How Russian Culture and Media Shape Belarusian Politics

On 31 January the director of the National Book Chamber of Belarus claimed that the Belarusian publishers printed eight times more books in Russian than in Belarusian in 2013. This data illustrates well the position that Russian culture occupies in Belarus.

The Russian language dominates the cultural and media space. Belarusians prefer to surf Russian websites like mail.ru and to watch Russian TV series like The Real Guys more than their Belarusian or Western equivalents.

Russian cultures' dominance hampers Belarusian nation-building, a process that further inhibits the nation's democratisation. To promote the development of Belarusian society the West could support Belarusian culture, media, and scholarship more than it does at present. 

Success of Russian Culture in Belarus

In 2013 Belarusian publishers printed 31 million books, with the share of books in Belarusian constituting about 10%. Over the same period, books printed in Russian-language accounted for the absolute majority of books in the country with 82.5% of the total market.

This phenomenon is a result of Belarusians' weak national identity and the russification policy pursued by Lukashenka`s regime. National identity remains the core of the nation's democratic movement, and for this reason the authorities deliberately marginalise the Belarusian language. As Lukashenka said in 1994, "it is impossible to express anything great in the Belarusian language. The Belarusian language is an impoverished language.”

Russian culture in Belarus remains more popular than Belarusian. The weak financial state of the Belarusian show-business only makes the situation worse. Belarus simply does not have enough money to produce a substantial enough level of popular culture entertainment, so Russian movies and TV series remain popular among Belarusians.

Most popular TV series in the Hrodna region according to the search on yandex.by in October 2013.

Position TV Series Country
1 The Real Guys (Realnyje pacany) Russia
2 The Vampire Diaries USA
3 Kitchen (Kuchnia) Russia
4 University (Univer) Russia
5 Karpov Russia

The Belarusian music industry has a keen sense of its inferiority alongside its Russian neighbours. Many artists dream to find a producer in Moscow and become popular in Russia.

Max Korzh, a Belarusian artist, who use to rap in Belarusian, then began to start to perform in Russian -- and as a result, soon became much more popular. His concerts bring together many people from Belarus, Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union. The famous Belarusian band Lyapis Trubeckoy is soon releasing its new album entitled "Matrioshka", a cultural item usually associated with Russia.

Russian Influence on Belarusian Media Space

Russian-language print media dominates Belarus' print and online media. According to Gemius, a research agency, only two Belarusian sites are in the top ten most popular Internet sites in Belarus.

The most popular Internet pages in Belarus

Position Web site Description Country

Reach of
the Belarusian audience

1 Mail.ru E-postal service, information portal Russia 64.44 %
2 Google.com Search engine USA 59.77 %
3 Yandex.by Search engine Russia 53.50 %
4 Vk.com Social network Russia 51.90 %
5 Tut.by Postal service, information portal Belarus 43.43 %
6 Youtube.com Video hosting USA 40.52 %
7 ru.wikipedia.org Internet encyclopaedia USA 33.69 %
8 Odnoklassniki.ru Social network Russia 31.75 %
9 Onliner.by Information portal Belarus 28.22 %
10 Facebook.com Social network USA 20.54 %

Source: Gemius Russia & Belarus (online research agency)

The popularity of Russian web sites shows that Belarus is very much rooted in Russia. Russian-language media stands alone at the top of news and information sites. This is evidence of the fact that the Belarusian language remains unpopular among Belarusians, but it also shows that Belarusian-language media needs much more investment in order to begin to compete with its Russian language counterparts.

Belarusian Russian-language media should not be viewed as agents of the Kremlin. For example, Tut.by maintains its own independent perspectives and positions on a number of issues. They chose to use Russian due to market demand and not because they have a particular desire to do so.

While it may seem to be a logical exercise to rate Belarusian newspapers, creating a similar rating for newspapers does not make sense, as the Belarusian authorities force public enterprises to subscribe to them. As a result, many newspapers are either laying on desktops gathering dust or are immediately consigned to the rubbish bin.

Belarusians watch Russian television more than Belarusian, as Russian television offers programmes that have superior production and are much more interesting to a Belarusian audience. Russian television, though, remains highly dependent on the Kremlin and has long been a tool of Russian foreign policy. On the eve of the presidential election in 2010 Russian NTV aired a series of documentaries entitled (in English) The Godfather, which openly portrayed the cruelty of Lukashenka`s regime with a bit of propagandistic bombast.

Belarusians do not trust their own domestic public media, yet still have faith in Russia's own offering. As a result, Belarusians often share a Russian propagandistic point of view on the events such as Euromaidan in Ukraine or the Russian invasion of Georgia.

Living in a Russian World

Belarusians' addiction to Russian culture and media is in large part responsible for the nation's political dependence on Russia and the geopolitical situation in Belarus. According to Agata Wierzbowska-Miazga of the Centre for Eastern Studies in Poland, Belarus is the only country in the Commonwealth of the Independent States which has no office for "Russian World" - a cultural outreach centre that promotes Russian culture. It seems that the Kremlin sees Belarus as almost entirely culturally dependent on Russia and therefore the authorities in Moscow see no point in opening an office in Belarus, a territory that is more or less considered to be a part of Russia to them.

It is also no secret that Russian and Soviet historians have been working against their Belarusian counterparts.  Given the sheer size and volume of their output, it should not be much a surprise that they are winning.  Even the names of Belarusian streets often carry Russian names, and statues of Lenin still stand stall in nearly every city in Belarus. At present, around 65 monuments to Lenin remain in Belarus.

It remains cheaper for Belarusians to buy items of Russian issue than to produce their own

It remains cheaper for Belarusians to buy items of Russian issue than to produce their own. To put it in other terms, Russian culture is more attractive to a vast majority of Belarusians, and its media can offer news with a more professional appearance at a quicker pace in comparison to their would-be Belarusian counterparts.

Many Belarusians, Russians and Westerners look at Belarus through Russia`s glasses, a fact that only deepens the crisis of the young nation. The democratisation of Belarus does not always necessarily mean a political struggle and should be approached differently.

Today, the West can assign more resources to the development of Belarusian-language media, scholarship and culture. It is precisely for this reason that projects contributing to the development of the Belarusian language should be a priority for western policymakers.

The process of democratisation in Belarus means much more than developing a political consciousness among its citizenry . In many ways it is also a question of civilising the country. In order to better contribute to the promotion of democracy in Belarus, the West can support more cultural events like Language or Coffee (Mova ci kava) or educational projects aimed not only at pro-democratic Belarusians, but all segments of society.

The West can do a great deal to help Belarusians to rebuild their own world.

Ryhor Astapenia is a Development Director at the Ostrogorski Centre, and editor-in-chief of Belarusian internet magazine Idea.

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