Is Lukashenka Trying to Emancipate Belarus from Russian Culture?
On 29 September, Alexander Lukashenka stated that schools should increase the number of Belarusian language lessons they teach.
Following Lukashenka's public speech in Belarusian in July this year, a rare even in and of itself, the retirement of some pro-Russian officials and the unveiling of a monument to the Great Duke Alhierd all show that the authorities realise the need to strengthen national identity as war rages on in Ukraine.
Even if this attempt at Belarusisation does not become Lukashenka's official policy, the government de facto declared a policy of non-aggression towards the Belarusian language after decades of suppressing it. Low-level officials will not be afraid to support it, and cultural organisations will have more opportunities for development.
Is Lukashenka Becoming More Belarusian?
The Belarusian head of state can hardly be accused of nationalism. As far back as 1994, Lukashenka famously declared, "People who speak the Belarusian language cannot do anything else apart from speak the Belarusian language, because it's impossible to express anything great in Belarusian”.
One year after he rose to power, he granted both the Russian language and Soviet symbols official state status. Consequently, Belarusians have seen a shift in their identities. In 1999, 73.7% of Belarusians called Belarusian their native language, while in 2009 only 53.2% did so.
At the beginning of the 1990s, a third of schoolchildren received their education in Belarusian. Today, even regional centres and large cities do not have a single Belarusian-language school. Even the remaining schools that are considered 'Belarusian' lack basic Belarusian-language textbooks, so teachers conduct lessons in Russian.
In a recent article published on 27 September, the Nasha Niva weekly wrote that they could not find either contour maps or manuals for geography in the Belarusian language in any of the shops they visited. Lately, however, it appears that the Belarusian authorities are finally showing signs that they are capable of changing.
On 29 September, Alexander Lukashenka told deputies from the House of Representatives that Belarus should pay more attention to the study of the Belarusian language in its schools. Several months ago, on Independence Day, Lukashenka spoke Belarusian in public for the first time in many years. Many Belarusian cities now have large billboards advertising the Belarusian language scattered throughout their urban landscapes.
The surprising changes underway concern more than just language too.
Earlier this summer, the authorities in Vitebsk erected a monument to the Great Duke Alhierd, a historical Belarusian figure, who successfully fought against, among others, the Russians. It is the first monument in Belarus dedicated to the head of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
That was not without its own controversy, as it led to a backlash from the nation's multitude of pro-Russian organisations. The history of the Grand Duchy tends to nurture in Belarusians feelings of historical dignity, making them feel like they are a part of the Western civilization, a history that is separate from Russia.
On 3 July 2014, the authorities renamed Soviet Square in the city of Mahiliou to the Square of Glory. According to the officials, the former name covered only a short period of history, implying that it was an out-of-date relic.
Even within the ranks of the Belarusian authorities, openly pro-Russian figures are starting to disappear. Leu Kshyshtapovich, who previously served as the deputy head of the Informational-Analytical Centre of the Presidential Administration and was known for his favourable views towards Russian imperialism, recently resigned.
Can the Belarusian Authorities Do More?
Lukashenka’s policy change seemes to come as a result of the Russo-Ukranian war. The regime has managed to build a polity, one which depends solely on Lukashenka, though its ideology has had the unintended side effect of making it dependent on Russia.
The policy of russification has served Lukashenka well over the years as he built up ties with the Kremlin. Russian TV, for example, is much more popular than Belarusian TV in Belarus. According to the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS) 73.6% of Belarusians identify themselves as being to be closer to Russians than Europeans, and 13.3% would welcome a Russian occupation of Belarus.
For a long time Belarus received support from Russia because of its russification policy, and yet it is this very policy that has made Belarus so vulnerable. The fear of potential Russian aggression has forced Belarus not only to strengthen the state's ideological framework, but even to start practising counter-insurgency and anti-sabotage manoeuvres during military drills in spring 2014.
The desire of the Belarusian authorities to become ideologically less dependent on Russia seems rational. However, up until this point the regime has taken only the smallest of steps towards building a uniquely Belarusian national identity, so it is difficult to speak about any long-term strategy.
There is nothing holding Lukashenka from pushing through identity strengthening reforms since, after all, he can unilaterally increase the number of lessons of the Belarusian language without discussing it with Belarus' puppet Parliament.
A 'Hands Off' Policy for the Belarusian Language
Although a real change in policy remains rather unlikely, a noticeable shift in the mindset towards the Belarusian language among the Belarusian authorities has clearly taken place.
This means that all of those low-level officials who wanted to come out in support Belarusian language will no longer be afraid to do so. A rising number of Belarusian-language TV programmes will start to appear and Belarusian bands' concerts will raise less suspicion among state officials.
On 1 October, famous Belarusian musician Zmicier Vajciushkievich announced that he will soon hold his first legal concert in Belarus follwing a three-year hiatus. This is no coincidence, as journalist Viktar Marcinovich noted when pointing out that Lukashenka’s speech in Belarusian in July coincided with the emergence of a large number of ads and TV broadcasts in Belarusian.
It seems that the government will not throw a wrench in the spokes of existing cultural organisations. Existing Belarusian language courses like Mova ci Kava (Language or Coffee), Mova Nanova (Language in a New Way) or Movaveda now draw hundreds of people in public spaces. They expect to sustain this level of popularity under these more favourable conditions.
The lack of pressure from the authorities will certainly allow these kinds of organisations to quickly grow. For example, on 28 September in Minsk hosted the National Sports Festival Mova Cup/Language Cup. It promoted sports and the Belarusian language and received a very high level of support from the authorities which allowed to use large state-owned sports facilities. The Budzma! campaign holds many cultural events and some of them they have even managed to do together with the authorities.
