Poland revives cold-war tactic: democracy via radio
Beamed nightly into next-door Belarus, Radio Racja supplements state-run media.
BIALYSTOK, POLAND — It's a passion radio journalist Aliaxey Minchonak had to leave his country to indulge: sending his favorite rock music onto the airwaves.
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.
But Belarussian Embassy spokesman in Warsaw Dmitrij Wybornyj contends that his countrymen have plenty of choices when it comes to media, and is skeptical of outlets such as Radio Racja. "The aim of these stations is just to spend money given by the EU or the Polish government," he says.
Yet Polish analysts and Radio Racja staffers say such broadcasts are often the only way Belarussians hear from opposition politicians, who rarely get coverage in state media.
While Radio Racja isn't the only foreign station that reaches Belarus - others include broadcasts by Radio Free Europe and Germany's Deutsche Welle - it's the only one focused on Belarussian politics and news.
For Poles, the radio is also the continuation of a legacy. "When communism was in Eastern Europe, we had five or six stations," says Jan Malicki, head of the University of Warsaw's East European Studies Center. "The citizens of Belarus deserve more sources of information than just Belarussian state TV."
When thousands of people protested in Minsk around the March elections, Belarussian state TV described them as drug addicts and degenerate troublemakers. Mr. Minchonak, the rock-music fan, says he was one of the few journalists interviewing the protesters for a Belarussian audience.
"People interested in Belarussian politics want alternative information. My friends in Minsk listen to the station," says the 22-year-old, in Bialystok for a two-week visit before heading back to Belarus. "Young people and not very young people listen."
But reporting from Belarus can be tricky for Radio Racja staffers. Michal Androsiuk, who helps coordinate the reporters, says that because of government pressure, correspondents often use pseudonyms and have trouble getting press accreditation. And reporters are often arrested on public obscenity charges.
Calling a reporter recently, Mr. Androsiuk was surprised to learn he was answering from the back of a police van. "He had been arrested just before he was to go on air, but the police forgot to take his phone away," Androsiuk recalls. "So he did the report from the back of the truck" - on his way to a week in jail.
Radio Racja and Poland's active role in supporting Belarussian opposition figures and media has put it at odds with Moscow, which has been a strong supporter of Lukashenko's regime.
Russian President Vladimir Putin immediately endorsed the results of the March elections, and has warned the European Union and the US not to interfere in Belarus. US Vice President Dick Cheney told a gathering of European leaders in Lithuania recently, "There's no place in a Europe whole and free for a regime of this kind."
Poland is also at odds with some of its neighbors, who prefer to work with Moscow when it comes to political change in ex-Soviet states.
"It's a big mistake to think that we need to talk to Russia first when it comes to Belarus and Ukraine," says Malicki. "Are these places part of Russia? No - they haven't been for 15 years."
Though Radio Racja is still in its early days, its staffers say they're in it for as long as it takes to bring democracy to Belarus. "I'm a simple person, and I can't do much. But what I can do, I should," says Androsiuk. "There's no room in Europe for a dictatorship."