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Belarusian: An extremist language?

In 2008 the Belarusian ministry of information launched a list of extremist materials that are officially banned in the country. Symbolically, the item which opens this list is a CD-ROM disc ostensibly with the recording of a lesson of the Belarusian language. No more details are provided, though some say this entry refers to the 2006 documentary film on the rigged 2006 presidential election. One way or another, what irks the Belarusian government most is the Belarusian language.

October 11, 2021 - Tomasz Kamusella - Hot Topics

Photo: A Matskevich (CC) Source: Pixabay

The title of this essay contains an absurd proposition. A person or an organisation can be extremist, that is, the use of violence to express opposition to the political, economic or social order, as obtained in a legitimate polity. Language is just a medium through which information is conveyed. A language is not a message, let alone an act of violence. However, in Central Europe languages are employed for creating, legitimising and maintaining statehood in accordance with the principles of ethnolinguistic nationalism. In this region, speakers of language X are seen to be members of nation X, who should be gathered in their own nation-state. On the other hand, speakers of other languages are defined as “foreigners” who must either assimilate to speaking and writing language X, or leave nation-state X. Hence, a “foreign” language – or rather its speakers – may be unwanted in a given country, where the ethnolinguistic type of nationalism dominates.

Russian-Language Modernity

Can a state’s authorities extend its dislike to a country’s own national language? From the national perspective that would be an illogical and counterproductive step in any Central Europe of ethnolinguistic nation-states. Yet, that is what has been happening in Belarus since 1995. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Belarus gained independence. Across the length and width of the Soviet Union, Russian had become the de facto state-wide and most important language after 1938. This meant the sidelining of the country’s other languages, including Belarusian. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, for the first time in history, between 1991 and 1994, Belarusian functioned as the sole national and official language of Belarus. This elevated role for Belarusian was guaranteed by Article 1 of the 1990 Declaration of State Sovereignty of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic. The shift away from Russian to official monolingualism in Belarusian was rapid. After all, ethnic Belarusians constitute 85 per cent of the country’s population. In 1994, Article 17 of the then promulgated Constitution of independent Belarus recognised Belarusian as the country’s only state language. 

Yet, with the onset of Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s rise to power in the same year, already in 1996 an updated version of the Constitution demoted Belarusian to the position of an official language. Russian was raised to the same level as the country’s another official language. Thus Russian gained full equality with Belarusian in the Republic of Belarus. Afterward, the dictator pressed on with the founding of a Union State of Belarus and Russia in the late 1990s. Obviously, Russian is the sole language of the Union State’s administration. As a result, during the past quarter of a century, Russian swiftly became Belarus’s default language of administration, business and education. For instance, in the Belarusian capital of Minsk the number of students attending Belarusian-language elementary schools dropped dramatically, from 58 per cent in 1994 to just mere 17 per cent in 1999, and to 13 per cent in 2016. 

At present no more than a tenth of the country’s inhabitants use Belarusian in everyday life. Likewise, less than a tenth of all books published are in Belarusian. All the television stations broadcast no more than five per cent of programmes in Belarusian. Uniquely, Belarus is the only post-Soviet country where not a single university uses the national language as the sole (or at least leading) medium of education, and in which a working command of the national language is not required for employment in civil service or any sector of the economy. 

