Major Independent Publisher under Attack in Belarus
On 9 January the Economic Court of Minsk charged the Lohvinaŭ book store with unauthorised book sales and ordered the confiscation of its whole year’s profit. This is perhaps the largest fine ever received by civil society in Belarus.
Until 2013 Lohvanaŭ was also the largest independent publisher in Belarus and one of the chief supporters of Belarusian language authors. However, the authorities withdrew its license after the store published a photo album, which the siloviki considered as extremist. In reality, it only contained photos of large protests.
Ironically, the persecution of the publisher happens at a time when the regime is evidently implementing a new national identity policy. Fearing the “Russian world” on Belarusian borders, the elites have demonstrated support for the Belarusian language and culture in their latest speeches. The regime has always seen civil society as the enemy, but now it should realise that it is undermining its potential partner in the building of national identity.
A Major Supporter of Belarusian Literature
In December 2014 the Ministry of Information ordered the Minsk Tax Inspection to check on the Lohvinaŭ bookstore. The inspection service stated that Lohvinaŭ was breaking the law by selling books without registration. According to Belarusian law, all booksellers are required to be registered with the Ministry of Information. The Economic Court of Minsk supported the charges and on 9 January the bookstore was fined $350 and its entire $56,000 income for 2014 was confiscated.
The Lohvinaŭ publishing house, a non-profit cultural organization, has been one of the chief supporters of Belarusian language authors. The firm brought in little profit and worked more like a self-financed cultural organisation.
In recent years, Lohvinau has become a central independent literary and intellectual platform in Minsk. Book launching events and book readings took place almost every day. The publishing house also attracted many tourists, who could find there rare Belarusian books, banned from official bookstores.
At a press conference on 20 January Ihar Lohvinaŭ, the director of the store, complained that Belarus has the most absurd legislation with regards to book publishing and trade. Around the world book publishing is usually subsidised by the government, while in Belarus a private entity has to use its own funds and on top faces constant repression. Lohvinaŭ said he had applied for registration six times over the course of the year, but each time received rejections on trivial grounds, such as indicating the wrong zip code.
Lohvinaŭ urged the public to help him to pay off the drastic fine. If the publisher fails to collect the necessary sum, the firm will go bankrupt and Lohvinau may face criminal charges for his inability to pay. Activists have launched a web site where anyone can donate to save the bookstore.
“Extremist” Literature Threatens the Regime
Belarusian authorities thoroughly control book publishing as a potential source of anti-government literature. Books which negatively portray the regime risk being considered extremist and banned from public distribution. Editions which show alternative historical view or discuss symbols regarded as oppositional also face censorship.
In 2013 the authorities used one of such cases to withdraw the publishing licence from Lohvinaŭ. The court charged the publisher with extremism for printing album Press Photo 2011. The album contained photos of the 2010 post-election as well as the 2011 “silent protests”.
A year earlier, in 2012 the authorities targeted another bookseller, Alieś Jaŭdacha, who sold books by post. The persecution started after he initiated distribution of a book about the Youth Front – a famous opposition youth organisation. Accused of conducting illegal enterprise, Alieś Jaŭdacha was charged with a year of incarceration and awarded a large fine.
Similarly, in 2012 the authorities confiscated over 5,000 books from independent publisher and bookseller Valier Bulhakaŭ. According to the authorities, the books projected extremist ideas. In reality, they presented an alternative view of World War II, inconsistent with that of the government.
Several people were sacked from Hrodna University for publishing a textbook supported by a Polish grant. The textbook contained Belarusian symbols that are not officially recognised by the government.
A New National Identity Strategy
The prosecution of Lohvinaŭ clearly diverges from the new policy on supporting Belarusian identity initiated in 2014. On 20 January at the 42th Congress of the pro-government youth organisation BRSM Lukashenka stated that only Belarusian (as opposed to Russian) culture, language and history can help forge national identity.
In concordance with Lukashenka’s statement, the Minister of Information Lilija Ananič encouraged parents and schools to teach children both official languages. As an effect of the previous policies of hampering the Belarusian language, many children don’t speak the language on daily basis and view tit as foreign.
