Belarusian language: declining in state education, strengthening in civil society
Only 13% of pupils in Belarus study in the Belarusian language. The authorities therefore roused great public interest with a recent promise to establish Belarusian-language groups in kindergartens in each district in Minsk.
At present, the near impossibility of receiving pre-school education in the Belarusian language concerns some parents. Others cling on to even the slightest possibility of ensuring their children’s education in the Belarusian language. Yet others wonder why the question arises at all – thinking that it would be better to teach students English or Chinese.
The rapid disappearance of the Belarusian language from the education sector (from 19% in the 2010/2011 academic year to 13% in 2017/2018) paradoxically coincided with the increasing popularity of various kinds of Belarusian cultural initiatives and projects.
Russian language dominates the education system
The reduction in the number of pupils studying in Belarusian stands in tension with the growing interest in Belarusian language and culture in society. Founded several years ago, Belarusian language courses under the “Mova Nanova” initiative gather hundreds of people in Minsk and other Belarusian cities. Crowdfunding enables the publication of Belarusian-language books and the translation of movies into Belarusian. Inscriptions on the jerseys of Belarusian football players increasingly appear in Belarusian. The education system in Belarus, however, still shows signs of Russification rather than Belarusisation.
Fewer and fewer children today study in Belarusian. Of the six regional centres, Belarusian-language schools exist only in Minsk. In some of the regional cities schools do have small Belarusian-language forms. However, most of the Belarusian-language schools are located in villages. Totally only 13.3% of all pupils study in Belarusian according to the National Statistical Committee of Belarus.
The situation looks more problematic in pre-school and higher education. Belarusian-language kindergartens represent a minority among the preschools. In the biggest cities there exist only small groups with the Belarusian language. Until now, Belarus has no university providing a Belarusian-language education.
The problem of access to the Belarusian-language education grew in importance for Belarusian society. On 21 February, International Mother Language Day, a group of parents in Minsk visited the Ministry of Education to discuss pre-school education in the Belarusian language. During the meeting, parents proposed the introduction of more Belarusian-language groups in kindergartens and schools. Later, the Ministry of Education promised to open a Belarusian group in each Minsk region.
Parents struggle for more education in Belarusian
To date parents have to fight for the education of their children in the Belarusian language. Increasingly, parents collect signatures for the creation of Belarusian-language groups in kindergartens and schools. On 21 February, public activists of the Young Front collected 2,000 signatures in Minsk for creating a Belarusian-language university.
Occasionally, local authorities meet with parents to discuss the status of the Belarusian language in education, as happened on 21 February. One of the participants of the meeting, Volha Kavalchuk, told to Radyjo Svaboda that her child can not get into a group with Belarusian as the language of instruction. “Due to the shortage of Belarusian speakers, kindergartens take in Russian-speakers, who become a majority later,” and the group becomes a Russian-speaking one.
Belarusian-language parents worry that their children gradually shift into the Russian language from studying in a Russian-language system. At the meeting of pro-Belarusian parents with the Ministry of Education on 21 February, parents noted that groups exist only in certain areas of the city and that this is logistically inconvenient for many parents. Often, as is the case in the Pershamajsky district of Minsk, different age groups emerge. These factors influence the quality of teaching; many parents have to send their children to Russian-language kindergartens.
How has the status of the Belarusian language in education changed?
Since Alexander Lukashenka came to power, the Belarusian language began a gradual decline in the education system. In 1994-1995 more than 75% of pupils studied in Belarusian. After the referendum in 1995, when the Russian language received the same status as Belarusian, the latter started to disappear from education. From that moment on, many Belarusian schools and kindergartens began to teach partially in Russian.
In the years after the collapse of the USSR Belarus’s neighbours, Lithuania, Latvia and Ukraine, actively worked on the transition of schools into teaching in the national language. In contrast, from 1995 the Belarusian authorities embraced a Russification of education system. The titular language of Belarus appeared as a threat to the authorities. Lukashenka saw the main threat to his power in the Belarusian-speaking opposition and methodically narrowed the space for studying the language and culture. Whereas 22% of pupils studied in Belarusian in 1988, the comparable figure for 2017 was 13.3%.
In recent years, after events surrounding Ukraine’s Maidan, the Belarusian language situation within the education system started to improve in small steps. Observing Russian aggression in Ukraine, the authorities began to demonstrate more support to the Belarusian language and national history at different levels, so-called “soft Belarusisation”. However, until now, soft Belarusisation hardly affected schools, kindergartens and universities.
The fate of Belarusian language: in citizens’ hands
Social activists continue to do the most work promoting the Belarusian language. For example, recently created initiative, Perakladaton, has translated the civil code into Belarusian with the help of volunteers and plans to translate other laws (only 3% of legislative acts in the country are written in Belarusian).
Social activist Ihar Sluchak has long communicated with the Belarusian government and commercial organisations, trying to force them to speak Belarusian. Recently an online catalogue of Belarusian businesses and services, SVAJE, appeared. Regular updates include new businesses and places where the staff speak Belarusian.