Initially, the pro-democracy forces trusted they could turn back the Russifying and authoritarian tendency in Belarus. The country’s then highest moral authority and world-renowned Belarusian-language writer with a good chance of receiving a Nobel Prize in literature, Vasil Bykaŭ, did not mince his words, when criticising the dictatorship. For this demeanour, in 1998 the fledgling dictator hounded him out of Belarus. The oldest Belarusian-language newspaper Наша Ніва Naša Niva (Our Field), founded in 1906, was revived in 1991 in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. The editorial headquarters were moved to Minsk in 1996 with an eye of supporting the failing democracy in Belarus. Yet, the switch from Belarusian to Russian in the public sphere was paralleled by another from the pre-Soviet traditional form of Belarusian to the Soviet codification, which had been introduced in 1933 with the intention of bringing Belarusian closer to Russian. The regime favoured the latter, and among others insisted that the country’s capital should be known exclusively as Minsk in the Soviet-style spelling, as opposed to the traditional form Miensk. The Naša Niva newspaper’s decision to press on with the use of the traditional spelling, as characteristic of the 1991-1994 democratic period, was met with increasing repressions and ad hoc administrative measures to prevent distribution and printing. Finally, the editors relented in order to reach readers. In addition, the Latin alphabet (Łacinka), which is Belarusian’s second national alphabet, was arbitrarily removed from any official use across Belarus.

Language in media

In Belarus, all bookstores’ offer is solely or overwhelmingly in Russian. Often, the Belarusian-language section is smaller than the English-language section. The state does not support Belarusian-language publishing beyond low-key scholarly monographs, school textbooks and pro-regime newspapers. Independent private publishers stepped in to fill this widening gap on the market, and now offer the latest and the best in Belarusian-language fiction and poetry, including Belarusian translations of world literature. 

After the protests that followed the rigged presidential election in 2010, the regime decided to clamp down on independent publishers specialising in Belarusian-language books. However in 2014, quite unexpectedly, Lukashenka delivered an official speech in Belarusian. The hope was awoken that as long as proponents of Belarusian language and culture stayed away from politics, they would be left unmolested. In the same year the now iconic publisher of Belarusian-language literature, Januškievič, was founded. It was a good period for the oldest private Belarusian-language publisher Knihazbor (established in 1995) and the publishing house Halijafy (established in 2007), which then began to flourish; the former specializing in classics, the latter in contemporary and popular literature. In 2015, with state support, a Russian-language publishing house founded the series Мая беларуская кніга Maja Biełaruskaja Kniha (My Belarusian Book) that published over 50 inexpensive paperback editions of Belarusian-language classics.

The year 2015 could have been a year of triumph for Belarusian literature and culture. In this year Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize in literature. Although she writes in Russian, her success puts Belarus firmly on the world literary map. Her outspoken and principled criticism of the dictator entailed barring her from official media and state-organised events. Three years later, in 2018, thanks to a crowdfunding effort, Alexievich’s collected works were published in Belarusian. However, these new translations, mostly intended for public libraries, were snubbed by local and regional authorities on Lukashenka’ orders. 

For better or worse, readers in search of a range of Belarusian-language books and journals must avail themselves of e-publications. In 1996, thanks to a private initiative, Belarus’s largest online library of Belarusian-language publication, Беларуская палічка Biełaruskaja Palička (Belarusian Bookshelf), was founded. In 2000 it was followed by another one, Камунікат Kamunikat (Message), safely hosted in Poland. Independent Belarusian-language radio and podcast services are offered by Radio Svaboda, originally launched in 1954 in Munich as part of the United States’ pro-democracy Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty media complex that used to target the Soviet bloc. Now Svaboda broadcasts from Prague. 

In 2007 Poland launched a similar pro-democracy television service in Belarusian, Belsat. It was built on the Belarusian-language radio Radio Racja, founded a decade earlier by the Polish government. In 2005 a group of Belarusians in exile in Poland launched the youth-oriented Belarusian-language Euroradio.fm (Еўрапейскае радыё для Беларусі Eŭrapiejskaje radyjo dlia Biełarusi European Radio for Belarus). In recognition of the growing Russification of Belarus and the Belarusian youth’s pro-European aspirations, the aforementioned radio and television websites offer information in Belarusian, Russian and English. Naša Niva, which in 2018 switched to publishing exclusively online, follows suit, and the newspaper’s website is fully available in Belarusian and Russian.

Extremist Belarusian?

