Selling Russian to the Russians
This week the Belarusian Association of Advertisers announced a competition for the best poster in popularising the Belarusian language. They want to draw public attention to "one of the most painful social problems” – the low usage of Belarusian in everyday life in Belarus.
Belarusians have the weakest national self-identification in the former Soviet Union and authoritarian ruler Alexander Lukashenka is happy to pursue pro-Moscow cultural policy in exchange for cheap Russian gas and oil. The most recent manifestation of such a policy was a letter from the presidential administration urging local authorities "not to allow artificial reduction of the use of the Russian language".
While the authorities are trying to suppress the use of Belarusian, Belarusian civil society is trying to revive it. And for good reason.
Russification Before Independence
The Belarusian language was the only official language of the Grand Duchy of Litva (Lithuania) – once the largest state in Central Europe. But in the last two centuries went through very difficult times.
Since the late 18th century, Russia tried to assimilate Belarusians into the Russian Empire. Mikhail Muravyov who led Russia's administration in the Belarusian territory in the 19th century, famously said: "What Russian rifles did not succeed in doing, will be finished off by Russian schools".
The modern Belarusian national movement developed relatively late and in less favourable conditions compared to Baltic states or Ukraine. Read more
The modern Belarusian national movement developed relatively late – in the 19th century and in less favourable conditions compared to Baltic states or Ukraine. In 1920 there was a brief period of "Belarusification" in the Soviet Union. Repressive Stalinist totalitarianism ended this short-lived policy and damaged Belarus more than other Soviet republic.
Post-Stalin Soviet leaders continued this policy. Nikita Khrushchev during his visit to Minsk in 1959 stated: “The sooner we all speak in Russian, the faster we build communism”. Belarus occupied the last place among all Soviet republics according to the use of its native language. And still it was higher then than today. In 1950, the majority of Minsk residents spoke Belarusian.
In 1970, almost 40 per cent of books and newspapers in Belarus were published in Belarusian. Already in 1984, only 5 per cent of newspapers in Soviet Belarus circulated in the Belarusian language.
Russification After Independence
After the declaration of independence in 1990, the Belarusian Parliament proclaimed the sole official language of the country. But the first Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenka was unable to speak either proper Russian, or Belarusian. He spoke a mixture of the two languages with a heavy Belarusian accent.
Since the 1990s, the myth of "Belarusian nationalists" has been helping Lukashenka gain political and economic support from Moscow. Read more
However, he decided to position himself as the defender of the Russian language from Belarusian nationalists. Lukashenka also portrayed the Belarusian language as a real threat to Russians in Belarus. Since the 1990s, the myth of "Belarusian nationalists" has been helping him gain political and economic support from Moscow.
Following a questionable referendum in 1995, Lukashenka made Russian the second official language in Belarus. Russian president Boris Yeltsin was thankful and surprised with the result: “Just think of it! They have even made Russian official!".
Lukashenka rarely speaks Belarusian. When he does so, his main goal is usually to ridicule his political opponents. There was no place for the Belarusian language in the newly created state ideology based on the glorification of the Soviet past.
Under the 18 years of Lukashenka's rule, education and schooling in the Belarusian language had been marginalised. In 1994, 75 per cent of Belarusian children went to schools with Belarusian as the language of instruction. Today, it's less then 20 per cent. This figure is based primarily on rural schools which are gradually dying out. For comparison, only 2 per cent of pupils study in Belarusian-speaking classes and schools in Minsk, and only several children do so in the town of Mahilou with a population 360,000.
Many Belarusian parents refuse to send their children to the Belarusian-language classes simply because they do not think it would be useful for them in the future. In spite of the appeals from civil society, the authorities did not allow the establishment of even one college or university with Belarusian as the principal language of instruction.
Belarusian-speaking people used to be the primary target of police and KGB during the opposition street protests. Read more
Belarusian is almost never used in official communication and office administration. Most of the state-owned mass media broadcast in Russian. Moreover, often people are just afraid to speak Belarusian publicly. The reason is Belarusian-speaking people used to be the primary target of police and KGB during the opposition street protests.
