Editorial: supporting Belsat is in the real interest of Warsaw and Minsk
In an interview published yesterday on Wpolityce.pl, Poland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Witold Waszczykowski announced that his Ministry is considering closing down Belsat, the only Belarusian language satellite channel.
The possibility that Belsat may be taken off the air has shocked Belarusian civil society as it is probably the largest Western-sponsored project aimed at Belarus.
Without the active pro-democracy and pro-independence minority in Belarus, which creates and relies on Belsat, the prospect of Belarus being entirely swallowed up by the Russian world could become even more real. Neither the Polish nor the Belarusian authorities want it.
What is Belsat?
Belsat is a Warsaw-based satellite and web TV channel available online and via satellite across central Europe. The channel emerged in 2007 as the result of an agreement between the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Polish Public Television. The agreement provided for long-term cooperation and financial support.
According to Belsat’s mission statement, its main goal is to provide ‘Belarusian society with access to uncensored information, a true account of the history of their country, a complete picture of the international situation that surrounds Belarus and to offer appealing cultural and entertainment in the Belarusian mother tongue.' In addition, the channel's goals include 'building bridges between Europe and Belarus and promoting democratisation in the country.'
On 18 December, nine years after Belsat was broadcast for the first time, Poland’s Foreign Minister explained why Belsat may need to be taken off the air: the non-attractiveness of the channel to the general Belarusian public; a promise by the Belarusian authorities to allow Polish official television onto their cable networks, and the need to redirect money to other causes in Asia and Africa.
Increasing the reach of Belsat
Although the majority of Belarusians probably know very little about Belsat, when it comes to the pro-democracy minority of the country there is certainly a significant viewership.
Belarus has not yet formed as a nation with a clear set of values and a common vision of history, and the nearly complete domination of the Russian media in Belarus is making this process increasingly difficult. Belsat features multiple talk shows, and programmes on Belarusian society, history and human rights issues. These broadcasts help strengthen Belarusian national and civic identity as the activities of the active minority become increasingly important.
Belsat has without a doubt become a platform for the active democratically-minded minority and it remains the only such television platform. Over the last two years the channel has also increased its presence on social networks, extending its reach to people not interested in politics.
Polish TV on Belarusian cable networks - no more than a promise?
The most appealing aspect of the Belsat brand is that its content is created by Belarusians for Belarusians.
The Belarusian authorities outwardly promised that they would allow Polish public television to Belarusian cable networks, which would reach a much broader audience. Sacrificing Belsat in exchange for this would actually result in a dramatic reduction in opportunities for Poland to offer an alternative view.
The most appealing aspect of the Belsat brand is that its content is created by Belarusians for Belarusians. Broadcasting footage about Polish life to Belarusians is unlikely to have a greater effect on democracy and nation-buiding in Belarus than showing American movies. Studies of Germans in socialist Eastern Germany showed that exposure to Western German channels had no visible effect on values or attitudes to democracy. Exposing Belarusians to Polish television would be no different.
If the language of translation switches from Belarusian to English or Polish, only a tiny minority of people in Belarus would actually be able to understand it. If the broadcasts were in Russian, it would be viewed as entertainment. When it comes to entertainment, Russian channels are much better funded and Polish-produced content would have no chance of competing.
One call from the Kremlin could easily remove any Polish or Ukrainian channels from Belarusian cable networks
Moreover, the promise to allow access to official Polish television may remain just a promise. In December 2014 Belarusian President Lukashenka and Ukraine's Poroshenko agreed to include the Ukrainian UATV channel on Belarusian cable networks. Until now this has remained at the level of discussions.
Moreover, one call from the Kremlin could easily remove any Polish or Ukrainian channels from Belarusian cable networks, almost completely dominated by Russian channels. Removing Belsat from the Internet or satellite would be a much more difficult task.
To have effective influence on Belarus, Poland should keep Belsat, one of its main assets when it comes to influencing public opinion in Belarus. To be effective, it must remain a channel produced by Belarusians for Belarusians.
Poland as the EU’s main expert on Belarus
In closing down Belsat Poland would send a clear signal that it is removing Belarus from its list of priorities. Poland remains the only large EU country which has an understanding of and deep cultural connections with Belarus. Re-focusing their efforts on the Arab world would mean the Polish government, think tanks and civil society would squander their long-accumulated expertise and have to learn how to work in culturally and geographically distant regions from scratch.
Poland is under no obligation to support democratic causes in Belarus
Needless to say, although Poland has no obligation to support democratic causes in Belarus, Ukraine or elsewhere, for decades it has been doing so. Refugees and wars in the Middle East represent the symptoms rather than causes of social problems. A lack of fair elections, intolerance, corruption, inequality has caused anger which has resulted in bloody wars. Belsat with its focus on tolerance of different opinions, meaningful public debate and common history can help prevent greater problems for Poland and the European Union as a whole.
Belsat and the Russian World
Contrary to common perception, the Belarusian authorities tolerate Belsat to a certain degree. The Belarusian Foreign Ministry has never officially demanded that Poland close down Belsat. On issues such as Belarusian independence, history or the situation in Ukraine, Belsat can openly say things which no Belarusian official channel would dare to for fear of offending Russia.
Belsat does need reform. But rather than scrapping the nearly ten year old brand, its appeal and reach should be improved.
The hands of the Belarusian authorities are tied by Moscow jealously observing any overtures with the West. Both Warsaw and Minsk should be interested in keeping Belarus as an independent state between the European Union and Russia, strengthening the national identity of Belarusians and slowly reforming the country.
In this context, Belsat remains one of the greatest achievements of Polish foreign policy and one of its most valuable instruments. Belsat does need reform. But rather than scrapping the nearly ten year old brand, its appeal and reach should be improved with target-oriented long-term funding, and greater participation of the Belarusian and Polish civil society in shaping it.
Massive financial help to Poland from the West in 1980s and 1990s helped it achieve its current success. Belsat should be not only Poland’s concern but also that of other European countries and organisations which care about preserving the fragile Belarusian statehood endangered by an increasingly assertive Russia.