Belarusian Official Fined for Using Russian instead of Belarusian
On 3 September, Belarus saw an unusual legal precedent set. The court tried Alieh Halaŭko, the director of a branch of a Minsk district housing services, for answering an address written in Belarusian with Russian. According to the Law on Addresses of Citizens and Legal Persons adopted in 2011, responses to written addresses must be in the same language of the address.
Meanwhile, citizens and interest groups within the government recently prevented some Russification measures introduced by indifferent officials. In the Minsk metro, announcements reverted back to Belarusian after a large mass of citizens voiced their concern and the geographical names continue to be written in a Belarusian Latinised script instead of a transliteration from Russian.
While strategically the government does not care about the revival of Belarusian culture and Lukashenka’s regime did much to diminish its status during its earlier period, today at the lower levels of administration citizens can advocate for Belarusification quite successfully by simply exercising their legal rights. Moreover, inside the bureaucracy various attitudes to the language question exists and collisions among officials on that matter have become possible in Belarus.
Blogger Wins an Unprecedented Trial
In September 2013, Belarusian blogger and journalist Hlieb Labadzenka decided to sue the director of housing services of his district, Alieh Halaŭko. The conflict started from Labadzenka’s neighbour complaint which he sent to the district authorities. He accused Labadzenka of illegally rearranging his flat which apparently disturbed the neighbour, although it turned out that this was not the case. The housing service issued a warning to Labadzenka without even visiting the flat. Labadzenka wrote a note of protest to the authorities, demanding that the response should be written in Belarusian.
However, in his reply, the service director not only used Russian, but also noted that according to the Constitution of Belarus, citizens can use any of the two official languages. Here, he demonstrated a lack of knowledge of Belarusian law, because according to the 2011 Law on Addresses of Citizen and Legal Persons, the officials must write replies to addresses strictly in the language in which the address was originally written.
Labadzenka decided to exercise his legal rights and support the Belarusian language, so he sued Halaŭko over this violation. The trial took place on 3 September, to which the accused did not show up. Nevertheless the court found him guilty and imposed a charge of BYR 500,000 ($55).
According to Labadzenka, all of the officials he dealt with during the case behaved very politely. Even the judge herself expressed her support to Labadzenka. However, they also had to admit that they cannot do their paperwork in Belarusian – there are neither the proper documentary forms nor specialists that can record the trial in Belarusian.
Afterwards, in response to journalist’s question, the director of housing service admitted that it was his fault indeed and in the future he will stick to the law.
“I am not hungry for Mr Halaŭko’s blood, I would rather he received a warning, but the court simply cannot give a smaller fine according to this article [of the law -ed. BD]. For me the most important thing is creating a precedent: not just shout out that the authorities are endangering the Belarusian language, but to support it with legal means”, Hlieb Labadzenka said.
Another Public Transportation Victory
In August 2013, Minsk dwellers heard some new announcements about the Minsk underground transportation system, which explained the rules of conduct in the tube. The new announcements were in Russian, although the stations themselves are always announced in Belarusian. One of the metro officials explained that in addition to Belarusians other people (meaning Russian-speaking foreigners) are using the metro and might not understand.
Immediately a civil campaign started which demanded that the announcements should be made in Belarusian. The campaign very closely resembled the Minsk transport tickets case, when the transportation service decided to change the language of their tickets to Russian. Concerned citizens demonstrated a fast reaction to the change and eventually won the battle: the following month, new tickets came out in Belarusian.
This time the situation followed a similar pattern. The director of the Minsk metropolitan shortly after the campaign publicly said that soon all announcements will be made in Belarusian. “We missed this point, it is our fault. Tomorrow we will change it”, he explained to journalists, speaking in Belarusian.
Meanwhile, metro managers continue to rewrite the topographical city names in a Belarusian Latinised alphabet, which caused much discussion when introduced in the metro in November 2012.
Some people in the city administration, and in particular chief executive deputy Ihar Karpenka, demanded that the geographical names should be transliterated from Russian using the English alphabet. The opposite side presented by Toponymical Commission at the Council of Ministers supported the use of the Belarusian Latinised script, which has a centuries worth of tradition in Belarus.
As the metro director said in October, they continue to rewrite the geographical names in the established Belarusian Latin script. In other words, experts from the Toponymical Commission defeated the bureaucrats from the city administration in this small battle for identity.
The head of Belarusian Language Society Alieh Trusaŭ optimistically says that “the situation is getting better little by little. We just need to watch thoroughly the language policies and actively express our concerns. It is thanks to active citizens that numerous recent cases were successful”.
Understanding Language Policy in Belarus
These cases shed more light on the language situation in Belarus and positions of various interest groups within the government, as well as citizens and civil society. First, it is clear that the government has no strategic goal of reviving the Belarusian language. As the censuses of the last two decades show, after a short revival in 1990s Belarusian language sharply decreased in use.
After the 1996 Referendum initiated by Lukashenka, the Russian language became the second official language in Belarus and soon almost fully displaced Belarusian language in public life. In Minsk, only a few Belarusian language schools exist and in regional centres not even a single such school exists at all. All TV channels broadcast in Russian, public administration runs all its paperwork in Russian, and Russian dominates everywhere except for a few small spheres. So, the Belarusian language became, in fact, an endangered language due to state policies and the weak support of the population, a result of decades of a Russification policy throughout the Soviet period.
