Denazification of Ukraine – What can we learn from Belarus?
In late March, Ukrainian officials reported arson attacks on national archives located in the cities of Chernihiv and Kharkiv. It appears the Russian army has been destroying Ukrainian works of literature and confiscating historical documents in occupied territories.
One of Russia’s most publicised but least understood plans for Ukraine is denazification. State policy in Belarus can provide insights into what the Russian leadership may intend for Ukraine. The gradual replacement of the Belarusian language with Russian at schools and universities, the forced Russification of culture, and political repression have become unavoidable features of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka’s policies. Russian President Vladimir Putin seems ready to pay any price, including death and human suffering, to create the illusion of a “Russian world.”
What is denazification for Putin?
Historically, denazification refers to a set of measures adopted in Germany after WWII. It targeted all spheres of life, with a focus on expunging Nazi ideology from education, culture, politics, media, and private life. Demanding the denazification of Ukraine, Putin clearly equates the current government in Ukraine to Nazis.
In the current situation, what Russian authorities likely mean by denazification is Russification. Russian and Soviet histories provide examples of Russification. Developed in the 19th century by Tsarist authorities to assist in subjugating the populations of conquered lands, the Soviets actively used the concept, too. For example, in 1867, Russian authorities forbade the printing and distribution of all Belarusian-language periodicals and banned the use of Belarusian in all official discourse. In the Soviet era, attempts to trace the history of the Soviet republics from a period before 1917 were deemed nationalistic and required “decisive destruction.”
Belarusian national revival in the 1990s
In January 1990, just before the breakdown of the USSR, the Law on Languages in the Belarusian Soviet Republic set the Belarusian language as the official state language. The law, favoured by some of the country’s political elite, included a set of measures to gradually increase the use of Belarusian over a period of 10 years. Belarusian was enshrined in the 1994 constitution as the official state language. Parliamentary sessions began to be held in Belarusian.
The early 1990s saw a national revival of Belarusian culture and language. Many Belarusian politicians spoke openly about the need to develop a Belarusian national identity and criticised the Soviet past. Belarusian-language periodicals, radio, and other media flourished. Between 1990 and 1995, the number of print-media editions in Belarusian became greater than the four previous centuries combined. This period of cultural development was underway as Alexander Lukashenka came to power in 1994.
Russian becomes the second official language
In 1995, less than a year after Lukashenka was elected the first Belarusian president, the national flag and coat of arms were changed to resemble slightly modified versions of their Soviet precursors. And as a result of a 1995 referendum (criticised by most independent observers), state authorities declared 88.3 per cent of Belarusians in support of Russian being made the second official language of Belarus. This later became fixed in the Belarusian Constitution.
The Belarusian language rapidly lost its prominent position in education, print media, and politics. Lukashenka sought both to limit the influence of the Belarusian-speaking opposition, and to demonstrate loyalty to Russia, his main international backer. In 1994–1995, more than 76 per cent of first-grade students began their education in Belarusian-speaking classrooms. By 2013, the total number of pupils studying in Belarusian has fallen to just 13 per cent.
In universities, the use of Belarusian has been gradually diminishing along with the dismissal of Belarusian-speaking teachers. For example, after the wave of post-election protests in 2010, the authorities dismissed or discriminated against the Belarusian-speaking teaching staff at Hrodna State University.
Under Lukashenka, Belarusian-language media has suffered repression, persecution, and shutdowns. In response, nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) have attempted to preserve and promote Belarusian culture. Between 2015–2018, the regime relaxed its anti-Belarusian language policies. The authorities even allowed some Belarusian language initiatives. But the Lukashenka regime has never pursued a conscious policy of supporting the national language. Instead, it has occasionally permitted civil society to do so when deemed necessary.
Following the rigged 2020 presidential elections, the authorities liquidated nearly all NGOs that either actively used or promoted the Belarusian language, including the Belarusian Language Society, PEN Belarus, and other initiatives and media outlets. Many activists associated with these organisations have ended up behind bars or have been forced into exile.
As of 2021, less than 3 per cent of Belarusians use Belarusian as a language of communication, although 66 per cent consider it their mother tongue.
