- Associated Press - Thursday, September 20, 2012

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — 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.

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