Soft Belarusisation in Hrodna
On 20 January, the Belarusian jury and TV audiences selected the band Navi to represent Belarus at the Eurovision Song Contest. For the first time in the history of Eurovision, Belarus's performance will be in the Belarusian language.
This is just one of many small steps that Belarus has recently taken to promote tolerance and respect for the Belarusian language. Following the Ukrainian conflict, Belarusian authorities are paying more attention to the role of Belarusian in society.
Today, many Belarusians see Hrodna as a cultural capital of the country, which actively popularises the Belarusian language through the service sector. One can find ample evidence of soft Belarusisation in Hrodna cafes, shops, and the sports sphere. However, use of Belarusian will remain superficial until the language becomes equal to Russian in government, media, and education.
Soft Belarusisation in Hrodna
In the 1990s, Hrodna was a hotspot for national awakening. The town had suffered from the country’s largest wave of russification; authorities closed schools, NGOs, and newspapers. Nevertheless, Hrodna managed to preserve many national traditions and institutions, including famous independent newspapers, national movements, and organisations aimed at promoting Belarusian culture, language, and history.
When Lukashenka came to power, the national reawakening came to a grinding halt. The official language policy led to discrimination of the Belarusian language in favour of Russian.
However, in the aftermath of Russia's aggression in Ukraine, language policy shifted to be more sympathetic towards Belarusian. This was first became evident in 2015, when Lukashenka mentioned the policy of soft Belarusisation in a public statement. Additionally, the position of the state towards history began to move away from Belarus's role as part of the Russian Empire and the USSR, focusing instead on its independence.
As a result of the state's new openness towards Belarusisation, several campaigns and initiatives have emerged which aim to popularise the national language and culture.
Already well-known in Minsk, language courses such as Mova Nanova are now attracting more and more students in Hrodna. The courses have existed for several years and are completely free; a single session regularly attracts 30-40 people. Popular musicians and writers are frequent guests at Mova Nanova, and the courses take a flexible approach to studying Belarusian, involving culture and history.
Another recent campaign, initiated by Hrodna historian Andrej Vaškievič, actively affixes signs with historical names to various buildings in the city centre. The historian created a petition and submitted a proposal to the local toponymical commission, which soon approved the project. He was motivated by the need for preserving historical heritage and the Belarusian language in both Cyrillic and Latin scripts. Soon, in February or March, the historical names of 16 streets in Hrodna will be added to the buildings of Hrodna.
Does the service sector speak Belarusian?
In June 2016, Euroopt, one of the largest Belarusian supermarket chains, opened its first store with signs in Belarusian. The store in Hrodna is now the first large retailer in the entire country to carry on business in the Belarusian language. However, the staff can barely communicate in Belarusian, except for simple phrases.
Several shops and cafes in Hrodna are trying to promote the language by employing Belarusian-speaking personnel or organising events. For example, the largest shoe store in Hrodna, as well as several underwear and sport brands, organise Belarusian culture days. One shop which particularly stands out and attracts many tourists with its hand-made souvenirs is Etnakrama, where the personnel speaks exclusively Belarusian.
However, some shops and cafes limit their understanding of national identity to aesthetics. For example, the jewelry store 'B'ucik' appeared after 2014 with a Belarusian name and signs. Nevertheless, addressing sellers in Belarusian leads to confusion. One of the oldest restaurants in Hrodna, Karchma, has a traditional Belarusian name and offers a variety of national dishes. Despite this fact, the menu is only available in Russian and English, and the staff speaks Russian.
When soft Belarusisation became popular for young people, several popular cafes partly switched to a Belarusian-language policy. Thus, one of the most popular cafes is now Nasha Kava; the menu is in Belarusian and staff can speak the language. This trend is also reflected by the appearance of Mova Boxes.
Mova Box (Language box) is a project of the Belarusian mobile operator Velcom. The idea consists of spreading Belarusian-language books by putting them in designated boxes. Although the boxes take up little space, only a few cafes in Hrodna are supporting the campaign Moreover, cafes which do have such boxes tend to have a generally more Belarusian flavour.
Sport teams as language promoters
2016 has also been a year for soft Belarusisation in the world of sport. In 2016, the Belarusian national football team changed its uniform; it now features the national ornament. Nevertheless, police are still detaining fans sporting non-official symbols, such as the oppositional white-red-white flag. One of the most successful basketball teams, Tsmoki, uploaded promo-video in Belarusian which quickly became popular. It seems that sports teams too are following the trend of soft Belarusisation.
Nioman, a local football team in Hrodna, has also recently begun promoting the Belarusian language. For several years now, the team's social media pages have been increasingly favouring Belarusian language. Many football fans are starting to carry Belarusian national symbols to the matches. Recently, the team shared a video in which a Cameroonian player wishes citizens of Hrodna a Happy Christmas in Belarusian, pointing to the team's commitment to Belarusian-language policy.
Belarusian language use remains superficial
Even though Belarusian language and culture has made significant gains in recent years in Hrodna, the service sector could still do more to support the language. Cafes and shops have become the most active language promoters in the service sphere. Nevertheless, they mostly take only small steps towards Belarusisation, and their employees often have no more than a tenuous grasp of Belarusian.
In an authoritarian regime, the effect of Belarusisation strongly depends on the position of Lukashenka, who seems to look more more favourably on the Belarusin cause at the moment. Further logical steps for the Belarusian cause could include introducing Belarusian education on different levels and popularising television and pop culture in Belarusian language. However, until official documents become translated into Belarusian and officials start to speak Belarusian as often as they speak Russian, the language will remain a formality.