State symbols and rewriting history
Another example of the denazification-cum-Russification of Belarus is the banning of its historical symbols and the rewriting of its history. As soon as Belarus declared its independence from the USSR, some politicians actively promoted nationalist symbols, such as the Belarusian white-red-white flag and the “Pahonia” coat of arms. In 1995, these were officially replaced with versions almost identical to their Soviet incarnations. In response, the Belarusian opposition began to identify themselves with the nationalist historical symbols of Belarus, particularly during protests. In 2020, hundreds of thousands took to the streets with white-red-white flags. Today, the Belarusian regime detains Belarusians not only for displaying the white-red-white flag, but even for white-red colour combinations on their clothing.
Nationalist political and cultural elites in Belarus have faced repression throughout history. The Soviet authorities exiled or killed thousands of prominent nationalists. Between 29–30 October 1937, in what came to be known as the “night of executed poets,” Soviet authorities conducted a mass execution of more than 100 cultural figures, poets, and writers in Minsk.
Removing unwanted names from textbooks has become another strategy of the Lukashenka regime. For example, Kastus Kalinovsky has been gradually transformed from a nationalist hero of the Belarusian struggle against Tsarist Russia into a Polish collaborator. The works of Larisa Genyush, a prominent poet, and writer Vasil Bykau have disappeared from contemporary school textbooks. Nobel Laureate Sviatlana Aleksievich has faced a smear campaign, with Lukashenka himself declaring her a traitor and an enemy of the nation.
Has the “Denazification” of Ukraine already begun?
Belarus provides a clear illustration of how Russian, Soviet, and Belarusian authorities have carried out a campaign of Russification. It has involved the censorship of culture, the discrimination of the national language, and the substitution of historical narratives.
As the international community concentrates its attention on battlefields in Ukraine, Russia is using every chance to undermine Ukrainian culture and the Ukrainian language in the territories it occupies. It is changing education programmes, burning national archives, destroying books by Ukrainian authors, and limiting access to Ukrainian media—a Russification campaign under the banner of “denazification.”
Ultimately, Russia’s aim is to promote the idea that the Ukrainian nation and its language are artificial constructions, and that being under Russian control is the only destiny for Ukraine.
Whom do Belarusians actually support in the Russia-Ukraine war?
On 24 February, Russia began a war against Ukraine, which included attacks launched from Belarusian soil. Although there is still no evidence of Belarusian troops in Ukraine, Lukashenka openly supports the military intervention. The majority of Belarusians disapprove of the stance taken by the regime.
For regular Belarusians, their actions speak louder than words. Belarusians stand alongside Ukrainians, raising money, supporting Ukrainian refugees, as well as providing direct military aid for Ukraine.
Views of Belarusians on the war in Ukraine
Following the rigged presidential election in August 2020, unprecedented repressions against citizens forced thousands of Belarusian citizens to flee to Ukraine. By December 2020, for example, 40 IT companies and 2,000 freelancers relocated their businesses from Belarus to Ukraine. With ongoing political crises in Belarus, the Belarusian diaspora in Ukraine continued to grow. But when Russia invaded Ukraine, Belarusians had to escape war together with Ukrainians.
Belarusians are overwhelmingly against Lukashenka’s decision to support Russian aggression in Ukraine. According to a Chatham House poll, only 3 per cent of the Belarusian urban population support army involvement in Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Another online survey conducted by National Poll, an independent project for researching public opinion in Belarus, reveals that 78 per cent of Belarusians in the country feel responsible for the current decisions of the Belarusian regime. This strong feeling of collective responsibility has compelled Belarusians to actively help Ukraine.
Belarusians provide humanitarian aid
The Belarusian Solidarity Foundation (BySol), a civic initiative that collected money and provided assistance to Belarusian hospitals in the first wave of Covid-19, is being used to raise money to send humanitarian aid to Ukraine. The initiative has already delivered fully-equipped ambulances and medical supplies. Some Belarusian medical workers, who relocated to Ukraine following repressions in Belarus, are continuing to work in Ukrainian hospitals to provide critical assistance to war victims.
