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Iron Andrzej

December 15, 2011 - Katarzyna Kwiatkowska - Bez kategorii

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Update June 21, 2012: Andrzej Poczobut, a well-known Belarusian Pole, a correspondent for Gazeta Wyborcza and chairman of the Board of the Union of Poles in Belarus (UPB) was arrested again in Belarus on June 21, 2012. 

In April 2011 Poczobut was arrested in Belarus for his reporting and in July he received a three year probationary sentence. A portrait of Poczobut appeared in the first issue of New Eastern Europe.

“‘Bring some lokum back from Turkey,’ he told me, ‘I need to indulge myself, since soon they will lock me up’. When I came back, he was already in jail,” Joanna Kędzierska of Polish Radio shows the box full of the Turkish delight. “They were waiting for him. I was glad that I could finally bring them to him. Andrzej loves sweets. It's probably his only weakness”.

“He joked that prison will be good for his weight,” Roman Imielski, the chief of the foreign section of Gazeta Wyborcza smiles. After a minute, he adds seriously, “'no one expected a happy ending to this story”.

Andrzej Poczobut is a correspondent for Gazeta Wyborcza and a known activist of the Union of Poles in Belarus. He had prior knowledge of his arrest. He was informed that the prosecution was preparing a criminal case against him. Whether it was a tipoff or an unexpected surge of sympathy from someone with authority, it is not known. One thing is certain, the authorities were not joking.

After December 19th, 2010, Belarus experienced a period of repression. Although he unsurprisingly won the presidential elections, Alexander Lukashenko, the first man in the country, was apparently frightened by the protests that shook the capital. OMON brutally dealt with the opposition, to the disbelief of many EU diplomats, who were counting on a political thaw in the “last dictatorship of Europe”. The president’s opponents ended up in prison. Hundreds of protesters who took part in the post-election demonstrations were arrested. The most vocal critics of the government received long sentences. Poczobut was accused of publicly insulting the head of state. In Belarus, this is a serious offense that carries up to several years in prison.

A Local Man

At any moment he could have left Belarus for Poland with his family. Nobody from the Union of Poles in Belarus would have criticised him. After all, Poczobut has two children. The youngest is not even two years old.  In Poland, he would have found a job easily.  But he gave no thought to the idea of leaving his homeland.

“I did not do anything wrong, I do not have to run away,” he said. “Let Alexander Lukashenko finally leave this place”.

One thing needs to be made known about Andrzej Poczobut. He is so damned fond of his small homeland: “When he needed to be in Warsaw, it was just to drop by,” Joanna Kędzierska recalls. “As fast as he could, he would take care of different matters and immediately return home. It even annoyed me a bit. I would say many times: ‘Andrzej you have shown me your hometown, let me now show you some interesting places in Warsaw’”.

“‘Joanna,’ he would reply, ‘for me there is only place – the Grodno region’”.

He was born in 1973 in the village of Bierastavica, 10 km from the Polish border. His father, Stanislaw, was a known Polish activist in the area. As a young man, his father left Belarus in search of happiness. “While I was weeding my flowerbeds in the garden, I looked up and there was Stashu (short for Stanislaw) with a bundle going off into the world,” his neighbour Teresa Porzecka recalled to reporters. The elder Poczubut travelled throughout the Soviet Union. He studied in Odessa, he served in the Far East; he was even a sailor at one point. At the age of 28 he returned to his homeland. He married and had two sons. But Andrzej was never attracted to the outside world. He did not even leave Grodno to go to college.

“It's amazing that he is so Polish, and yet wasn’t even brought up in Poland,'' says the director of BelsatTV, Agnieszka Romaszewska-Guzy. He was one of the few activists in the Union of Poles in Belarus (UPB) of that generation that was not a graduate of a Polish university. “Meanwhile, his Polish identity,” continues the journalist “is contained primarily in the professed value system and a willingness to take risks in their defence”.  After staying with the UPB activists, a person gets a new understanding of the word “patriotism”.

Under Soviet rule there were no Polish schools in the Grodno region. The first Polish organisation was founded only in the times of perestroika, in 1988; perhaps because the attachment to Polish culture is so strong here. That attachment is exhibited by the numerous crosses, eagles and red and white flags.

“I will never forget the visit to Sopockin,” Joanna Kędzierska recalls. “Andrzej and his younger brother, Stanislaw, took me there. We entered one of the properties. It was an old, rundown house. There, in the backyard, I saw our emblem. In Poland you can't find such backyards”.

Despite the patriotic fervour, Belarusian Poles are not nationalists. “Typically, minorities tend to isolate themselves from the dominant population of a given country,” Agnieszka Romaszewska says. “Grodno surprised me with its great openness to other cultures. As Poles, these people are patriots of Belarus”.

When the Union of Poles was started, Poczobut signed up his whole family. At the time, he began to study law. When he finished his studies, Alexander Lukashenko had just started his rule of Belarus. Poczobut realised that he would not find a place for himself in the new judiciary. He then decided to become a journalist.

At first, he worked with independent newspapers from Grodno. But there were fewer and fewer of them. The newly chosen president of the UPB, Andżelika Borys, proposed that he take control of the Polish newspaper that they published. He became the editor-in-chief of the Polish magazine in exile. The UPB was on the brink of a turning point in history.