That is why statistics demonstrate decreasing use of the Belarusian language. If in 1999 there were 36.7 per cent who claimed they spoke Belarusian every day, in 2009 it had dropped to 23.4 per cent.
Selling Russian to the Russians
Official Minsk has been trading its pro-Russian cultural policy for oil and gas loans for years. These tactics were slightly modified during the cooling down period with Russia and a thaw with Brussels in 2007-2010. In 2008, Lukashenka appointed “the first Belarusian speaking minister”. Pavel Latushka, Belarus' Minister of Culture, is the first high-ranking Lukashenka’s official who predominantly uses Belarusian even in official communication.
However, the state policy to reinforce Belarusian national identity remains poorly articulated and very inconsistent. The Belarusian media recently published a letter from Alexander Radzkou, a senior official in the presidential administration. The letter instructs regional and local authorities “to take concrete measures to prevent the policy of forced Belarusification by heads of state bodies and other organisations and the artificial limitation of the use of the Russian language in their activities."
The vast majority of the population has no problem with understanding Belarusian even if they struggle to speak it fluently. Read more
The vast majority of the population has no problem with understanding Belarusian even if they struggle to speak it fluently. Today Belarusian is the language of the intelligentsia, creative elites and young city dwellers. Many world famous brands have staged a range of successful advertising campaigns in Belarusian. It has proven that the Belarusian language has huge potential to affect people. But its prestige and wider use need to be supported.
The Belarusian Language Today
Some western policymakers elaborating strategies to democratise Belarus neglect the importance of the Belarusian language. They forget that Belarusian had been the basis for the original Belarusian national movement and statehood based on democratic ideas. It brought together people of different faiths and ethnic origins.
As David Marples noted in 1999, “For Belarus, national development without the native language, especially under the shadow of a much larger Slavic neighbour with a lengthy historical tradition as an empire, was virtually impossible”.
And it is still not possible today. Being the cornerstone of Belarusian identity, Belarusian language protects the nation from Russian expansion and Russification. On the other hand, Belarusian makes Belarusians feel European. It is a very important tool for democratisation.
That is why, if the West does not want to “lose” Belarus to Russia completely, it should help Belarusians strengthen their national self-identification and to feel themselves to be a part of a greater European heritage. The Belarusian language as the cornerstone of the nation should definitely be supported alongside democratic values and human rights, as Kenneth Yalowitz, the US ambassador to Belarus, noted recently.
Kanstantsin is a contributing author. He is a Belarusian journalist currently doing an MA in International Politics at City University in London.
Political Prisoners in Belarus: How to Break the Vicious Circle
Former Belarusian presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov and his main campaign aide Dzmitry Bandarenka have been released from prison on the eve of the Christian Orthodox Easter. It looks like the first step in the de-escalation of the worst EU-Belarus conflict in history. It is likely that expectations of Vladimir Putin’s pressure after his re-election contributed more to the long-awaited release of these two political prisoners, rather than the EU sanctions.
At least 13 opposition activists still remain in prison and almost nothing prevents Lukashenka from taking new hostages for his dialogue with the EU. The EU needs a long-term and consistent strategy based on the support of Belarusian civil society and increasing contacts with Belarusian officials and businessmen. This will contribute to the long-term transformation of the country much better than sanctions alone.
What Finally Prompted Lukashenka to Release Them?
Lukashenka pardoned Sannikov and Bandarenka nine days after he had promised to do it against the background of deteriorating relations with the EU. The EU-Belarus relations reached a deadlock in February-March when all EU ambassadors have been recalled to Brussels in a move of solidarity with their colleagues asked by Belarusian authorities to leave the country.
Consequently the EU imposed a new set of sanctions against the Belarusian regime, including several Belarusian businessmen and their enterprises. Lukashenka banned dozens of his opponents from leaving the country in a response to that.
Now it seems that the war will soon be over. Soft-liners such as the Belarusian Foreign Minister Sergey Martynov and Head of the Presidential Administration Vladimir Makey have already made clear that Belarus wants to return to a dialogue with the EU.
