Getting Belarusian Names and Places Right
For many foreigners the Latinised spellings for Belarusian places and names continue to present real difficulties or just appear unpronounceable.
Belarusians themselves feel annoyed about the ways their names are transliterated from Cyrillic into Latin script. It has become even more complicated with Belarus having two official languages – Belarusian and Russian.
Some people transliterate proper names in accordance with the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s or the Belarusian Academy of Sciences' standards, which was recently adopted by the United Nations. Most people and the media, however, are inconsistent when switching from one version to another. Despite the various approaches, one thing is clear – if one respects Belarusian identity, it is important to transliterate Belarusian names from the Belarusian language.
How should one write the name of Alexander Lukashenka, then? Is it Aleksandr Lukashenko, Aliaksandr Lukashenka or even Aliaksandr Lukašenka? This is a point of confusion for many foreign journalists and researchers writing about Belarus. For instance, the respected British publication The Economist calls Belarusian leader Lukashenka and, alternatively, Lukashenko, while other Western major outlets use only Lukashenko.
Belarusians have their fair share of problems with transliteration, and sometimes use a different spelling of their names at different points. For example, Alexander Hleb, a former football player for Arsenal and Barcelona, switches between Hleb and Gleb.
Similar problems arise in writing out geographical place names. For foreigners it is difficult to grasp that Oktiabrskaja ploshad and Kashtrychnickaja polshcha refer to the same place. These are transliterated from two different languages – Oktiabrskaja from Russian and Kastrychnickaja from Belarusian.
The same is true with Hrodna (in Belarusian) and Grodno (in Russian) or Mahiliou (in Belarusian) and Mogilev (in Russian). Google Maps, for example, uses a bizarre mixture of various systems of transliteration in naming Belarusian geographical areas. Sometimes the names appear in Belarusian Cyrillic, sometimes in Lacinka, sometimes in Russian and whatever language is employed, they are not always used correctly.
Four Ways to Transliterate
Currently people use four different spellings of Belarusian names or cities: a transliteration from Russian, the spelling used by Belarusian Ministry of Interior, a random transliteration and the standard adopted by the United Nations. The first three fail to aptly convey the Belarusian language's designations and the fourth spelling is the single standard that Belarusian and foreign linguists recognise.
Transliteration from Russian is commonplace as Belarusians primarily use Russian in their daily lives. Also, many foreigners often perceive Belarusian culture and identity to be part and parcel of Russian culture. Moreover, many Belarusian leaders consciously use the Russian version of their names. For example, the Foreign Minister of Belarus Uladzimir Makej refers to himself as Vladimir Makei.
But Alena Kupchyna, Makei’s Deputy, transliterated her name from the Belarusian language in accordance with the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Belarus' standards. The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) also follows the same standards. ICAO, a UN specialised agency, only permits the usage of the English alphabet. These spellings often causes complaints as some people struggle to recognise their own surnames in their passport when they are written with this system.
In Belarus one can even transliterate their name from Russian and keep their surname's Belarusian spelling Read more
Those without prior knowledge would not know that the letter “h” stands for a “g” sound in Belarusian. For instance, the author’s name is prounounced something more akin to Rygor than Ryhor. This explains why many people eventually choose to use other transliterations. George Plaschinsky, a Belarusian who changed the transliteration of his name, told Belarus Digest that he had previously written his surname as Plachtchinski, but few could remember it.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs uses the ICAO’s transliteration by default in Belarusian passports, although everyone has the opportunity to specify how to their name should be transliterated when applying for a passport. This opens the door for people from other nationalities to write their names in accordance with their languages. For example, Belarusian citizens of Polish nationality can write their names in passport in Polish. This is one thing that differentiates Belarus from Lithuania, where Poles cannot use the Polish variant of their name on any official documents. In Belarus one can even transliterate their name from Russian and keep their surname's Belarusian spelling.
Despite the fact that the Ministry of Internal Affairs makes it possible to transliterate one's name as you wish, this limits people to only English letters and excludes letters like š (sh) or č (ch). This makes it impossible to use the most appropriate spelling, one which was developed by the Academy of Sciences of Belarus and the United Nations, who adopted these Belarusian toponyms.