In 2008 the Belarusian ministry of information launched a list of extremist materials that are officially banned in the country. Symbolically, the item that opens this list is a CD-ROM disc ostensibly with the recording of a lesson in Belarusian. No more details are provided, though some say this entry refers to the 2006 documentary film on the rigged 2006 presidential election. One way or another, what irks the Belarusian government most is the Belarusian language. 

The regime’s obvious goal is to marginalise Belarusian language and culture, making it both insignificant and as unattractive as possible, especially to school leavers and university graduates. Prospects of a good career and comfortable life are to be found through the medium of Russian and its ideological opponent (in the Kremlin’s perception), the English language. To a degree, and in line with the Stalinist formula, the form of culture, politics and permitted public discourses might be Belarusian from time to time, though the Russian form is the preferred form of communication. Yet the content must be always Lukashenka-ist, pro-dictatorship – or at least neutral to the dictator and the regime. 

In post-1994 Belarus, there is no great political idea or ideology that would legitimise the system beyond the mundane task of keeping Lukashenka in power on his own terms. In the long run, the tyrant could not tolerate making Belarusian into an appealing channel for independence, let alone critical and pro-European, thought. All would be fine as long as Belarusian language and culture remained a fringe activity. Lukashenka was even ready to make a seldom gesture in favour of Belarusian to please the Belarusian-speaking intellectual minority. Obviously this was a false dawn in the dead of the anti-Belarusian night. It soon turned out that Lukashenka fears Belarusians more than the Kremlin’s manoeuvre to turn Belarus into another Russian province.

Visible symbols

The breaking point came last year with mass protests in the wake of the rigged presidential election, in which Lukashenka most likely did not secure more than 10 per cent of the vote. Participation in these protests cut through all social demographics. The brutal repressions which followed – and continue to this day – removed protesters from the streets. Despite heavy state crackdowns and arrests, protests continue across the country. This peaceful revolution of dignity continues and has already brought most of Belarus’s Russian-speaking population and younger generations together with the patriotic Belarusian-speaking movement. This development is well illustrated with the shift away from de facto president-elect Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s default use of Russian to the embracement of Belarusian language and culture by the Belarusian Coordination Council and the Tsikhanouskaya office in Vilnius. 

Initially, in the office’s English-language materials, Tsikhanouskaya’s name was transliterated from its Russian version (Тихановская) as “Tikhanovskaya”. But now only the Belarusian-language original of her name (Ціханоўская) is used for this purpose, yielding Tsikhanouskaya. It is a detail probably not noticeable abroad, but is a momentous statement in Belarus (despite falling short of espousing the Belarusian Latin alphabet, in which her name reads “Cichanoŭskaja”).

The most visible symbol of the protesters’ opposition to the dictatorship is the white-red-white national tri-colour flag. This flag was in official use in post-Soviet Belarus during the brief flowering of democracy in the years 1991-1994. Lukashenka swore the presidential oath for the first time in 1994 with the white-red-white banner unfurled. But now the regime sticks by the Soviet era-inspired green and red flag. Unsurprisingly, since late last year the confrontation has been over the “illegal” display of the national tri-colour. In early 2021 the regime planned to adopt legislation that would declare the national flag “extremist”. Opposition to this odious move was too strong, although the dictator and the ministry of internal affairs officially and unabashedly defamed the tri-colour as “fascist”. What is more, at present, any public display of this flag or its colours is de facto criminalized as an extremist act.

Against extremist Belarusian

In the spring of this year the authorities firmly turned against writers and artists, especially when they kept using the Belarusian language and dared to be critical of the regime. The popularity of the tri-colour among writers and artists makes them suspect and guilty by association. In this way, not only does the regime’s propaganda recognise the white-red-white flag as a clear sign of the “revival of fascism”, but is also levelled against the Belarusian language and culture. According to the authorities, to be a good Belarusian person you must speak and write in Russian, act like an ethnic Russian, see Russia as one’s own country, and, above all, be servilely loyal to the leader.

