Poland revives cold-war tactic: democracy via radio
Beamed nightly into next-door Belarus, Radio Racja supplements state-run media.
It's a passion radio journalist Aliaxey Minchonak had to leave his country to indulge: sending his favorite rock music onto the airwaves.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Back home in Belarus, bands like "Independent Republic of Dreams" are forbidden - and so, it would seem, are the ideals they espouse.
But here in a ramshackle building not far from the Belarussian border, a Polish-funded team of reporters is offering an alternative to the state media monopoly in neighboring Belarus - a country they refer to as Europe's last dictatorship.
Mindful of the Western support that sustained their own opposition movement in the 1970s and '80s, Poles are resurrecting a tool that went out of style at the end of the cold war: radio.
"What is needed is long-term engagement to build democratic society in Belarus," says Pawel Wolowski, a director at Warsaw's Center for Eastern Studies. "The [opposition] Solidarity movement in the '80s experienced a big deal of help from the West, and we understand that such help is needed for Belarus."
An evening program of news and music, Radio Racja is beamed nightly from AM and short-wave transmitters in Poland and Lithuania to Belarus. The station began in 1999 with American funding, but money ran out in 2002.
The station was reopened just weeks before Belarus's March elections this year, this time funded by the Polish government. Its offices still look a bit like no one's had time to unpack, with the mint-green walls bare except for a white- and red-striped flag used as a symbol by Belarussian democracy activists.
The fledgling movement has been buoyed by the examples of Georgia and Ukraine, and by Western support, but remains small, with rally attendance in the thousands.
"Belarussian society is still very conservative, and stability, peace, and economic well-being are the main values in everyday life," says Wolowski, suggesting that most Belarussians seem to have chosen the stability of an authoritarian state over the chaos and unemployment that followed democratic transitions in neighboring Ukraine.
But that hasn't stemmed the enthusiasm of Radio Racja's reporters. They say that since their message is coming from next door, and not from a distant superpower - as in the case of similar Iron Curtain-era broadcasts - it will be more effective.
"Neighbors know more about how to talk to each other," says station director Eugeniusz Wappa. "And Belarus is Poland's neighbor."
For Poland, now a member of both NATO and the European Union, Belarus is a painful reminder of decades of communist repression. On March 19, Belarussian president Aleksander Lukashenko was reelected in a vote opposition leaders and international observers say was rigged. March's rallies in Minsk ended in hundreds of arrests, and in late March several of the country's leading opposition figures were thrown in jail after attending rallies marking the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster.
Lukashenko's regime tightly controls the Belarussian press; there are only a handful of privately-owned papers with national distribution and no independent radio or television. More than two-thirds of Belarussians get their information from government-controlled TV and radio, according to a 2005 survey by NISEPI, an independent Belarussian polling group.