

WARSAW — Volha Starastsina saw no choice but to flush her work down the police station toilet.

That was the only place the Belarusian journalist could hide TV footage after being detained for interviewing people on upcoming elections in the repressive state.

Her risky independent journalism is part of a Polish-funded effort to get uncensored news to Belarusians, one of several projects Poland supports in a drive to encourage democratic change in its troubled eastern neighbor.

Poland has many reasons for wanting Belarus to embrace democracy, but it largely comes down to this: When Poland looks east, it sees its own past. The censorship, secret police spying and harassment of political opponents under authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko remind Poles of what Lech Walesa's Solidarity movement endured in the 1980s. Today's Polish government is led by many former Solidarity activists, and they want to give Belarusians the same kind of Western help that proved crucial in toppling their former Soviet-backed regime.

"It's emotional. It's a Polish thing to be anti-regime," said Tomasz Pisula, a Pole who heads Freedom and Democracy Foundation, a Warsaw-based group working for democratic change in Belarus.

Other countries are also engaged in the cause, including the United States and Sweden. But perhaps nowhere is there as much support, both at the grassroots and government level, for the Belarusian democracy movement as in Poland.

The solidarity also stems from a cultural kinship and frequent contacts shared by the two Slavic peoples. A complex history of shifting borders in Eastern Europe has left a sizeable ethnic Polish minority in Belarus today that faces harassment, to the great concern of Poland.

More broadly, Poland wants to see the entire region on its eastern border evolve into a space of stable and prosperous democracies, and has been trying for years to push for democratic change in Ukraine and Georgia. That would have implications on issues ranging from fighting the flow of illegal drugs to boosting trade. And while Polish leaders don't like to state it publicly, they would also like to see a weakening of Moscow's influence in the region, with memories of past Russian domination still vivid.

The Polish efforts for Belarus are many.

The government funds a TV station, Belsat, and a radio station, Radio Racja, which broadcast independent news from Poland into Belarus, giving people an alternative to pro-regime state media. It has opened its universities to hundreds of Belarusians who lost their right to study at home for political reasons. It funds several projects aimed at blunting the effects of repression, including Pisula's, which helps political prisoners and keeps records on the perpetrators of repression — judges, police and others — should a day of reckoning come.

Starastsina, the Belarusian TV journalist who flushed her memory card down the toilet, works for Belsat. Last month, she and a cameraman were stopped by secret security, still known as the KGB, as they were reporting in the eastern Belarusian city of Vitebsk. In such cases Belsat reporters usually try to throw their memory cards under a tree or a bush, where they can be retrieved later.

But there was no vegetation in the square where they were detained, and Starastsina still had the incriminating evidence when taken to the police station

"I felt helpless," Starastsina told The Associated Press from her newsroom in Warsaw. "They could accuse me of anything and put me under arrest."

The Sunday nationwide elections are bound to elect what is essentially a rubber-stamp parliament, with most power in Lukashenko's hands. Belsat was using its campaign footage to help expose the nation's sham democracy.

Belsat works by engaging dozens of reporters who risk arrest and harassment to gather news. They file it over the Internet to Warsaw from improvised newsrooms in clandestine apartments across Belarus. From Warsaw the news gets broadcast from a studio belonging to Polish state TV back into Belarus by satellite. Another act of defiance is the station's use of the Belarusian language rather than Russian. That is part of a conscious attempt to revive a language and cultural heritage weakened by decades of domination of Russian, which remains the language of choice of most state media.

Poland also has helped a number of Belarusian-run human rights organizations and media sites to set up their activities in Poland, granting political asylum to their activists and helping them financially. Altogether, the various projects have made Warsaw a key center for Belarusian dissidents and intellectuals in exile.

Officially, Poland's aim is not to topple Lukashenko, but to give Belarusians uncensored information and the support they would need should they ever choose to rise up themselves against the regime.

"We look at Belarus realistically. We understand that change won't happen from one day to the next because change, first of all, must take place in the consciousness of Belarusians," said Katarzyna Pelczynska-Nalecz, Poland's undersecretary of state for Eastern affairs. "Our role is to support that attitude and to have a role in shaping it."

Many of the Polish projects pushing democracy in Belarus are led by former members of Solidarity or their children. Belsat's founder and director, Agnieszka Romaszewska, comes from a family that was prominent in Solidarity. She launched Belsat in 2007, hoping to give Belarusians the kind of independent news that Radio Free Europe provided to her parents.

She said she is often asked why five years of Belsat broadcasts still haven't brought about Lukashenko's fall, and she always answers — that is not the station's job.

"Lukashenko needs to be toppled by his own nation, if it wants to do it," she said. She argued that all Belsat can do is offer an independent perspective missing in the state media, including news but also documentaries about Belarusian history and culture.

"State television opens with Lukashenko and closes with Lukashenko. Twenty minutes of the news is that he went there, visited this man, was at a factory, gave advice to swine breeders on how to best breed pigs," Romaszewska said. "I don't think that many people in the West are able to picture that."

Belarusian activists in Warsaw voice gratitude for the help. Many say that if they were to return to Belarus they would be imprisoned, so being able to live and work freely in Poland allows them to keep up the struggle for democratic change back home.

"There are people in Poland who remember their history and who have a kind of spiritual mission for promoting freedom. We are absolutely grateful to such people," said democracy activist Aliaksandr Atroshchankau. "But I want Europe to understand the Belarusian case isn't just Poland's responsibility."

Some Belarusians, satisfied with the economic security the state provides, are critical of Poland's efforts to promote democracy.

Dmitry Kuleshov, a 76-year-old pensioner, said he has watched Belsat a few times at the home of a neighbor with a satellite dish, and considers it "propaganda."

"Belsat makes fools of Belarusian people, stirs up hatred," he said.

Others have gone out and bought satellite dishes just to get its programming. One is Alla Bandarchik, a 43-year-old entrepreneur who says Belsat's programing has been an "eye-opener."

"Five state channels are engaged in propaganda," she said, "and only Belsat shows a true picture."

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