Belarus Bans St. George's Ribbons at V-Day Celebrations

On the May 9th most post-Soviet countries, including Belarus, celebrate Victory Day to commemorate World War II.  

But unlike in previous years, this time around before May 9th state organisations in Belarus received an unexpected order - replace all V-Day decorations containing the St. George’s ribbon. 

Originally a Russian Empire military decoration, it was used during World War II in a modified form and since that time all former Soviet Union republics have widely used the symbol in their annual celebrations of Victory Day. 

However, after the separatist actions in Ukraine, where militants use the ribbon as their identifying colours, it has acquired a negative meaning and became associated with Russian imperialism.

Unlike in Ukraine, where this year authorities introduced a completely new symbol, the Belarusian authorities simply replaced it with the colours of green-red flag of Belarus. With such a move Lukashenka is demonstrating his unwillingness to back Russia-inspired separatism in Ukraine. 

History of St. George’s Ribbon

The Georgian ribbon emerged as part of the Order of St. George, established in 1769 as the highest military decoration of Russian Empire. After 1917 the Soviet authorities abolished the imperial award, but the black-orange ribbon was used in the Soviet Army under the name the Guard Ribbon on banners and decorations during World War II. Afterwards it became widely used in commemoration of World War II throughout the union.

The modern Russian army reestablished the Order of St. George, but in public opinion, which Putin’s propaganda has pushed, the imperial and Soviet ribbons are seen as identical and called the St. George’s ribbon.

The popularisation of the ribbon started back in 2005 with an ideological campaign in Russia. Activists began to distribute the ribbons among the population leading up to the annual Victory Day celebration on May 9th. People usually attach the ribbons to their clothes, cars and the black-orange colours are used on visual materials elsewhere.

However, in the current turmoil in Ukraine the St. George’s ribbon has become a symbol of pro-Russian separatists, who “fight Kyiv's fascist junta” for East Ukraine's independence.

Most militants in Ukraine wear the ribbon along with other separatist symbols. Due t this, the Ukrainian authorities banned the use of the ribbon as commemorative symbol for May 9th, although it had been widely used in the past. 

Previously, Belarus also supported the post-Soviet symbol and the authorities were ordered to distribute the ribbons among state organisations and government bodies. However, this year the Belarusian authorities have apparently banned the use of St. George’s ribbon - a decision that was almost certainly made at the highest levels of government.

No St. George’s Ribbon in Official Celebrations

On May 6th a photo of a note appeared in the Vkontakte social network which was sent to all the schools in Homiel. In the note the Homiel BRSM (Pro-government Youth organisation) chief, with a direct no nonsense message, ordered the schools not to use St. George’s ribbon in their V-Day celebrations, but instructed them instead to use the green-red colours of the Belarusian flag.

Another BRSM functionary from the central committee explained to Radio Liberty that the colours of Belarusian flag are the official colours of BRSM, and the organisation does not associate its activity with the St. George’s ribbon colours.

The pro-government Belaja Rus public association, which includes practically all representatives of the ruling elite of Belarus, said that it was not planning to use St. Georges ribbons in their annual celebration. “We never used them, we have used the green-red ribbons and our emblem”, commented the Belaja Rus press-secretary.

Many other state organisations also confirm in private that they were ordered to remove or replace all decorations containing the St. George’s ribbon leading up to May 9th. 

Not only the state but also private companies received the order not to use the ribbon. Belarusian retail giant Euroopt posted on its website that its volunteers will distribute the ribbons in large cities of Belarus from the 7-9 May. However, after multiple publications about the campaign in the media on May 7th Euroopt deleted the announcement.

Society and State in Symbolic Controversy

However, the authorities could not prevent some public associations and parties from distributing the ribbon.

The Liberal-Democratic Party, mostly loyal to the regime, claimed it will hand out the ribbons at its office and in the streets. Russian-backed organisations like Rus Molodaya (Young Rus') actively engaged in ribbon campaign in Belarusian cities, though fortunately they are very small in number.  

Opposition forces, on the contrary, urged the authorities not to use the ribbon calling it a symbol of separatism and military aggression. 

In Ukraine this year, authorities decided to introduce a new symbol of commemoration - a red poppy flower. According to Kiev, it presents a Europe-wide symbol of remembering war victims. Ukraine also launched their commerative celebration on May 8th as many countries of the anti-Nazi coalitions do annually. This symbol will avoid the glorification of war a la Soviet and will avoid parity with the separatist's symbol. 

The Belarusian authorities decided on their own approach to the problem in a more delicate and gentle manner. They did not announce a total ban on individual use, but in official celebrations replaced the orange-and-black symbol with the colours of the current flag of Belarus.

Many Belarusians would not accept a ban on donning St. Georges ribbons, as large portions of the population remain friendly to Soviet ideology and are heavily influenced by Russian propaganda. Despite this, the infamous symbol has become a rare sight in Minsk, particularly when considering its widespread usage in years past.  

Lukashenka Will not Back Separatism in Ukraine

This time around the celebration of Victory Day coincided with Lukashenka’s own urgent visit to Moscow, the details of which remain unknown. On 7 May he reassured Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev that, “Belarusians have never hesitated about celebrating Victory Day as the  [nation's] greatest holiday”, and invited Medvedev to visit the new museum of the Great Patriotic War in Minsk.  But these words sound like an excuse for the recently altered policies from the Belarusian leadership towards St. George's ribbon in Belarus, an issue which has caused discontent in Russian media in recent days.

Interestingly, in 2010 in Moscow during the commemoration events Lukashenka himself wore the green-red ribbon of Belarusian flag, while his colleagues, Medvedev and Yanukovych, wore St. George ribbons.  It should also be noted that in Belarus, Lukashenka has always worn only the nation's flag colours during WWII commemorations.

The fact that the ribbon's usage was banned at the highest level demonstrates that Lukashenka is currently very suspicious of Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

Lukashenka refused to officially recognise the Crimea annexation and supports Ukraine’s territorial integrity and non-federalisation. At the annual address to the nation and Parliament in April he employed a fair amount of independence rhetoric and went on about the importance of preserving Belarus’ sovereignty as the unfolding regional crisis continues. The case of St. George's ribbon has become another sign of Minsk's altered view of the Kremlin politics.

Vadzim Smok is the Ostrogorski Centre coordinator in Belarus and researcher at the Institute of Political Studies 'Political Sphere' based in Minsk and Vilnius.

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