Historically the Belarusian language has used three modified alphabets – Cyrillic, Latin and Arabic – and with Latin being used in a very broad manner. For example, using this spelling Lukashenka would be transliterated as Lukašenka. Belarus Profile, a sister project of Belarus Digest, uses this version when writing out the names. The titles of Minsk streets and metro stations are written according to this standard as well. Even Google Translate can transliterate Belarusian language according to this system.
Is There a Good Solution?
For Belarusians, the question of how to write out one's own name continues to be a pestering problem. The author of this article once thought about changing his surname from Astapenia to Astapienia, which would bring it more in line with its proper pronunciation. Since many of his official documents were already issued to Astapenia, changing his surname could lead to mounds of bureaucratic hassle and problems down the road. That is why many Belarusians, not satisfied with the transliteration on their passports, continue to be reluctant to change it.
there is only one standard preferred by scholars with the Belarusian Latin alphabet Read more
Despite all these problems, there is only one standard preferred by scholars with the Belarusian Latin alphabet. In 2000, the Institute of Language of the National Academy of Sciences established it as the foundation for the transliteration of Belarusian proper names in foreign languages.
However, this standard needs the support of the authorities' to allow it to be used in passports. It is already more or less the standard with Belarusian place names. According to this method of transliteration, Baranavichy will be Baranavičy and Statkievich will be Statkievič. The Journal of Belarusian Studies, the oldest English language double blind peer-reviewed periodical on Belarusian studies, follows this transliteration method.
Foreigners can use several styles to write Belarusian names, and they all depend on the situation in which they are employed. When it comes to official documentation, a passport helps them to skirt what could quickly become a bureaucratic hassle.
As for academic publications, it makes sense to use the transliteration of the Academy of Sciences as it is the most suitable system available. One can also ask how one should call a particular person – transliterating name from Russian by default can be even offensive to some Belarusians.
While it seems rather farfetched to develop a single unified system right now, it makes sense at least to exclude mostly blatantly incorrect versions – ones that use Russian transliterations. While few people inside Belarus use it, this is clearly not the best practise. Transliterating Belarusian names and places from Belarusian is a sign of respect towards Belarusians and their national identity.
Will an Economic Downturn Cause Unrest Ahead of Elections?
On 2 July Belarus witnessed a rather unusual show – 200 Chinese workers marched dozens of kilometres towards the city of Homiel in protest against wage arrears and poor working conditions. These foreign workers are currently employed by the Chinese company Siuan Yuan which is building a paper factory.
A similar protest organised by Belarusians is almost unthinkable in modern Belarus. The government controls every employee through a contract system and dissidents who raise their voices may lose their jobs instantaneously, while independent trade unions have almost disappeared under Lukashenka's rule.
However, the situation may be changing as Belarus experiences its deepest industrial crisis since the collapse of the USSR. Production is constantly falling and enterprises are having to make personnel cuts.
While previously the government restricted layoffs to prevent social unrest, currently they are using a hands-off approach. Ahead of the presidential election the authorities will try to keep the situation calm, but afterwards Belarus may face a period of painful restructuring and social tension.
Chinese Protest March – A Sight Unseen in Belarus
On 2 July a column of Chinese workers of around 200 people employed at a Chinese-owned construction company in Dobruš town left their workplace and marched 33 kilometres towards Homiel, accompanied by emergency services and special police units. The Belarusian police, well-trained to prevent massive political protests, stood by with rather confused looks on their faces, having no idea what to do with the angry Chinese crowd.
The deputy head of the presidential administration Mikalaj Snapkoŭ and head of the state wood industry consortium Jury Nazaraŭ personally took part in the negotiations between Chinese diplomats, the company and workers.
The workers explained to journalists that they were protesting against late salaries. After failed negotiations with Chinese diplomats, who quickly arrived in Homiel, they announced that they were heading towards Minsk and intend to speak to the Chinese ambassador. However, closer to evening the diplomats persuaded workers to return to their workplace by bus.
