Analytical Paper: Belarusian Identity – The Impact of Lukashenka’s Rule
The regime of Aliaksandr Lukashenka rejected the ethno-national model of state suggested by his predecessors in the early 1990s.Instead, he restored a soviet style “statist nation” with a centralised bureaucratic machine at its core.
These are the conclusions reached in a new analytical paper "Belarusian Identity: The Impact of Lukashenka's Rule" released by the Centre for Transition Studies today.
Identity issues, particularly those surrounding language and historical narrative, formed the foundation of the persisting cleavage between the authoritarian regime and the democratic opposition in Belarus since 1994. The population of the country, although not nearly as divided with regard to its identity as Ukraine, also has not produced a consensual version of self-determination.
The paper presents an analysis of the processes in Belarusian national identity, particularly with regards to its language, historical narratives and self-contextualisation in an international setting since its independence, especially under the rule of Aliaksandr Lukashenka.
Based on a number of empirical studies, it attempts to trace a detailed picture of the impact of the political regime and its major political and economic interests in the formulation of Belarus’ national identity.
Lukashenka’s Identity Policy
Shortly after his election in 1994, Aliaksandr Lukashenka launched a policy of russification. The rationale behind it seemed clear – Lukashenka chose Russia as a strategic priority for Belarus’ foreign relations, hoping to quickly recover from the economic crisis through re-establishing Soviet economic ties. The other reason for the pro-Russian politics of the regime stemmed from the anti-Russian discourse of opposition. Although ideologically diverse, it was associated with the right wing Belarusian People’s Front and state propaganda labelled it with radical nationalist ideas.
In 1995, Lukashenka initiated a referendum to introduce Russian as a second official language in Belarus. 83.3% of voters supported the initiative. From this point on the Belarusian language has suffered a major decline. Although the Constitution of Belarus declares the equal status of both languages, Russian de facto dominates all spheres of life. The Law on Languages of 1990 does not set strict rules on the use of both languages in the day-to-day operations of the state, and public organisations and officials usually use Russian.
Since the early 2000s all major Belarus-based media broadcasts in Russian, leaving Belarusian only a small quota in cultural sphere. Apart from Minsk, not a single fully Belarusian school currently functions in any other major cities in Belarus. In higher education, the picture is rather similar – an all-Belarusian language university does not exist in Belarus.
The paper notes that most of the population take a more pragmatic stance towards the language issue and follow the example established by the ruling elite. The only actor that has made any serious attempts to revive the Belarusian language and introduce it into public life is civil society.
Trends in Language Use: a Russian-speaking Belarusian Nation
As the data on identity and language use from recent decades show, the proportion of those who identify themselves as Belarusians is increasing, but the use of Belarusian has dramatically declined, leading to the formation of a Russian-speaking Belarusian nation.
Only a quarter of Belarusians speak Belarusian at home, which roughly equals the number of the total rural population. In Minsk, the number of people who indicated Belarusian as their native language has decreased almost two-fold over 1999-2009. In general, only a little more than 10 per cent of the urban population of Belarus speaks Belarusian at home, and in its largest cities this number is much smaller.
The region with the highest percentage of Belarusian-speakers is the one to the northwest of Minsk on the Lithuanian border. Interestingly, this particular region historically correlates with the most the pro-democratic and anti-Lukashenka voting area.
Politics of History and Self-Awarenes: Soviet Glory with a Mediaeval Flavour
Lukashenka’s narrative of history, however, managed to reconcile the nationalist version of history of the pre-Soviet period with its own modern conception of Belarusian history. They both agree that Belarusian statehood has a long tradition of independent existence and is valued by all Belarusians.
Also, unlike the Soviet version of Belarusian history, which involved class struggle and Russia-centrism in every period of Belarusian history, the official narrative does not pay much attention to the class-based approach nor does it seek to prove the ancient roots of Belarus' friendship with Russia. Still, the period of independence (since the early 1990s) remains the most ideologically charged and distorted issue, as it involves the rule of Lukashenka himself.
The self-awareness of Belarusians experienced massive influence from the Lukashenka regime's ideological discourse. It presents a mix of both nationalist and Soviet concepts and therefore creates the same mixed view in the minds of people, who know their roots are to be found somewhere in a mediaeval European context, but at the same time respect Soviet symbols.
When asked “What unites you with other people of your nationality?”, Belarusians most often refer to territory and state, rather than culture and language. Political unity based on the state serves the core idea of the official ideology of the Lukashenka regime.
Belarusians see the origin of Belarusian statehood in mediaeval Polack and Turaŭ princedoms and the Great Duchy of Lithuania, not in the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic. Yet at the same time they have already accepted the symbols that the Lukashenka regime introduced in the 1990s, such as national holidays and the red-green flag.
Geopolitical Choice of Belarusians: Pragmatism without Soviet Sentimentalism
The studies reviewed in preparing the analytical paper showed that the geopolitical views of Belarusians express a purely utilitarian understanding of foreign relations and are ready to join that integration project which will offer them the most economic benefits.
These views, in many ways, resemble the opportunistic foreign policy of Lukashenka’s regime, which seeks momentary benefits without any concrete strategic approach.
A large number of Belarusians express isolationist views, while others are divided in deciding between the east and the west. No consensus on this matter exists in Belarusian society and Belarus truly remains a place where civilisations clash.
Although Belarusians are often considered a Soviet-style nation that persists in holding onto the USSR’s legacy, and contrary to popular thought, the people actually do not want to witness the restoration of Soviet power.
- Download the full text of Belarusian Identity: The Impact of Lukashenka's Rule.
Why Belarus is not Ukraine
Last weekend many Belarusians came to Kyiv to support the pro-European demonstrations. Social activists, politicians and even the famous rock band Liapis Trubetskoy expressed their support for Ukrainians with their pro-European choice.
