Belarus Foreign Ministry Toys With The Belarusian Language

Minister of Foreign Affairs

Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenka said in 1994 that the Belarusian language was a poor one, unfit for expressing anything grand. His senior diplomats appear to be proving him wrong.

On 19 February, Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei publicly recited the poem "Motherland" written by Janka Kupala, a famous Belarusian poet. Two weeks later, his deputy, Alena Kupchyna, inaugurated an art exhibition in perfect Belarusian. Both of them share an internal conviction that Belarusian should play a greater role in public life.

The foreign ministry has long been a vanguard of the progressive Belarusian bureaucracy. However, despite these and other examples of changing attitude towards the national language, most diplomats still scarcely use it - more out of indifference and lack of proper guidance than because of any policy restrictions.

The Belarusian Language as a Cornerstone of the Country's Independence

Moscow's ideological coverage of its actions in Ukraine should have warned the Belarusian ruling elite of the vulnerability of having a weak national identity. Russia has been clearly demonstrating it is eager to stake out a claim in lands where Russian remains a predominant language.

Russian still heavily dominates Belarus' foreign ministry

The authorities have finally heard the warning shot across the bow. President Alexander Lukashenka spoke in Belarusian at a National Day holiday celebration in July. It sent a signal to the nomenklatura that they should not regard the use of national language an apanage of the opposition. Later on, Lukashenka and other senior officials advocated for a greater role of the Belarusian language and culture.

Many expected that the foreign ministry, as one of the country's showcase institutions, would take the lead in this process. This government agency has the advantage of employing many well-educated and open-minded people.

However, the results thus far have been mixed. While some changes are under way, the Russian language still heavily dominates the ministry's communications and internal workings.

The Belarusian Language: Personal Choice, Institutional Indifference

In mid-1990s, the prospects of the Belarusian language in the foreign ministry seemed much brighter. Piotr Krauchanka, the then foreign minister, conducted the meetings in Belarusian. Many diplomats, from attachés to Krauchanka's deputies, studied the language with a ministry-paid coach.

Language use depends on enthusiasts

Everything changed when Lukashenka arrived. The ministry has never expressly prohibited or penalised the use of Belarusian by diplomats in their work, though it has long failed to encourage or promote it either.

In fact, any advance or retreat of the Belarusian language's usage in the foreign ministry has rarely been an institutional decision. It mostly depended on personal choice or preferences of individuals working there. Here is a brief anecdote to support this point.

The foreign ministry has always had two telephone directories, one for the headquarters in Minsk and the other for its foreign missions. In 1995, a minister's assistant, a Belarusian-language enthusiast, translated both directories into Belarusian. The foreign ministry used them until 1998, when it merged with the ministry of external economic relations.

Then, another official, in charge of creating a unified directory, translated the old MFA's part back into Russian. Since then, the HQ directory has always been in Russian. As the merger never affected the foreign missions' network, their phone directory still exists and gets updated in Belarusian.

There have been no reports of the ministry preventing its staff from speaking or writing in Belarusian. The author of this article, while serving in the ministry from 1993 to 2006, drafted most of his correspondence in Belarusian – both internal memos and documents addressed to other government agencies.

These included a few memos to President Lukashenka on standing issues between Belarus and the US. Ural Latypov, the then foreign minister (born in Russia), signed them without posing any question with regard to the choice of the language. The author's preference for Belarusian never affected his career.

Two Waves of Belarusianisation?

Back in 2010, the foreign ministry adopted a set of measures to promote the use of Belarusian in its internal workings and external communications. (Ironically, they wrote the internal Belarusianisation plan in Russian).

The ministry failed to implement many of these measures, i.e. the provision on promoting the Belarusian language in the activities of the MFA-controlled National Centre for Marketing and Price Study. The plan died in December 2010, together with the thaw in relations with the West.

Only a handful of Belarusian embassies communicate in Belarusian

The 2010 plan included, among other things, a provision regarding the Belarusian-language versions of the ministry's and its foreign missions' web sites. The foreign ministry's web site acquired a Belarusian-language version only in July 2014, in the 23rd year of the country's independence. Now, the MFA's press service runs all news reports in three languages, Belarusian, Russian and English.

Previously, the Russian-language section of the web site hosted rare news items written in Belarusian. They came almost exclusively from a narrow circle of embassies – in Bonn, Budapest, Paris and Warsaw – as well as the permanent mission to the UN in New York.

MFA's spokesman reassured Belarus Digest that the ministry "remained committed to wider use of the Belarusian language"

All of Belarus' foreign missions, with the exception of the embassy in Moscow, have their web sites based on the same template, which allows one to choose between several languages. However, only four embassies out of over fifty – in France, Germany, Hungary and Poland – have Belarusian-language versions of their web sites.

About two dozen Belarus' embassies now have Twitter accounts. Only the embassy in France and the MFA's press service care to post some of their tweets in Belarusian.

MFA's spokesman Dzmitry Mironchyk reassured Belarus Digest that the ministry "remained committed to wider use of the Belarusian language in its daily activities and communications to the outside world". However, he stressed that the ministry embraced the principle of "reasonable sufficiency and maximum efficiency" when choosing the language for its communications.

In July 2014, the Belarusian-language newspaper Zviazda started a series of interviews with Belarusian ambassadors and other senior diplomats. The fact that it happened simultaneously with the emergence of the Belarusian-language web site would seem to indicate that a new wave of Belarusianisation is likely ahead.

However, it seems that the ministry is putting little effort into this process. Indeed, some steps do not even require any financial support or a much in the way of perseverance and could be quite symbolic, such as using Belarusian-language nameplates during official meetings.

While some changes in the foreign ministry's language policy are encouraging, they are happening much too slowly. For a new wave of Belarusianisation to succeed, the ministry's senior officials must show more determination, while rank-and-file diplomats need to show more interest and personal involvement. So far, these factors are largely lacking.

Igar Gubarevich is a senior analyst of the Ostrogorski Centre in Minsk. For a number of years he has been working in various diplomatic positions at the Belarusian Foreign Ministry.

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