Russian Pressure Is the Most Effective Stimulus
However, it is hardly possible that these developments were caused primarily by the EU sanctions. Their cause may be found in the Putin’s return to power in Russia and the end of construction of a new Russian oil pipeline BTS-2. Russia built it specially to lessen its dependence on transit countries such as Belarus and Ukraine. As a result, Belarusian revenues from oil processing and transit may soon drastically diminish.
Vladimir Putin is likely to intensify pressure on the Belarusian ruler to privatize Belarusian enterprises, especially oil refineries in Mozyr and Polotsk and the Belarusian potash producer Belkali in Salihorsk.
Recently Moscow launched a trade war against Belavia, the biggest Belarusian airliner, to exclude it from making internal flights to Russia. Lukashenka does not expect any significant positive developments on the Eastern front. He has already got what he wanted from Russia and now it is time for him to pay the bills.
Intensive development of the Eurasian Union and its supranational institutions may put an end to his unlimited authority. If Belarus has to coordinate its macroeconomic policies with the Eurasian Economic Commission, Lukashenka’s economic model may collapse.
Besides, Lukashenka has a lot of other urgent issues to deal with. Belarus will soon need to repay its IMF loan of $3,8 bln and it does not have free financial resources. The EU and Western financial institutions could help solve this problem, but Lukashenka should improve relations with them at first.
Capricious Nature of the Belarusian Regime
However, this release is not the end of the conflict. The Head of the EU External Action Service Catherine Ashton called on the Belarusian authorities to release all other political prisoners unconditionally. At the same time Lukashenka evidently hopes for some sticks or at least positive assessment of his recent actions by the EU. For example, he expects that the EU Council will not widen sanctions against his officials on 23 April.
If something goes wrong, this rapprochement may end as quickly as it unfolded last autumn. In September the Bulgarian foreign minister Nikolay Mladenov visited Minsk to offer the improvement of Belarus-EU relations. Lukashenka agreed to release 21 political prisoners, but then stopped to do it when Europeans disclosed the information about negotiations with him.
If there is no further deterioration of relations, EU ambassadors may return to Minsk next week and all remaining 13 political prisoners may be released before the September parliamentary election.
But another problem may impede the speedy release of prisoners: Lukashenka said that he would free only those of them who had written appeals for his pardon. Though he released former presidential candidate Alexander Kozulin without such an appeal in 2008 and Belarusian legislation allows to do this.
The most important thing to bear in mind is that Lukashenka may take new hostages for his dialogue with the EU. He has already resorted to this option during the last presidential election when dozens of opposition activists have been jailed on charges of mass riots. A long-term solution is needed.
How to Break the Vicious Circle?
Some Belarusian experts, such as a scientist Andrei Schumann, think that political prisoners would be granted freedom earlier if there are no EU sanctions. Others, like exile editor of web site charter97 Natalia Radina, are confident that Lukashenka understands only the language of force. It is hard to guess who is right.
In March, the EU started negotiations with most of its Eastern partners, particularly Moldova, Georgia and Armenia, on the free trade area (DCFTA) agreements. They intend to promote bilateral trade and modernise these countries in accordance with the EU acquis. This looks like a sound strategy, because the more region is Europeanised, the less authoritarian options Belarus will have.
The EU should invest more in the Belarusian economy and its presence in Belarus and should create its lobby inside the Belarusian regime. It should be using its contacts with pro-European Belarusian officials and businessmen who have influence on Lukashenka. Belarus is the unique case for Eastern Europe, so the EU may offer a unique incentive for its democratic future such as the prospect of EU accession if certain conditions are met. Something similar happened in the case of Kosovo and Serbia.
European politicians should keep demonstrating their Belarusian counterparts what they lose when they continue to build such an odious regime in the centre of Europe. And of course, the EU should strengthen its support for the Belarusian civil society and youth people, liberalise the existing visa regime and offering new education and job opportunities.
Finally, it is not only the EU that should boost the Belarusian transformation. The leading role in the democratisation of the country belongs to its people and those in Belarus who are working with them.
New political prisoners will appear in Belarus sooner or later. This will happen again and again until Belarusian society understands that it should change the way the country is run. But it may take significant time and requires great patience.
Only changes in the Belarusian society can help make political prisoners in Belarus a thing of the past.