On 21 January the recently appointed Minister of Education Michail Žuraŭkoŭ expressed the Ministry’s intention to foster the use of the Belarusian language in education. Žuraŭkoŭ promised that in future half of all subjects in Belarusian schools would be taught in Belarusian. According to the most recent policy, geography and history in schools will be taught only in Belarusian.
The events in Ukraine, where the military conflict has sharpened the divide between the Russian and Ukrainian identities, alerted the Belarusian authorities to the need for a new national identity strategy. Years of suppression of Belarusian language and culture have formed a society with a weak national consciousness and strong pro-Russian sentiments, vulnerable to Russian TV propaganda.
To eliminate the Russian threat, the authorities have evidently decided to launch a new strategy of for consolidating the Belarusian nation. Even Lukashenka himself has publicly acknowledged that his previous attempts based on Slavic ideology have failed.
Civil Society: Enemy or Partner?
Belarusian writer Uladzimir Arloŭ called governmental moves against Lohvinaŭ ridiculous since most senior Belarusian officials claim the importance of national values, language and culture. “Maybe the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing?” Arloŭ said. “If the authorities indeed want to support Belarusian language and culture, they should take Lohvinaŭ's side. Otherwise their claims are meaningless.”
Nevertheless, the reasoning of the authorities appears quite understandable. The government simply wants to eliminate any areas of public life that it cannot control directly, regardless of their nature and implications. Over the course of Lukashanka’s regime total control has been installed in all spheres of public life. Whatever their focus, civil society groups were dismissed as hostile and restricted. Searching for enemies at home has become an established practise for Belarusian bureaucrats.
Now, the enemy clearly lies outside, not inside, and the authorities have to accept the civil society as its best partner in strengthening Belarusians' national identity.
Belarusian Government Angers Russian Nationalists
Last week, Belarusian officials made an unprecedented series of statements in support of Belarusian language and culture. One after another, the President, information and education ministers and the Chairman of Constitutional Court spoke up on the issue at prominent events and venues.
Their statements may indicate a revision of previously held ideological premises. In the past, ruling elites expressed little interest in the national language, preferring instead to downplay the distinctiveness of Belarusians. These latest remarks made by officials in Minsk angered Russian chauvinist quarters, among them a major news agency Regnum and leading Russian experts on Belarusian and Ukrainian affairs.
Although trying not to antagonise Moscow per se, Minsk feels it necessary to strengthen the foundations of its own national independence. And the government is doing so in a logical way – by resorting to the politically powerful tools of national language and culture. At the same time, it takes those very instruments out of the hands of opposition which has monopolised these issues for the past two decades.
Information Minister Liliya Ananich started the recent flurry of statements in support of the Belarusian language. She complained on 19 January that many periodicals registered as bilingual (Belarusian/Russian) were "unjustifiably" using only Russian.
The next day, Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka told the members of a pro-government youth union that it was national culture and especially language which made a Belarusian truly Belarusian and not just a “local.”
The chairman of the Constitutional Court Piotr Miklashevich, speaking in the Belarusian parliament on Tuesday, announced that the legislative acts concerning the rights and freedoms of citizens should be published in both Belarusian and Russian.
He reminded parliament that, “our Constitution guarantees the equality of the two languages”. Miklashevich's predecessor as the Chairman of Constitutional Court, Ryhor Vasilevich, also urged the use of Belarusian in 2007, yet he did it in an informal way at a low-level seminar.
On Wednesday, newly appointed Education Minister Mikhail Zhuraukou said that his Ministry wanted the geography and history of Belarus to taught in schools in Belarusian. “The children will incrementally come to a point where they will wish to learn half or more than half of all their subjects at secondary school in Belarusian.” Concurrently, added the minister, the universities should introduce more Belarusian-taught courses in their curricula.
This all carries significant weight in Belarus. Earlier, the long-tiime Belarusian head of state downplayed the peculiarities of Belarusians with regards to Russians. Once he even said that there only two great languages in the world: Russian and English. Other state officials and agencies followed his lead. Thus, in 2007 the Ministry of Education dismissed proposals to teach the very courses now up for discussion, geography and history, in Belarusian in schools as “baseless.”