This work of social activists partly compensates for the poor condition of the Belarusian language in the education system. However, some positive signals appear from the government. For the first time the authorities have allowed the holding of a celebratory concert on Alternative Independence Day in the centre of Minsk. If the concert does not bring police detentions, then it might give some hope that the “soft Belarusisation” will extend into Belarusian schools, kindergartens and universities.
Exploring Belarus’s massive gender longevity gap
The Belarusian gender debate understandably focuses on women’s rights, but in reality, men deserve as much attention. Belarusian men have a far lower life expectancy than women; lower even than North Korean men.
Both men themselves and state authorities bear responsibility for this. Belarus remains one of the most alcoholic nations in the world and Belarusian men generally treat their health with indifference.
This has painful consequences. Families lose a parent and a money-maker, while the state loses a taxpayer. Even before death, poor health among men leads to low productivity and hence holds significance for the economy. The Belarusian government undertakes some efforts to promote healthy lifestyles but it fails to do so systematically.
The short lives of Belarusian men
Worldwide women live longer than men on average. For example, in 2015, life expectancy in Sweden for women stood three years longer than for men (84 years and 80.7 respectively) according to the World Health Organization (WHO). In other countries, like in the United States, this gap may be even larger (81.6 and 76.9 years respectively).
Belarus differs from Western countries because it has a much larger difference in life expectancy between men and women. A Belarusian girl born in 2015 can expect to live 11.5 years longer than a boy (78 and 66.5 years). The difference turns out so great that Belarusian women rank 66th in the world by life expectancy, while men sit in 119th place. Only Russia has a larger gender longevity gap larger (76.3 and 64.7 years).
But today’s reality remains much sadder and does not only affect those who have just been born. Currently, many men die before they reach retirement age, especially those who live in rural areas. In the 1990s and 2000s life expectancy occasionally dropped below 60 years for rural men. Belarusian males have lives as short as butterflies.
Why do men die so early?
The achievements of Belarusian men in cutting short their own lives look quite logical. Belarus remains one of the world leaders in alcohol consumption according to the WHO data from 2014. Belarusians drink 17.5 litres of pure alcohol per capita, but that refers to the national average. Belarusian males consume 27.5 litres per capita. Meanwhile, the world average consumption is 6.2 litres. Despite government attempts to set up a programme for the prevention of alcoholism and rehabilitation of alcoholics, Belarus has so far failed to combat heavy drinking.
According to the chief expert in narcology at the Ministry of Health, Belarus has 160 thousand alcoholics on record, and 85 thousand remained under preventive supervision in 2016. That equates to almost 4% of the population, although in reality one may double or triple this figure since the state authorities fail to record everyone who has problems with alcohol.
Smoking remains another big reason why Belarusian men live so few years. According to a sociological study by the Belarusian state university, a third of the Belarusian adult population smoked in 2016.
Most smokers are men, who often start the habit even before the time at which the statistics start taking them into account. Belarusian youth remains one of the biggest smokers in the post-Soviet space. The author tried smoking at the age of 7 and became a habitual smoker by the age of 12.
In addition, Belarus has a set of further reasons determining short male life expectancy, similar to those found elsewhere in the world. For instance, men tend to avoid doctors and take bigger risks. Men more typically work in hazardous occupations, such as those associated with mining or construction. Moreover, a Ministry of Labour provision practically prohibits women from working in dangerous jobs such as blacksmith or long-haul driver. Belarusian feminists see this as discrimination.
Belarusian men remain much less socialized and this influences their psychological stability. Therefore, for example, they are more likely to commit suicide – in 2016, 386 women killed themselves, while 1,656 men committed suicide according to official figures.
Men’s earlier deaths affecting society
Actually, the Belarusian authorities do not seem concerned about low male life expectancy. The issue remains absent from officials’ public speeches and so far it is difficult to find any mentions in media or academia about the matter. Yet the problem affects not only men, but it has painful consequences for society as a whole.
Belarusian men earn more than women, so their loss means a significant fall in total income. Raising two children with a single Belarusian average monthly salary of $250 is difficult even to imagine. Those children without a father (or, to a lesser extent, a grandfather) will have far fewer chances of professional and personal success in life.
A more common example, when a woman in retirement has to pay for housing utilities alone this amounts to around $40 per month for a small flat, which previously she shared with her husband. In fact, this puts the woman at risk of poverty since the average pension in Belarus remains around $150 per month.
The state also loses, although some may cynically believe that the state benefits from so many men not reaching their retirement. However, in practice, this means a premature withdrawal from the labour market of qualified and experienced personnel. Moreover, men’s poor health means that their productivity remains below their potential and slows down the whole economy.
It remains in the interests of Belarus to lengthen the lives of men, but the authorities seem unprepared to take steps to achieve this. The government takes half-hearted measures to promote a healthy lifestyle, such as putting social advertisements on billboards, but it fails to raise prices on alcohol and cigarettes, fearing that it will increase illegal alcohol production and smuggling from Russia.
Moreover, an unhealthy lifestyle still serves as a tool of authoritarianism because it helps Belarusians forget their problems. Unless this attitude of the authorities changes, nothing is likely to prevent Belarusian men from dying early.