Is Lukashenka Trying to Emancipate Belarus from Russian Culture?

On 29 September, Alexander Lukashenka stated that schools should increase the number of Belarusian language lessons they teach.

Following Lukashenka's public speech in Belarusian in July this year, a rare even in and of itself, the retirement of some pro-Russian officials and the unveiling of a monument to the Great Duke Alhierd all show that the authorities realise the need to strengthen national identity as war rages on in Ukraine.

Even if this attempt at Belarusisation does not become Lukashenka's official policy, the government de facto declared a policy of non-aggression towards the Belarusian language after decades of suppressing it. Low-level officials will not be afraid to support it, and cultural organisations will have more opportunities for development.

Is Lukashenka Becoming More Belarusian?

The Belarusian head of state can hardly be accused of nationalism. As far back as 1994, Lukashenka famously declared, "People who speak the Belarusian language cannot do anything else apart from speak the Belarusian language, because it's impossible to express anything great in Belarusian”.

One year after he rose to power, he granted both the Russian language and Soviet symbols official state status. Consequently, Belarusians have seen a shift in their identities. In 1999, 73.7% of Belarusians called Belarusian their native language, while in 2009 only 53.2% did so.​

At the beginning of the 1990s, a third of schoolchildren received their education in Belarusian. Today, even regional centres and large cities do not have a single Belarusian-language school. Even the remaining schools that are considered 'Belarusian' lack basic Belarusian-language textbooks, so teachers conduct lessons in Russian.

In a recent article published on 27 September, the Nasha Niva weekly wrote that they could not find either contour maps or manuals for geography in the Belarusian language in any of the shops they visited. Lately, however, it appears that the Belarusian authorities are finally showing signs that they are capable of changing.

On 29 September, Alexander Lukashenka told deputies from the House of Representatives that Belarus should pay more attention to the study of the Belarusian language in its schools. Several months ago, on Independence Day, Lukashenka spoke Belarusian in public for the first time in many years. Many Belarusian cities now have large billboards advertising the Belarusian language scattered throughout their urban landscapes.

The surprising changes underway concern more than just language too.

Earlier this summer, the authorities in Vitebsk erected a monument to the Great Duke Alhierd, a historical Belarusian figure, who successfully fought against, among others, the Russians. It is the first monument in Belarus dedicated to the head of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

That was not without its own controversy, as it led to a backlash from the nation's multitude of pro-Russian organisations. The history of the Grand Duchy tends to nurture in Belarusians feelings of historical dignity, making them feel like they are a part of the Western civilization, a history that is separate from Russia.

On 3 July 2014, the authorities renamed Soviet Square in the city of Mahiliou to the Square of Glory. According to the officials, the former name covered only a short period of history, implying that it was an out-of-date relic.

Even within the ranks of the Belarusian authorities, openly pro-Russian figures are starting to disappear. Leu Kshyshtapovich, who previously served as the deputy head of the Informational-Analytical Centre of the Presidential Administration and was known for his favourable views towards Russian imperialism, recently resigned.

Can the Belarusian Authorities Do More?

Lukashenka’s policy change seemes to come as a result of the Russo-Ukranian war. The regime has managed to build a polity, one which depends solely on Lukashenka, though its ideology has had the unintended side effect of making it dependent on Russia.

The policy of russification has served Lukashenka well over the years as he built up ties with the Kremlin. Russian TV, for example, is much more popular than Belarusian TV in Belarus. According to the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS) 73.6% of Belarusians identify themselves as being to be closer to Russians than Europeans, and 13.3% would welcome a Russian occupation of Belarus.

For a long time Belarus received support from Russia because of its russification policy, and yet it is this very policy that has made Belarus so vulnerable. The fear of potential Russian aggression has forced Belarus not only to strengthen the state's ideological framework, but even to start practising counter-insurgency and anti-sabotage manoeuvres during military drills in spring 2014.

The desire of the Belarusian authorities to become ideologically less dependent on Russia seems rational. However, up until this point the regime has taken only the smallest of steps towards building a uniquely Belarusian national identity, so it is difficult to speak about any long-term strategy.

There is nothing holding Lukashenka from pushing through identity strengthening reforms since, after all, he can unilaterally increase the number of lessons of the Belarusian language without discussing it with Belarus' puppet Parliament.

A 'Hands Off' Policy for the Belarusian Language

Although a real change in policy remains rather unlikely, a noticeable shift in the mindset towards the Belarusian language among the Belarusian authorities has clearly taken place.

This means that all of those low-level officials who wanted to come out in support Belarusian language will no longer be afraid to do so. A rising number of Belarusian-language TV programmes will start to appear and Belarusian bands' concerts will raise less suspicion among state officials.

On 1 October, famous Belarusian musician Zmicier Vajciushkievich announced that he will soon hold his first legal concert in Belarus follwing a three-year hiatus. This is no coincidence, as journalist Viktar Marcinovich noted when pointing out that Lukashenka’s speech in Belarusian in July coincided with the emergence of a large number of ads and TV broadcasts in Belarusian.

Is Lukashenka serious about strengthening the role of the Belarusian language?

 

 

 
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It seems that the government will not throw a wrench in the spokes of existing cultural organisations. Existing Belarusian language courses like Mova ci Kava (Language or Coffee), Mova Nanova (Language in a New Way) or ​Movaveda now draw hundreds of people in public spaces. They expect to sustain this level of popularity under these more favourable conditions.

The lack of pressure from the authorities will certainly allow these kinds of organisations to quickly grow. For example, on 28 September in Minsk hosted the National Sports Festival Mova Cup/Language Cup. It promoted sports and the Belarusian language and received a very high level of support from the authorities which allowed to use large state-owned sports facilities. The Budzma! campaign holds many cultural events and some of them they have even managed to do together with the authorities.

This change in the mentality of the officials will stimulate the development of new social initiatives that will contribute to the popularity of the Belarusian language. It can even lead to a partnership between civil society and the authorities in the field of language.

The real irony of this story is that the Belarusian language is being resurrected under Lukashenka, the man who has put so much effort into wiping it out. The times are indeed changing.

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

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