A duo with personality

Unexpectedly, in March 2005, Andżelika Borys surprised the Belarusian government when she replaced Tadeusz Kruczkowski, then president of the UPB, and who turned out to be cooperating with the regime. Two months later, the Ministry of Justice recognised this decision as illegal.

“If it was simply national dances and patriotic songs, the Belarusian authorities would have allowed the Association to operate,” says Agnieszka Romaszewska. “But the UPB activists understood Polishness as a set of values ​​associated with freedom and that was something that Lukashenko cannot come to terms with”.  Refusing to acknowledge the ministry's decision, the Poles from Grodno announced a protest. As a result, the organisation splintered, with the officially recognised UPB dubbed “Prolukashenko” and those that supported Andżelika Borys nicknamed “the underground”.  Those who decided to stick with Borys risked a lot. An unequal struggle with Lukashenko's regime began, in which Poczobut was an active participant.

Poczobut is a burly, quiet man, but if you press him against the wall, he reveals an incredibly tough character. “Andrzej strongly believes in his arguments and always says what he thinks,” Joanna Kędzierska confirmed.

It seems that he has some contradicting traits. On one hand, he is a political fighter and can be aggressive in his fight, but towards his friends he is a wonderful, warm man, like a teddy bear. Despite numerous interrogations, surveillance, threats and the subsequent seizures of property, the UPB underground activists did not intend to give up. Poczubut and Borys created a complementary, dynamic duo.

“Their partnership worked great,” says Agnieszka Romaszewska. “He has the ability to think strategically and has extensive contacts in Belarusian opposition circles; she has common sense. Andżelika was primarily an educational activist, less clued into the broader issues. Poczobut meanwhile was the minister of external affairs of the union”.

In 2006, Poczobut began working with Gazeta Wyborcza. “I am primarily a journalist,” he explains. “I became an activist somewhat by accident. When the hard times came, I had to assume the position. Imagine that an educational-cultural organisation, which organised concerts and cared for graves, was suddenly accused of plotting a coup! The Secret Service confiscated our Polish homes, people were shocked”.

Polish public opinion declared itself on the side of the “illegals”. Andżelika, somewhat exaggeratedly, was called “Walesa in a skirt”. The leaders of the rebellious movement often visited their motherland. Conferences and high level meetings awaited them in Poland, along with media sympathy. The Polish diplomacy also supported Borys and her team.

In 2008, however, European politicians chose a new course of action towards Lukashenko. To use a media metaphor, it was called the reversal of the carrot and the stick. With the help of loans and concessions they tried to soften his manners and encourage him to a pro-democratic transition. The UPB underground activists from the very beginning opposed this kind of politics. Concerned voices declared that the Polish diplomacy is ready to sacrifice the UPB in the name of improving relations with Minsk.

It was about this time that the collaboration between Borys and Poczobut began to suffer. “I think it was because of a personality clash,” explains Romaszewska. “They both have strong and very domineering personalities. Andrzej has always defended Andżelika. At a certain point, she came to the conclusion that it limits her”.

After so many years of fighting, their persistence was beginning to wear thin. On June 14th, 2010, Andżelika announced her resignation as the President of the UPB. Officially, it was for personal reasons. Unofficially, it is said that the reason for the decision was the growing pressure of Polish diplomats interested in a compromise with Lukashenko.

The Criminal Case

Poczobut, since 2008 a correspondent for Gazeta Wyborcza, often depicted the political situation in Belarus on the pages of the largest Polish daily newspaper. “He has extensive contacts and analytical thinking abilities,” boasts his superior, Roman Imielski. “He is a very good journalist”. Most importantly, he is not afraid to write.

Some of the accredited correspondents in Belarus are trying to weigh their words because of fear of being banned from the country. Poczobut, a Belarusian citizen, cannot be thrown out of the country. They could try to intimidate him by threating him with a jail sentence, but as it turned out, unsuccessfully.

“Of course, I was afraid,” Poczobut says of the three-month stay in prison. “But one has to control the fear”.

After his April arrest, a wide-ranging campaign of support started to take hold. This was a ridiculous accusation,” Imielski explains. “Our duty was to give it publicity. From the beginning we knew of the wrongful imprisonment of Andrzej. We needed to make it a matter of European importance. He became a symbol. Some famous politicians from the West spoke out in his defence. Even US President Barack Obama, during his visit to Warsaw, mentioned him”.

“In prison,” Poczobut recalls, “One of the investigators told me: ‘Mr. Poczobut, oh what a political future you are building for yourself!’ I suggested that he switch with me so I could to my children”.

The last hour of the decisive trial, he spent in solitary confinement in court. The tension was terrible. Finally at the end of the trial, the sentence was announced.  He was found guilty and received a three year probationary sentence. Despite the prevailing euphoria of his release, Poczobut’s friends were outraged by the unjust sentence. He will appeal this sentence. He will not resign from his newspaper post, despite the risk of going behind bars again, and next time for much longer.

“Someone thought that they can train me,” he explains calmly. “The pressure grips at me even more. I could not give freedom up. Even while in prison, I felt free. They were more scared than I was”.

Grodno is a small town. Sometimes, Poczobut runs into his former prison guards. They look away. He does not have to.

“For Andrzej, everything is either black or white. He does not stagger between the grays,” Joanna Kędzierska explains. “He walks a straight path”.

Katarzyna Kwiatkowska is a journalist and member of the editorial board of the quarterly Res Publica Nowa.

Translated by Łucja Wąsowska

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