Along with hundreds of Belarusian expats in the EU (in particular those living in member states that boarder Ukraine), Belarusians abroad are donating money to the Ukrainian army and other related initiatives. For example, Majority Movement (Dvizhenije Bolshinstva), a communication platform run by the Coordination Council for Belarus’ democratic opposition, reports that 20,000 of its registered users raised $100,000 for Ukrainian hospitals over the past week.
There are other, newly emerging initiatives that aim to support refugees, too. The Poland-based Belarusian Youth Hub collects medical assistance and organises accommodation for those fleeing the war. In Germany, the RAZAM initiative opened a warehouse in Berlin to help provide clothes and warm meals refugees. Dozens of similar Belarusians-led initiatives for humanitarian aid have emerged across the EU.
Belarusians also facilitate evacuation from hot spots. For instance, the Free Belarus Center not only has arranged dozens of evacuations from war zones, but has also provided those in need with temporary accommodation. Other private initiatives begun since the start of the invasion work to safely relocate both Ukrainians and Belarusians.
IT initiatives stand with Ukraine
Belarusian business has also shown solidarity with Ukraine. Belarusian IT giant EPAM has donated $1.7m to Ukraine and has stopped working for the Russian market. Belarusian start-ups have launched a web page, icanhelp.host, that connects people offering to host Ukrainian refugees with those in need of accommodation. Other Belarusian IT services to support Ukraine include temporary accommodation for Ukrainian refugees in Europe. Additionally, the Belarusian platform I Need Help has regrouped its resources to help coordinate the delivery of hygiene and food. Golos, an initiative that arranged an alternative vote-count during the 2020 Belarusian presidential elections, created a map of available help for refugees.
Belarusian civil society joins the anti-war movement
Belarusians also engage in individual support for Ukraine through civic movements. The Anti-War Movement announced by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, President of the democratic Coordination Council of Belarus, includes numerous initiatives from the joint coordination of anti-war protests to the arrangement of targeted humanitarian aid to Ukraine and of a platform for Belarusian mothers.
Belarusians also use information and communication networks to declare their protest against the war in Ukraine. Since the war began, thousands of Belarusian have published posts on social media platforms disapproving of Lukashenka’s regime for supporting Russia.
There are other, on-going resistance efforts related to information. Civic initiative Honest People has created leaflets aimed at countering propaganda. The Belarusian opposition has called on Belarusians to persuade any relatives in the army to refuse to participate in any direct military actions against Ukraine. Not least, Belarusian independent media has continued to provide a balanced picture of the war.
Railways disruption and military aid
Belarusians have also contributed direct military support. At the beginning of March, BySol announced money collected by Belarusians would be used to produce body armour for Ukrainian forces. Dozens of Belarusians in Ukraine have formed a volunteer military division to fight for Ukraine. The division soon expects to have hundreds of fighters. Part of the division is still undergoing training. Experienced Belarusian soldiers who fought for Ukraine in 2014 have already joined active operations. Other Belarusians have joined territorial defence teams to protect Ukrainian cities.
At home, Belarusians have initiated partisan attacks on railway infrastructure moving Russian military equipment. Almost every day, the Belarusian authorities report people being detained on suspicion of destroying railways in the south of the country.
With the support of ByPol and the hacker community CyberPartisans, Belarusians attempt to sabotage the transportation of weapons through Belarus to the Ukrainian border. This coordinated sabotage aims to disable whole sections of the railway, so as to block any movement of cargo trains. Reports on the disruption to railway systems appear daily.
Despite reports of growing discrimination against Belarusians abroad, many Belarusians continue to assist Ukrainians by different means—from either inside the country or from without. For many, Ukraine’s potential victory gives hope for a long-awaited political change in Belarus.
At Belarus Digest, we think it is very important to explain to the world in English the role of Belarus in Russia’s war against Ukraine and the role of Belarusians. We want to help distinguish between the people of Belarus and the authorities of Belarus. We aim to shed more light on this and need your help. At the moment Belarus Digest does not have any stable funding and depends only on the generosity of its readers. Please donate or get in touch with us for more options to read more articles like this.