The first internationally visible salvo of this culture war was fired in the fall of 2020, when Lukashenka ordered the kidnapping of Svetlana Alexievich. As Belarus’s sole Nobel Prize laureate, her voice is more powerful than the dictator’s. Yet by standing guard at her apartment door, EU ambassadors and diplomats foiled this plan. The writer promised to stay put and work for a new democratic Belarus in her capacity as a member of the Coordination Council. This was not to be, however. Like a quarter of a century earlier, in the case of Vasil Bykaŭ, Lukashenka has now succeeded in exiling Alexievich. Furthermore, any mention of her was now removed from the 2021 edition of school textbooks in preparation for the new school year.

Writer Viktar Martinovich had the misfortune that his new novel, on which he had worked for a dozen years, was titled Revaliucyja (Revolution). It hit the shelves last year when the protests were in full swing. From the regime the book title was too suggestive of the current situation, even though the novel is set in Moscow. Custom officers were ordered not to allow parcels containing the novel to leave Belarus. In January 2021 all copies of the book found in the publishing house Knihazbor were confiscated. Another telling case is the Russian-language work on the participation of Belarusian volunteers and military in the Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine. It was published before last year’s rigged elections. However, in March this year the authorities added it to the list of books banned in Belarus. The same fate met a Belarusian-language volume of interviews with leading Belarusian intellectuals Biełaruskaja nacyjanalnaja ideja (The Belarusian National Idea).

In an interview from this book, the best living Belarusian-language writer Alhierd Baharevič proposes that Belarusianness, in a nutshell, equates to liberty and the Belarusian language. No space in this tight equation is reserved for Lukashenka, which must irk the regime. In April 2021, the customs office impounded the entire run of the second edition of Baharevič’s 2018 opus magnum, Sabaki Eŭropy (Dogs of Europe), upon its arrival at the Belarusian border crossing from Lithuania. Government officials continue discussing whether the novel should be declared extremist. What seized the attention of the censors may be the writer’s portrayal of the mid-21st century, when no traces of Belarus remain; while the “Russian Reich” extends from the EU frontier in the west to the Indian Ocean in the south. In March 2021 the authorities froze the bank accounts of the two main Belarusian-language publishers, Knihazbor and Januškievič, and of the main online distributor of Belarusian-language books, Knihi.by. This move almost brought all three companies to bankruptcy.

In the last quarter of 2020 the Belarusian PEN Centre recorded almost 300 cases of repression against writers, actors, singers, publishers, artists and organisers of Belarusian-language culture. Levels of suppression against Belarusian culture remain the same this year. Creators of Belarusian culture account for a tenth (around 50) of all political prisoners. In May the year, the government closed down Belarus’s largest online information portal Tut.by, and arrested its managers and journalists. The portal was mostly in Russian, but some content was available in Belarusian. What spooked the regime was its independent and objective coverage of the protests and other events. The ministry of internal affairs successfully pushed for recognising the platform as extremist, so that even citing Tut.by articles is now a crime. Relentless repressions against independent journalists and information outlets continue across the country. The Pen Centre, the Union of Belarusian Writers and the Belarusian Association of Journalists were liquidated in August 2021. At present the authorities intend to dissolve the Francišak Skaryna Belarusian Language Society.

 The situation is extremely dangerous for Belarusian journalists and Belarusian-language writers in particular. Like Alexeivich, Baharevič was forced to leave Belarus. He has no chance to publish books there. But he does not despair; in June 2021 he released two new Belarusian-language novels. On top of that, he outlines the nature of the protests in a German-language collection of his essays, optimistically titled Sie haben schon verloren. Revolution und Revolte in Belarus (You Have Already Lost: Revolution and Revolt in Belarus). 

Tomasz Kamusella is Reader (Professor Extraordinarius) in Modern Central and Eastern European History at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.

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