They came to take part in the truly massive political protests – something which they are unable to do back home in Belarus. Though Belarus and Ukraine have a long shared history, the two countries differ significantly in many ways.
While Belarusians have not yet gone through a true nation-building process, in many ways they live better than Ukrainians. Unlike Lukashenka's regime, Yanukovych's regime has many democratic attributes that make mass peaceful protests possible.
The private sector also makes up a larger share of the economy and Ukraine's oligarchs play a significant role in its politics. They use their own money to finance other centres of influence, in addition to the authorities.
Belarusians Reach the Maidan
On 7 December, the famous Belarusian rock band Liapis Trubetskoy performed on Maidan – the epicentre of the Kyiv protests. A week earlier the Belarusian band gathered over ten thousand Belarusian fans at a concert in Vilnius. The leader of the band, Siarhei Mikhalok, stated at Maidan: “We are here to send you a big hello from Belarus. We, Belarusians, look at you with respect and admiration.”
Not everybody who wanted to actually managed to get to Ukraine from Belarus. On 6 December, KGB agents and traffic police stopped 53 activists who were travelling from Minsk to Kyiv by bus. Law enforcement officials explained that they could not let the bus continue on to Ukraine due to the poor weather conditions and the danger it posed to the health of the bus' passengers. As a result, the bus had to return to Minsk, and the activists got off the bus before it turned back and got to Kyiv by hitchhiking.
Belarusian opposition leaders, including Uladzimir Niakliajeu of the Tell the Truth campaign and Yuri Hubarevich of the Movement for Freedom took the floor to share words of solidarity with the thouands of Ukrainains who were gathered on Maidan. It is not the first time that activists from Belarus have come to rallies in Ukraine. In 2004, hundreds of Belarusians with white-red-white flags took part in the Orange Revolution.
Why Belarus is not Ukraine
Many people in Belarus and in the West try to draw parallels between the rallies in Kyiv and those that have taken place Minsk. Some are wondering why Belarusians cannot organise something similar in their own country. To understand this, one must remember several aspects in which Belarus differs significantly from Ukraine.
Some are wondering why Belarusians cannot organise something similar in their own country. Read more
First, unlike Ukrainians, Belarusians have not yet completed the process of nation building. Belarusians are much more like Russian-speaking Ukrainians in eastern Ukraine than the western Ukrainians or residents of Kyiv – who are the main participants in the protests.
But even the residents of eastern Ukraine use its national flag, emblem and anthem while Belarusians still use Soviet symbols. Yanukovych, the President of Ukraine, while coming from the east of Ukraine and having Belarusian roots, consistently speaks the Ukrainian language in public. In Belarus, even opposition politicians remain mostly Russian-speaking. All that makes it easier for Russia to influence Belarus.
In terms of economic well-being, Belarusians live better than Ukrainians. The average salary in Belarus hovers around $600, while in Ukraine it is about $400. At the same time the level of inequality between the rich and the poor in Ukraine remain much higher in Ukraine than in Belarus.
One of the Belarusian participants of EuroMaidan, Mikalai Dziemidenka, said that when compared to Belarus, Ukraine looks like a flourishing democracy. The opposition is well represented in parliament, and there is real and constant political struggle in Ukraine between different different political forces. Representatives from opposition parties actually run several cities – a scenario that remains entirely unrealistic in Belarus. In Belarus, real politics rears its head out only once every five years during the presidential election.
According to the Constitution of Belarus, Lukashenka has vast powers which make other political institutions meaningless. Yanukovych must keep a watchful eye on what is going on in parliament and monitor its activities. Albeit imperfect, Ukraine's separation of powers and the reality of divisions within the government itself is further evidence of the differences between the country. The head of the presidential administration and many other Ukrainian officials resigned after the recent brutal crackdown on demonstrators in Kyiv. After the Minsk protests in 2010, all Belarusian officials either maintained their silence or condemned the demonstrators.
Moreover, President Yanukovych and his government have long been negotiating Ukraine's european integration. Lukashenka's regime cannot even begin such negotiations as it prefers to remain financially and politically dependent on Russia.
On 9 December, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski publicly spoke out against impeaching Yanukovych, which is technically and politically feasible, though remains totally impossible in Belarus. Consider the fact that Yanukovych is the fourth president of Ukraine and recently met with his predecessors to discuss the crisis. Belarus has only one president it gained its independence in the 1990s.
The Real Power in Ukraine
Another key difference is that Lukashenka's power relies on police and law enforcement agencies while Yanukovych relies heavily on those oligarchs who are willing to provide financial support. Many people call the Ukrainian oligarchs the real seat of power in the country and for good reason. They financially support the existing political structures and determine the amount of airtime politicians get on TV.
Lukashenka's power relies on police and law enforcement agencies while Yanukovych heavily relies on the oligarchs Read more
Will the recent events in Ukraine affect Belarus? Lukashenka's regime is closely monitoring the situation, although the state media and officials do not speak much about the events transpiring in Kyiv. It seems that the authorities have not yet developed their strategic ideological approach to the Ukrainian protests.
On the one hand, if Ukraine drifts to the east, Lukashenka may lose his status as Russia's only loyal ally in the west. On the other hand, if Ukraine strengthens its ties with Russia, Belarus will look more "normal" to the West and its own people, thus justifying the status quo.
If the protests in Ukraine go devolve into turmoil, the Belarusian state propaganda machine will use it to praise Belarusian stability and condemn the dangers of an uncontrolled democracy. If it ends peacefully and leads to positive developments, this will give hope to Belarusians that changes – perhaps slower and through a different route – will also come to Belarus.