Nevertheless, an increase of positive trends in language policy is cause for optimism that the language will not be forgotten by the nation. More and more initiatives are trying to popularise Belarusian in narrow niches, such as language courses or historical projects. Getting involved in such initiatives not only contributes to preserving the language but also engages citizens.
Belarus pursues ‘social parasites’ at home and abroad
Since late 2016, Belarusian tax authorities have started sending out notifications to all unemployed Belarusians forcing them to reimburse the government for 'state expenditures.'
In other words, the Belarusian state automatically assumes that all people not reported as working are freeloaders, taking advantage of the social system without contributing to it.
For some Belarusians, the infamous tax became the straw that broke the camel's back, pushing them towards suicide. In January 2017, president Lukashenka modified the 'parasite law,' exempting the most vulnerable groups. Nevertheless, he left the notorious policy in place.
How the authorities see the tax
In 2015, Belarus became probably the only country in the world where the unemployed have to pay the government for not having a job Read more
In 2015, Belarus became probably the only country in the world where the unemployed have to pay the government for not having a job, rather than counting on its support. Currently, the notorious 'social parasite' decree concerns all Belarusian citizens, permanent residents, and stateless people residing in Belarus. Anyone who works less than 183 calendar days in one year 'owes' the state around €220 per annum.
On 12 January 2017, the decree was slightly modified when the president approved new amendments. Meanwhile, the tax ministry set the final payment deadline for 20 February 2017.
The modified decree clarified the categories of citizens eligible for a tax waiver. These include athletes playing for national sports teams, alternative civilian servicemen, and unemployed people who are registered at job centres.
A significant difference from 2015 is that currently unemployed parents raising children from three to seven years old will be eligible for a tax waiver only if the child does not visit a daycare or pre-school facility. In the original decree, waivers were available to unemployed parents of children under seven regardless of whether or not they go to daycare.
More importantly, the new decree permits local authorities to waive the tax for individuals in 'dire circumstances.' However, authorities did not specify what constitutes 'dire circumstances' for an unemployed person.
How the tax really works
On 13 January 2017, a representative of the Belarusian tax ministry, Mikhail Rasolka, informed the media that the authorities have mailed out about 400,000 notifications to Belarusian citizens who are not participating in financing state expenditures. Out of this number, only 24,000 people have already paid the 'parasite' tax, thus contributing only €3.3 million to the budget instead of the anticipated €21.5 million.
The tax authorities were not able to comment on the number of people who managed to prove that they received these notifications by mistake, as apparently they do not have these statistics. So far, it seems that errors are abundant and the databases of various agencies are still not coordinated.
Notifications have also been sent to women on maternity leave, students, and even the deceased. Read more
For instance, the tax ministry waived the 'parasite' tax for Belarusians who spend less than 183 days in the country, regardless of whether they participated in the financing of the state expenditures or not. However, all Belarusians who currently reside abroad automatically received reminders to pay the new tax.
What happened is that despite having full access to the databases of the border crossing agencies, the authorities mailed out the notifications in bulk. Now, it is up to the citizens to prove their whereabouts to become eligible for the waiver.
Notifications have also been sent to women on maternity leave, students, and even the deceased. Many recipients reacted with indignation, noting that they were not obliged to provide jobs for bureaucrats or prove their status.
Harassment of the unemployed
According to the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection, unemployment has been declining steadily, with 35,800 unemployed people, or 0.8 per cent of the working population as of December 2016. Yet official numbers do not reflect reality, as a majority of unemployed people do not register at job centres.
Currently, the perks of being officially registered as unemployed in Belarus are meagre. Financial aid ranges from €10 to €20 per month, provided the unemployed works several days a month at any job that the job centre offers them.
Moreover, the unemployed person must prove to the job centre that he or she is actively seeking employment. However, with the ongoing economic crisis, job-hunting is becoming increasingly difficult, especially in smaller towns.
According to human rights activist Viktar Sazonau from Hrodna, many people have started seeking legal help to deal with the 'parasite' tax. The overwhelming majority of them are unsuccessful job seekers. Some of them are destitute, not even able to cover the cost of their utilities.
In the most extreme cases, the tax has cost lives. After paying €173 of his 'parasite tax' in October 2016, 60-year old Ajvar Jaskevič from Asipovičy jumped from the fifth floor of his apartment building in December 2016. He quit his job one year before he was due to retire and could not find a new one. His suicide note read: 'I have never been a parasite, I have worked honestly my entire life.'
A chance for the opposition?
As the tax authorities try to squeeze money out of the most socially vulnerable citizens, popular discontent with the new tax is spreading. United Civil Party MP Hanna Kanapackaja has already declared that she would initiate a campaign against the 'parasite law' in the House of Representatives.
On 18 January 2017, activists from her party collected signatures against the notorious law. They demanded that the state 'fight unemployment instead of the unemployed.' Nine opposition parties have already announced a 'March of Non-Parasites' for 15 March 2017, and other protests are also planned for February, closer to the final payment deadline.
It is unclear how the state would react if the unemployed refuse to pay en masse by 20 February. Possible sanctions range from a fine to administrative arrest. However, the criteria for applying these punishments remain fuzzy.
If cases of non-payment are numerous, they would require considerable time and resources to deal with. At the end of the day, the costs of the parasite law implementation might outweigh the gains for the state, discrediting the current political regime, and encouraging the growth of popular discontent in society.