- Associated Press - Sunday, September 23, 2012

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 about 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 also are engaged in the cause, including the United States and Sweden.

But perhaps nowhere is there as much support, at both the grass-roots and government levels, 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 sizable ethnic Polish minority in Belarus that faces harassment, to the great concern of Poland.

Electronic media

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 also would like to see a weakening of Moscow’s influence in the region, as memories of past Russian domination are still vivid.

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