As it later turned out, the workers were dissatisfied not only with delayed salaries, but also with the working conditions at their construction site. They had no days off, the company took their passports, they had no right to buy Belarusian sim cards to call home, and the food and lodging were in poor shape as well. To top it all off, when they did get paid, their salary was lower than the employer had originally promised.
The Chinese protest was a real sensation among Belarusian media outlets – the way the citizens of half-totalitarian China defended their labour rights very much contrasts with the local climate. Belarus has not seen worker's protests of this type since the 1990s when Lukashenka's power had not calcified and an economic crisis was still unfolding.
Industry Crisis May Cause Social Tension
Today, Belarusians who work in state-owned industries can easily lose their job for dissenting against the upper management and there are virtually no protections in place to ensure their rights are being observed. Virtually all independent trade unions, save a few, have been eliminated and most workers belong to the state-controlled Federation of Belarusian Trade Unions. However, this year the situation may change unexpectedly, and the reasons are becoming more apparent by the day.
The industrial sector of the country, and in particular machine building – the core of the Belarusian economy since the Soviet era – is experiencing hard times. In 2014 Belarus produced 20-50% less machinery than the year prior according to official statistics. Numerous industrial enterprises, such as the wood industry factory Homieldreŭ, the Mahilioŭ automobile plant, machine builder Strommašina, the Svietlahorsk concrete production plant and many others have either reduced the length of their working weeks and sent workers on unpaid holidays or cut their salaries.
As a result, in 2014, many Belarusian industrial giants, including Hrodna Azot, Mahilioŭ Chimvalakno, Minsk Automobile Plant and BelAZ, had to lay off between 5 to 20% of their employees.
According to the World Bank's estimates, state-owned industries employ around 10% of individuals which they classify as economically unjustifiable personnel, who hinder their economic efficiency.
The government has been reluctant to make cuts to the labour force for decades, as they believed that minimal social guarantees and salaries are better than unemployment which can lead to political turmoil. But with the current layoffs their concerns about the effect of unemployment may be realised ahead of the October presidential elections.
Can Workers Spark a Belarusian Maidan?
Tacciana Čyžova, a researcher at the Political Sphere Institute, has been monitoring protest activity in politics and the economy for the past few years. In a comment to BelarusDigest she noted that in 2014 the level of protest activity at Belarusian enterprises clearly grew when compared to 2013. The conflicts usually were tied to salaries and working conditions.
However, these clashes with companies' management usually do not transcend the territory of the enterprise or town and last no more than 1-2 days. Enterprise managers and local authorities usually seek to resolve the conflict peacefully and as quickly as possible, tactics which apparently are part of a model established by the central government.
A fine example of these tactics being employed happened in 2014 when a protest by ambulance workers, who after minor concessions from the authorities, promptly returned to their jobs. As the economic situation is unlikely to improve much ahead of elections, the authorities will attempt to avoid any radical reforms and mass layoffs in order to keep situation on the ground calm. Any mass protests, let alone a Maidan, seems very unlikely, Čyžova believes.
Moreover, this time even most opposition-minded candidates running for the presidency have warned against mass protests. A leftist party leader Siarhei Kaliakin says that violent scenarios will not bring results, but rather lead to tragedy. Tacciana Karatkievič, a candidate from Tell the Truth campaign, believes that the very idea of protests is not popular in modern Belarusian society, but she would join a protest and try to turn it peaceful if people do it spontaneously.
Meanwhile, United Civil Party leader Anatol Liabedźka stated that "we are not going to dissuade people from peaceful protests, as other candidates are, because the authorities push people to them with their unprofessional policies".
While the opposition agrees with the authorities about the danger of a violent scenario (clearly with a potential Ukrainian situation developing in the back of their minds), any real developments will probably follow the election. Belarus needs painful economic restructuring, and mass layoffs may well be on the menu shortly after Aliasksandr Lukashenka assumes the presidency for his fifth term in power.