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Bilinguism in Belarus: Civil Society v the State

The Belarusian authorities trade the national identity of Belarusians in exchange for economic subsidies from Russia.

Constitutional guarantees of equal rights of the two official languages actually do not work. The majority of Belarusians react indifferently to that fact, as...


The Belarusian authorities trade the national identity of Belarusians in exchange for economic subsidies from Russia.

Constitutional guarantees of equal rights of the two official languages actually do not work. The majority of Belarusians react indifferently to that fact, as they do in most situations. But the civil society resists russification and tries to prove that Belarusian people have the right for their own identity and language. 

After the collapse of USSR, Belarus established Belarusian language as the only official language, though most of population still used Russian. Shortly after his election in 1994, Aliaksandr Lukashenka started russification policy. In 1995, he initiated a referendum widely criticised as fraudulent which made Russian the second official language in Belarus. But in fact Russian has become the only official language despite continuous attempts of the Belarusian civil society to revive it. 

Bilingualism only on paper

Since then, Belarusian language went through a major decline. Although the Constitution declares equal status of both languages, de facto Russian completely dominates in all spheres of life nowadays. All public bodies provide their services and do paper work in Russian. Law on Languages does not set clear rules on the use of both languages in state documentation, so public organisations and officials simply use Russian.

The number of schools with Belarusian language of teaching decreased dramatically and today in many towns Belarusian schools do not exist at all. According to the Society of the Belarusian language, in 2011 around 19% of all schoolchildren in 2011 studies in Bearusian. In Minsk the figure is just 1,5-2% and the proportion is declining. 

Universities operate mostly in Russian too, though there are some departments where Belarusian dominates, such as Belarusian philology or history. There is not even one fully Belarusian-language university in the country. 

For common Belarusians, the language has never been a serious issue of concern. Since Soviet times, most Belarusians in urban areas use Russian in daily communication and do not bother themselves with problems of revival of the language of their fathers and grandfathers. Private sector orients on mass demand and therefore also uses primarily Russian language in its services.

On the other hand, most topographical signs, like names of the villages, rivers, streets in the cities are written in Belarusian. In public transport, in the capital at least, all announcements are also made in Belarusian. Therefore, there is no genuine bilingualism in Belarus. Russian dominates in most spheres of public communication, and Belarusian has a few very limited domains. The state does nothing to help the language which is struggling to survive.

Yet, civil society of Belarus attempts to change the situation and resists russification from the top. Two stories which happened this December good examples of this struggle.

Belarusians Must be Russian Patriots?

During a press conference on 19 December, Russian ambassador to Belarus Aleksandr Surikov made a speech that caused hot discussions among Belarus intellectuals. “In Russia, we are upset that a part of Belarusian intellectuals do not consider the 1812 war with Napoleon a Patriotic War”, he said. A Patriotic War is a term that was established in Russia for ideological reasons to create a narrative of genuinely mass involvement of Russian people in war with the enemy.

Apart from the war with Napoleon, this term is used for World War II in Russia and Belarus since Soviet times. In Belarus, Patriotic War mythology serves an important part of Belarusian official ideology. However, the fathers of the state Belarusian ideology paid little attention to war with Napoleon and the period of Russian empire as a whole.

Most Belarusian historians, on the contrary, consider the war of 1812 a civil war for Belarus. Belarusians fought on both sides, Russian and French, but the nobility overwhelmingly supported Napoleon. They hoped to restore Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth which was divided among European empires in 18th century.

Some Belarusian official ideologists share the point of view of Russians, but most historians, including those affiliated with state institutions, reject this as an obviously ideological claim.

Belarus Society Resists Russification

On 21 December, Belarusian media reported that Minsktrans, Minsk public transport service, decided to change the language in which tickets are printed. The tickets were always printed in Belarusian, but from January 2013 Minsktrans announced turn to the Russian language.

This news travelled fast through social networks and caused a true outrage in Minsk. Immediately, a civil campaign started, that demanded to return Belarusian language on the tickets. People sent letters and called Minsktrans to express their deep concern and urge Minsktrans to cancel the decision.

the official document was issued in Russian, therefore the tickets must also be in Russian Read more

The behaviour of Minsktrans in this situation seemed rather strange. Initially, they stated that the introduction of Russian language was caused by a regulatory act that sets the tariffs on public transport costs. According to this strange logic, the official document was issued in Russian, therefore the tickets must also be in Russian.  

After the outbreak of attention to the issue, however, the managers changed their mind and claimed that the change of language occurred due to a mistake. The organisation that printed them was blamed for the mistake and one of the officials was even punished.

Such fairly different interpretation of the decision uncovers the likely lie of the officials. It seems that there was no mistake in this decision and the authorities simply probed the reaction of citizens to russification initiatives.

Battle for Identity Continues

All cases mentioned here demonstrate two opposite trends. The Belarusian state headed by Lukashenka ignores national values and even encourages russifiction. The current state of affairs in relations with Russia, which has massive leverage on Belarus, presumes no signs of Belarusian nationalism. National values become another item of bargaining for cheap energy, credits, and open markets.

Due to these reasons, the government has never come up with any policy to support the Belarusian language. Moreover, it hindered a lot of initiatives to support the language even such initiatives involved no politics. As a result, the Belarusian language practically disappeared from official discourse as well as individual use in recent decade.

Within Belarus governing elite, there are no groups that openly support national values. Meanwhile, common Belarusians do not reflect on cultural matters and focus on more materialist problems. In such situation, the active part of civil society serves as the only defender of Belarusian culture and identity.

As the cases of Napoleonic War and transport tickets show, Belarus civil society is capable of defending its interests and can even influence the state policy which may at first seem impenetrable.

Vadzim Smok

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