White-Red-White Flag: The True Belarusian Symbol or a Sign of the Opposition?
Earlier this month the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) officially banned the White-Red-White flag and the heraldic symbol Pahonia from the 2013 Ice Hockey World Championship held in Sweden and Finland. Tony Wirehn, Secretary General of 2013 Ice Hockey World Championship, commented that the IHFF cannot allow supporters to use any political symbols and signs in areas where matches are played.
Until Lukashenka came to power the White-Red-White flag served as the official symbol of Belarus. Now the Belarusian diaspora and nearly all opposition parties in Belarus consider it as the only true flag of Belarus. In Belarus it is largely banned by the authorities and Belarusian sport officials put pressure on the organisers of international sport events to eliminate the former state symbols from the stands, to prevent spectators from seeing “opposition” symbols on TV.
Rada (Council) of Belarusian Peoples Republic, the most influential political organisation of the Belarusian diaspora, condemned the decision of the IIHF. Many figures in Belarusian Civil Society along with Swedish human rights activists and even the former Swedish ambassador in Belarus, Stefan Eriksson, have spoken out against the prohibition. They argued that Belarusians should be given a chance to use what they consider as national symbols.
A petition against the ban quickly collected over 3000 signatures. The petition argues that the IIHF “use political motives to prevent Belarusian supporters from using national symbols at the games of the championship. Ironically, the IIHF was also using the rationale of avoiding mixing politics and sports to ban the symbols.
Lukashenka vs the Flag
The White-Red-White flag and Pahonia have a long history. When Belarus became a separate state in 1918-1919 these were the official symbols of the Belarusian Peoples Republic until replaced by a Communist government. The Belarusian minority in Poland actively used these symbols during the inter-war period. During World War II they were also used by Belarusian organisations that collaborated with the Nazis who saw it as a chance to revive the Belarusian culture.
In 1991, when the country declared independence the flag and shield again became official symbols of Belarus. The draft law “On the State Flag of the Republic of Belarus” prepared by the Belarusian People’s Front faction in the Supreme Council of Belarus, the main national political force in the country at the end of 1980s and in the beginning of 1990s.
In 1995, to consolidate his power Lukashenka initiated a referendum. One of the objectives of the referendum was to change the state symbols which were associated with the national movement against the USSR at the end of the 1980s. Lukashenka promised to revive the Soviet Union and by changing the national symbols to those associated with Soviet Belarus, he gained a symbolic victory over the Belarusian Popular Front.
Lukashenka’s main argument to change the White-Red-White flag and the Pahonia symbol was that during the World War II Belarusian organisations that collaborated with the Nazis had used them. Propaganda movies which followed this initiative compared the Belarusian Popular Front, the main pro-democracy opposition party, to fascists. According to Lukashenka’s logic those who use White-Red-White flag are ideological followers of Nazi collaborators. The referendum took place with gross violations of democratic standards and in the atmosphere of massive state propaganda. Nonetheless, the symbols were changed.
The Symbol of Freedom
Today most of the organisations of the Belarusian diaspora and Belarusian opposition refuse to use the official Red-Green flag and represent their country with White-Red-White flag. In late of 1990s and 2000s as Lukashenka’s political regime consolidated its power, the White-Red-White flag became more than a banned national symbol but also a sign of struggle against authoritarianism.
The current Red-Green official flag refers to the Soviet past of Belarus and corresponds to official historiography and state ideology praising the Soviet period. While the White-Red-White flag symbolises a brief democratic period of 1990s as well as an anti-Soviet tradition of Belarusian national revival it clearly confronts the official interpretation of the Belarusian history.
Not surprising that Belarusian authorities do not tolerate the former state symbols. It is strictly prohibited to fly the White-Red-White flag at sports events in Belarus and scores of democratic activists have been imprisoned for displaying the flag in public.
An illustration of this is the case of Siarhei Kavalenka. In January 2010, he placed a White-Red-White flag on the top of the Christmas tree in the centre of Vitebsk for which a criminal court sentenced him to a three year suspended sentence. In 2011, police arrested Kavalenka again, this time on the basis of violating the conditions of the suspended sentence, he was sentenced to 25 months in prison.
Using White-Red-White flag at Sports Events Abroad
Belarusian sports officials often try to put pressure on the organisers of international sport events to remove White-Red-White flags from the stands. The recent ban at the Ice Hockey World Championship is not an isolated case.
In 2011, the former Belarusian official flag was banned from FIBA EuroBasket Women’s matches in Poland. Security searched for and removed fans with White-Red-White flags from the stands during the match Belarus played against Lithuania.
In October 2010 at the match of UEFA Europa League FC Dynamo Minsk played against Club Brugge K.V. in Belgium several fans supported Belarusian team with White-Red-White flag. An unknown man, introducing himself as a person “in charge of the Belarusian fans”, was trying aggressively to take away the flag from Belarusian supporters.
A similar story took place in Moldova at a match where FC BATE Barysau played against FC Sheriff Tiraspol — fans with White-Red-White flags and Red-Green flags started a fight with each other during the game. This resulted in the arrest of 15 people.
Many sports fans persist in supporting Belarusian athletes in international competitions using the White-Red-White flag, which in most cases the organisers tolerate. This irritates the Belarusian government: to them, this symbolizes not the country where they come from but the political opposition which they cannot tolerate.
Many Belarusians will continue taking the risk of using what they regard as their true national symbols. They cherish a rare sense of freedom and self-expression unavailable at sports events back home.
Belarus: The Great Patriotic War vs the Second World War
On 9 May the annual parade took place in Minsk to honour the victory in the Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany. According to today’s official statistics during that war every third Belarusian inhabitant died. Nazis killed around 600-800 thousand Jews, 80% of the total Jewish population of Belarus.
