Polish-Supported Broadcasts Key Tool In Battle Against Lukashenko Regime
By GORDON FAIRCLOUGH
WARSAW-From a cramped TV studio here in the Polish capital, a small team of dissident Belarussian journalists beams newscasts back home, reporting on a severe crackdown against pro-democracy forces being waged by their former Soviet republic's authoritarian leader.
The station, funded by the Polish government, has become an increasingly critical source of independent information for people in Belarus since security forces there beat and arrested hundreds of participants in a massive street protest that followed last month's disputed presidential election.
In a TV studio in the Polish capital, a small group of exiled Belarusian journalists prepare news reports for their countrymen back home. The station, called BelSat, is funded by the Polish government. WSJ's Marcin Sobczyk reports from Warsaw.
For Poland, the TV operation, known as Belsat, is a critical part of its efforts to foster democratic change across the border in neighboring Belarus, where President Alexander Lukashenko has held power for 16 years and kept a tight lid on dissent.
On Monday, European Union foreign ministers are expected to impose travel restrictions on senior Belarussian officials and freeze their bank accounts, diplomats say, in an effort to pressure Mr. Lukashenko to release political prisoners. Among those jailed are opposition presidential candidates.
Such sanctions "should be a first step," says Artur Michalski, a senior Polish diplomat who oversees Belarus affairs. "We cannot ignore a situation occurring right on our doorstep. What happened in Minsk was a dramatic step backwards."
Poles say their own transition from dictatorship to democracy has made them determined to help Belarus. When Poland struggled to end communism, support from abroad made a big difference, says Mr. Michalski. "We saw that we were not alone. We know how important that is."
Poland has been among the harshest critics of Mr. Lukashenko's moves to crush his opponents after the Dec. 19 election, in which he was declared the winner with nearly 80% of the vote. The results have been challenged by the U.S. and the EU, citing election monitoring by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which found "bad or very bad" ballot counting in half of the country's precincts.
Warsaw has lobbied other EU states to step up pressure on Mr. Lukashenko and boost support for ordinary Belarussians.
Speaking in parliament in Minsk on Thursday, Mr. Lukashenko said Poland is plotting to overthrow him in an effort to redraw its border with Belarus, which is home to a large number of ethnic Poles.
Poland's Foreign Ministry dismissed his allegations, saying it wouldn't react to "this kind of provocation."
The nearby Czech Republic, as well as Germany, the United Kingdom and the U.S. have also spoken out strongly against Mr. Lukashenko. Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg on Thursday said, "It is not possible to tolerate a pure dictatorship in the 21st century" in Europe.
Belarus's hard line toward opposition politicians has forced EU governments to rethink previous efforts to engage with Mr. Lukashenko's administration. Still, some member states have been wary about imposing severe penalties that they fear could drive Belarus back into the arms of its former political masters in Moscow.
Polish diplomats are urging not just sanctions, but also aid for Belarussian dissidents and increased support from across the EU for initiatives such as Belsat and other independent media. Poland has organized a conference for potential donors next week in Warsaw to raise funds for "democratization" in Belarus.
For years, Poland has offered scholarships to Belarussian students expelled from university at home because of their political activities. The government also funds groups that provide money to the families of political prisoners and dissidents in trouble.
In Belsat's studio in a Polish Public Television building, an anchorman kicked off the evening news Wednesday with a story about the role of security forces in dispersing the massive street demonstrations in Minsk the night of the elections. He reported on a petition campaign in Minsk demanding the release of political prisoners and on continuing searches by the KGB, the state security agency that still uses its Soviet-era name.
One man who signed the petition told a Belsat reporter: "They didn't arrest the people who should have been arrested."
Back in Belarus, official state television tends to focus on Mr. Lukashenko, with echoes of Soviet propaganda efforts. The Belarussian president is often shown offering guidance at farms and factories. Coverage of other European countries tends to focus on economic dislocation and political turmoil.
Mara Nalshanskaja, a presenter of European Radio for Belarus, in the studio in Warsaw on Thursday.