Things have changed in recent years. In 2014, Lukashenka repeatedly criticised the language imbalance and expressed concern over the sad state of the Belarusian language. Thus, during two separate conferences of teachers and writers, Lukashenka addressed the crowds with a proposal to add one more hour of Belarusian language and literature into the weekly curriculum of Belarusian schools.
No Place For Russian Nationalists
This change in the mindset of Belarusian officials has led to a decidely negative reaction from Russian chauvinist elements in Russia's mainstream media, academy and think tanks. Russian right-wing news agency Regnum claimed that the "Minister of Education of Byelorussia […] announced that teaching history and geography in Russian language in schools would be prohibited."
New-born star in the realm of Russian propaganda, deputy director of the Centre of Ukrainian and Belarusian studies at Moscow State University Bohdan Bespalko said, "It is sad that Belarus is pursuing an anti-Russian course. The government of this republic is going the way of nationalism in the Ukrainian style."
Russian nationalist activist and founder of web portal Imperiya Yuri Baranchik added, "a new wave of de-Russification has begun." He believes that, "the Belarusian leadership has essentially removed its mask. If the situation does not change, in some five years Belarusian nationalism can achieve the [same] level of radicalism as Ukrainian nationalism.”
He is able to make a good case in Moscow because he can refer to his personal experience. Baranchik served in key government institutions in Belarus. In 1996-2007, he worked in the Ministry of Education, the Presidential Administration, the Foreign Ministry and the Academy of Public Administration under the aegis of the President of the Republic of Belarus.
As Belarusian ruling elites increasingly began emphasising national independence, Baranchik was forced to move farther away from the centres of power, e.g., leaving the position in the omnipotent Presidential Administration for a second-rate think tank. Ultimately, he left the state service.
The last step was Baranchik's emigration to Moscow and taking his project Imperiya with him to the Russian Internet. A similar fate has befallen another Russian nationalist in Belarus, Andrei Herashchanka. The latter lost his job in the state administration in Vitsebsk after making scandalous remarks about Belarus.
A Language's Absence: Whom To Blame?
Still, despite the recent proclamations by senior officials, one encounters little Belarusian language in state usage today. This is mostly the result of many years of neglect. There a number of issues that the state will need to contend with.
First, the introduction of Belarusian into state agencies presents a significant technical challenge. Thus, the chairman of the Constitutional Court demands for the bilingual publication of legislation emphasised that if the laws were available in both languages, then court proceedings could be done in Belarusian.
Second, Belarusians themselves exhibit a cautious attitude in turning to their native language. For example, the media frequently laments over the lack of opportunities for getting an education in Belarusian. And yet, the lack of willingness on the part of parents to send their children to the classes taught in Belarusian may be an even bigger problem.
Thus, in the Western Belarusian city of Baranavichy since 2010 there has existed only one class where the children have been taught in Belarusian. 173,000 people live in this city, but since the class was established it has consisted of only three girls. In 2014, the class failed to attract any new pupils and after one of the girls left, the school dissolved the class.
The only class teaching in Belarusian in Mahilyou faces the same issues. In 2010, a class was established with three pupils, yet in two years time only one girl remained. Her parents tried to find other pupils to study in Belarusian, but to no avail. A brief note: Mahilyou is the centre of a province (voblast') with 360,000 inhabitants and home to some of the national democratic opposition.
As the Belarusian opposition increasingly embraces Russian-speaking, yet conspicuously anti-Russian political nationalism, the ruling elites are moving in the opposite direction. Lukashenka and his followers started by defending Belarus' economic, political and military interests against the Kremlin, sometimes out of purely egotistic motives. Now they have realised how powerful a political tool a national language and culture can be.
Support for Belarusian alongside other similar developments – like the reconstruction of castles or installation of a monument to a mediaeval Belarusian ruler – demonstrate the authorities' attempts to put national statehood on a firmer foundation. Despite the gloomy assessments of many Western and Belarusian analysts and scholars underlining fragility of the Belarusian statehood, Belarus is developing towards becoming a full-fledged European nation.