However, as the political environment is changing, Lukashenka is less concerned with the “opposition” language. The government lets lower level bureaucrats deal with it. These bureaucrats, for their part, deal with it rather voluntarily and in a reactionary manner. It is precisely here that citizens can influence the situation by advocating for the Belarusification of the public administration.
Second, the bureaucracy has no unified approach to the Belarusian language, and attitudes to it varies from person to person and from institution to institution. Therefore, such collisions, as in the case of Latin script in the metro, become possible, and their outcome is never clear.
Third, citizens can indeed influence the situation without making holding massive protests in the streets. They can simply exercise their legal rights and officials have to consider them and implement their demands. Belarusians just need less indifference and more assertiveness as the situation is actually as not as bad as it might seem.
Belarusian Oppostion in Local Elections: Will It Learn from Old Mistakes?
On 2 October, Belarus' Central Elections Commission (CEC) revealed that local elections will take place in March 2014. in the past, the CEC had a history of scheduling elections earlier than they should be according to the law. That is why the opposition started its preparations in advance.
For now, two opposition blocs have emerged: People's Referendum and For Free and Fair Elections for a Better Life "Talaka”. During these elections one camp will focus on bread and butter issues, the second on the demand to hold free elections.
Unlike in previous years, political organisations are united on approaches of how to change Lukashenka`s regime rather than on a particular ideological affinity. However, both camps see this campaign only as a preparation for presidential elections. Therefore, the opposition will try to enlarge its structures, but will do it rather carefully to avoid repression.
Belarusian political organisations have created two main alliances.
People`s Referendum unites five organisations, but at the core it consists of a consensus between the Movement for Freedom and the Tell the Truth campaign. This alliance will also take part in the elections and collect signatures for a referendum in Belarus. These structures also plan to work out a procedure for the selection of its own candidate for the presidency.
The selection of a future presidential candidate, who will challenge Lukashenka, may undermine the future of the coalition. Today this coalition has two main leaders – Alexander Milinkievich and Uladzimir Niakliajeu – and it remains difficult to choose one leader between these two. After all, the person who is chosen will receive significant influence, and Western donors will pool their resources to him.
The main forces of the coalition, the Movement for Freedom and the Tell the Truth campaign, remain aware of an urgent need to identify Lukashenka's future competitor. However, so far they failed to agree on the concessions they are willing to make. Currently, this camp prefers to hold a Congress of Democratic Forces, which will choose a future presidential candidate.
Another coalition with a rather long title – For Free and Fair Elections for a Better Life "Talaka” – combines seven political structures. They are still considering their tactics and may eventually boycott the elections, or withdraw their candidates the day before. As the title implies, this coalition will talk to voters primarily on the need to have a free election rather than on other issues.
The camp also plans to have its own candidate for the presidency and they view primaries as the preferable procedure to reach the largest possible number of people.
Who Remains Overboard?
Several organisations have decided not to join either of these two blocks.
The leaders of the Belarusian Christian Democracy, Pavel Sieviarynets, and the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (People`s Assembly), Mikalaj Statkievich, remain in custody, which hinders their active participation. Nearly all leaders of the European Belarus group, led by former presidential candidate Andrei Sannikau, remain in exile, which limits their ability to participate in the campaign in one form or another.
Young Front did not join any coalition and has already announced its own independent participation in the local elections. Young Front will campaign primarily in Salihorsk, a town in central Belarus. The organisation plans to put up 40 candidates to cover all polling stations in the town. The Belarusian opposition has never used this tactic, so political organisations will closely monitor how successful this approach will turn out to be.
From Local Elections to the Next Presidential Campaign
Local elections in Belarus fail to politicise society. This remains a reason why the opposition will have a hard time winning them. Moreover, Minsk-based general of the opposition have few warriors in the regions. Each organisation lacks local activists to conduct a major campaign throughout Belarus.
The opposition views local elections as a preparatory stage for the presidential elections. These political organisations will enlarge their structures and build coalitions to make them bigger. The number of organisations in the alliance also plays a significant role, especially for Western donors. As a result, both camps include structures that exist on paper rather than in reality.
Noteworthy for its work on the eve of the 2010 presidential elections, the opposition united on the basis of ideological reasons. In 2009, eight centre-right organisations created the pro-European Belarusian Independent Block. This alliance fell apart when a number of its member organisations refused to support Alexander Milinkievich as a presidential election. Today, this consolidation is based on a specific approach to the elections themselves or to the means of bringing change to Belarus. Personal relations between the leaders of organisations also play a big role.
Any Lessons From the Previous Elections?
The regime's special services have always worked to split the opposition and today they can be satisfied with the outcome of their work. To break this pattern the opposition must agree on a cease fire between each other and concentrate on addressing the people.
During the last local elections in 2010, the opposition failed to mobilise itself and had no candidates in most of the districts throughout the whole country. Throughout Belarus the average competition for one seat in local councils was only 1.2 persons. Democratic forces received less than 10 mandates from 21,000 possible.
Obviously in 2010 the authorities falsified the results. But the democratic opposition can learn lessons from previous elections. People remain more interested in social and economic problems rather than in discussing democracy and human rights. Even the pro-Lukashenka electorate can support the opposition on a local level if they show competence and political skills during local elections.
If the opposition fails to use its opportunities to work with people, they should not expect that Belarusian society will become politicised. If the opposition ignores holding an election campaign, Belarusians may continue to ignore the opposition.