Remembering the war which started in 1941, after Germany’s attack against the Soviet Union, Belarusian authorities prefer to forget that the Second World War started not in 1941, but in 1939, when Hitler and Stalin were allies.
This year state media reported thousands of people were taking part in celebratory procession on the main street of Minsk including war veterans, members of labour collectives and children. Alexander Lukashenka and his youngest son Mikalay headed the procession.
The celebrations surrounding Victory Day and Independence Day in today’s Belarus very much resembles the celebrations which took place in the Soviet Union. Military parades and procession of athletes are followed by a speech by a political leader.
Every year, depending on the foreign conjectures in his speeches, Alexander Lukashenka typically constructs an image of a foreign enemy. It could be NATO, the government of the United States, nationalists in Latvia or “arrogant European officials”. This year Lukashenka decided to speak about the threat from the West. According to him:
Sovereign Belarus is constantly at a gunpoint of the undeclared cold war. Some people in the West have not been able to accept the fact that Belarus has not become another “banana republic,” dancing to the tune of transatlantic democracies. We are stifled by sanctions. They sling mud of slander at us. Along our borders NATO warplanes are flying, new bases are opening, provocations are being plotted.
The tradition of celebrating Victory Day started in the 1960s in the Soviet Union. From that era, the Soviet propaganda machine was constructing the myth of war aimed at creating a model of a Soviet patriotism. The basic foundation myth consisted of Soviet society’s political unity, the leadership of the Communist party and heroism of the Soviet people during the war.
The war myth in the Belarusian Soviet Republic included the partisan myth. According to the Soviet ideologists during Nazis occupation most of the Belarusian people rebelled against the Nazis and struggled as partisans in the forests in Belarus. In the 1960s the partisan myth was maintained by a new generation of the Belarusian political elite. In 1950s-1970s the Belarusian Communist Party bosses included 75 former partisans. The most famous of them Piotr Masherau, who for many years served as the first secretary of the Communist Party of Belarus.
Nowadays the myth of the Great Patriotic War remains the primary national historical myth of the Belarusian state. Current Belarusian political elites use the old Soviet historical myth to legitimise an authoritarian political regime in the country.
The Great Patriotic War vs the Second World War
Soviet historiography, as well as the official Belarusian historiography, about the Second World War differs in many ways from Western historiography. In a Belarusian school textbook there is a clear distinction made between the Second World War and Great Patriotic War.
The Great Patriotic War started on 22 June 1941 when the Nazi invaded the USSR and ended on 9 May 1945. Such periodisation does not include the Winter war between Finland and the Soviet Unionin 1939-1940, the Soviet occupation of the Baltic states in 1940 or the division of Poland in autumn 1939 according to a secret protocol of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Nor does it address that while German and Soviet armies occupied Poland, they organised a joint Soviet-German military parade in the centre of Brest-Litovsk (today Brest), a Belarusian city near the Polish border on 24 September 1939:
The Belarusian educational system almost exclusively focuses on the period of the Great Patriotic War, conveniently forgetting that the Second World War started in 1939, not in 1941. First year students of Belarusian universities even have an obligatory course titled: “The Great Patriotic War of the Soviet People (in the context of the Second World War)”.
The course continues the tradition of Soviet historiography where only the Soviet point of view dominates. The course textbook ignores certain uncomfortable topics such as joint Nazi-Soviet activities prior to 1941, discrimination of Ostarbeiters (Belarusians taken out to Germany as forced labourers), it fails to mention the Katyn massacre or treatment of the Soviet troops of Central Europe’s civilian population in 1944-1945.
Glorification of the War in Lukashenka’s Belarus
In the beginning of 2000s the administration of Lukashenka launched a new project to create a new ideology for the Belarusian state. The project aimed to create an ideology which could justify the Belarusian political and economic model. The Great Patriotic War was a part of this project. The myth of the war had to serve as the main historical myth and as a cornerstone of the Belarusian state.
In 2005, the year of the 60th anniversary of victory in the Great Patriotic War, in order to perpetuate the heroism of Belarusians, state authorities renamed two central Minsk streets. Francysk Skaryna Avenue, named after a great Belarusian culture figure of the 16th century became Independence Avenue (Praspekt Nezalezhnasci). Masherov Avenue named after a former Communist leader of Belarus became Victors Avenue (Praspekt Peramozhcau). Both of the two new names refer to this constructed war mythology.
The same year a new memorial Stalin Line opened near Minsk. According to its official web page, the memorial marks a system of defence installations and symbolises the heroic struggle of the Soviet people against the Nazi invaders.
The Great Patriotic War as an Instrument of the Regime’s Legitimisation
While Victory Day is a Soviet holiday, Independence Day is the second official holiday which is bound up in the Great Patriotic War. It is celebrated on 3 July and, unlike Victory Day, its genealogy starts in independent Belarus.
The authorities moved the Independence Day to 3 July after a referendum in 1996 which specifically included this question. That day symbolises the liberation of Belarus from the Nazi invaders. The previous Independence Day date was 27 July and referred to the Declaration of State Sovereignty in 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The heroism of the Belarusian people during the Great Patriotic War serves as the main historical myth of political identity the Belarusian leadership is trying to construct. Belarusian citizens loyal to the government should believe that the main historical event in the country’s history was a victory in the Great Patriotic War, where Belarus was fighting against the West.
The two most important state celebrations in Belarus – Independence Day and Victory day serve a useful purpose for the Belarusian political regime. As with many other authoritarian regimes, the Belarusian state is looking for external enemies to justify failures in economics and foreign policy.