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You're reading: Poles help Belarus, recalling own repressive past

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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