This change in the mentality of the officials will stimulate the development of new social initiatives that will contribute to the popularity of the Belarusian language. It can even lead to a partnership between civil society and the authorities in the field of language.
The real irony of this story is that the Belarusian language is being resurrected under Lukashenka, the man who has put so much effort into wiping it out. The times are indeed changing.
Drawing in the West, One-woman Protest, Ukrainian Refugees – Western Press Digest
The western press took note of refugees from Ukraine arriving in Belarus, who has in turn provided them with housing and offered them work. The story of two families demonstrates Belarus' attraction as the situation in Ukraine continues to be dangerous and chaotic.
Meanwhile, the press also took interest in the United States' renewed calls to have the investigation of 'disappeared' opposition figures re-opened.
Belarus' economic situation appears to be improving, despite regional instability. It has become one of the main importers of Moldovan apples and EU foodstuffs, likely to be used for re-export to Russia. It will also receive a new loan from Russia that will help it strengthen its foreign currency reserves and service its debts.
Belarusians will soon be able to travel to Israel without a visa according to a recent announcement made by Israel's Ambassador to Belarus. Meanwhile, the authorities in Minsk rejected a request to hold a one-person protest citing potential harm to the environment and a possibly dangerous distraction to the public at large. All of this and more in this edition of the Western Press Digest.
Ukrainians Heading for Belarus – Bloomberg reports that even Ukrainians who are not near the conflict zone have decided to move to Belarus where there is peace and stability. A family, who held well-paid jobs in the Chernobyl exclusion zone decided to move to Belarus after sensing the situation in Ukraine was hopeless and nothing would be changing in the near future. Belarusian officials say that over 3,000 Ukrainians have relocated to Belarus due to the crisis in the eastern region of their neighbour to the south.
Another family, who lived in rebel-held Shakhtarsk, left their homes because of the violence. The father of the family says that while he supports the beliefs of the rebels, he is not willing to kill or die for them. He was also afraid of being drafted into the Ukrainian army. Both families have been resettled in a small village where they will be offered work upon completing the registration process.
U.S. Calls on Minsk to Investigate "Disappeared" Opposition Figures – The U.S. State Department is calling on the Belarusian government to extend the statute of limitations and re-open four cases of three 'disappeared' political figures and one prominent businessmen according to RFE/RL.
The disappearances, which happened in 1999 and 2000, have never been solved, though their relatives apparently believe that Belarus' security services killed them. According to the coverage, Washington's recent statement is no coincidence, as a widow of one of the victims wrote a letter to the Secretary of State reminding them that the 15 year statue of limitations is set to expire soon. A small protest in support of the disappeared took place on 16 September.
Minsk Authorities Shoot Down One-Woman Protest – In an official decision that seems to be a piece of satire, the BBC is reporting that Minsk's deputy mayor has rejected a request by activist Tatstsyana Hrachanikava to protest in front of the Russian Embassy. The official reason for rejecting the request states, "[the] mass event that might harm the environment and green spaces, obstruct pedestrians and traffic, and distract drivers from the road".
Hrachanikava, who is an activist with the Movement for Freedom group, is part of a larger effort by activists to hold a simple protest against Russia's aggression in Ukraine. The movement's leader, Artsyom Lyava, points out the absurdity of the authorities' decision and says that, if it were the case that one person could cause such a disruption, "we won't be able to walk around or even stand still next".
Belarus is Reselling Moldova's Sanctioned Apples – Sales for Moldovan apples have found a new market in Belarus following Russian sanctions banned them from being sold in Russia according to an AP report on Business Insider. Russia, which is Moldova's largest apple market, has been included in an embargo against the EU's agricultural and food products for its signing of a trade pact with the EU.
Belarusian Head of State Lukashenka made an official visit to Moldova with a trade delegation where both sides signed a trade deal valued at $50m. According to the EU mission for Border Assistance to Moldova and Ukraine since the Russian sanctions against the EU were introduced, Belarus has seen a significant increase in food and agricultural good imports.
Belarus Approval for Another Russian Loan – Sharing a story published by Russian news sources, RFE/RL reports that Russia has approved a new loan to Belarus. The loan, which is to be distributed in Russian rubles, is said to be valued at $1.55bn. The funds will be transferred before the end of 2014. Belarus is receiving this latest loan from Russia in order to help it replenish its gold and foreign currency reserves and also service its state debts.
Belarus and Israel Sign off on Visa Waiver – At a recent Limmud educational conference for the states of the former Soviet Union, the Israeli Ambassador to Belarus, Yosef Shagal, said that Israel will soon introduce a visa-free regime with Belarus. The move, which the Israel Times says defies the West, was made to strengthen ties between the two countries.
Shagal said that recently introduced visa-free regimes with Russia and Ukraine have brought more business and tourism to Israel and also strengthened Jewish culture in both countries. While the report does not specify when the corresponding legal act will be signed, it says that the visa waiver will be in effect before the end of 2014.
Belarus and the West Growing Closer – A recent blog by analyst Richard Youngs on the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow's website says that Belarus, despite outward appearances, has successfully improved its standing in the West. In addition to having Minsk serve as the centre of negotiations for calming tensions between parties involved in the war in Ukraine, a move which the West greatly appreciated, Belarus has also indicated that it is ready to come back into the fold.
Belarus recently stated its interest in potentially discussing human rights issues with the Council of Europe and the United Nations. Youngs states that while this rapprochement will not lead to large scale changes and reforms, Minsk is nonetheless looking for a quiet means of cooperating with the West.