Discrimination of the Belarusian language in Belarus: a systemic problem with a multi-level historical context

Hunger strike by members of the Parliament of Belarus protesting against the referendum of 1995
Guest articles

Guest article by Dr. Kiryl Kascian

People can be understood through their own language. This axiom prompts them to learn foreign languages. However, more than 30 years after the proclamation of independence, Belarus remains perhaps the least-known country on the continent to other Europeans. In the minds of an average foreigner, Belarus today is typically associated with dictatorship, Aliaksandr Lukashenka, and the Russian language. The first two stereotypes are a political reality against which the Belarusian society has been actively fighting for a long time. However, the widespread stereotype of the Russian-speaking Belarusians is not correct. Understanding the important role of the Belarusian language as part of the Belarusian identity is pivotal for understanding Belarus. Knowledge of the historical and current context of the national language is equally important in this regard.

Persecution of the Belarusian language in the past

The history of the Belarusian language is extremely interesting. Its written form is at least 10 centuries old. As many as three orthographies have been used historically to write in Belarusian -Cyrillic, Latin, and Arabic scripts. For a long time, Belarusian was the official language of administration in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. However, starting from the 17th century, it began to be replaced by Polish in governmental and cultural use. At the time of the annexation of the Belarusian lands by the Russian Empire at the end of the 18th century, the Belarusian literary language declined, but this was compensated by living dialects spoken by the population. Imperial Russian authorities fought against the manifestations of the national distinctiveness of the enslaved people. The desire to get rid of imposed foreign power was reflected in the distrust of the local population towards Russian tsarism, and the population’s readiness to engage in underground activities, anti-Russian uprisings, and even murders of high-ranking imperial officials. The Russian administration’s response to the liberation aspirations of Belarusians was an attempt to deprive them of all signs of their distinctiveness. This was manifested in the ban on book printing and schooling in Belarusian and the attempt to hide the entire country under the artificial and faceless name “Northwestern Region.” An additional problem for Belarusians was that the state and ideological machine of the empire considered Belarusians not as separate people, but as part of the Russian people. Therefore, one can fully agree with those historians and publicists who believe that the modern Belarusian nation arose under Russian occupation and in defiance of it.

During the collapse of the Russian Empire, Belarus found itself in unfavorable geopolitical circumstances. The Belarusian Democratic Republic, proclaimed in 1918, did not exist on Belarusian soil for a long time, and its government was forced into exile. One of the reasons for this was that there was a front in Belarus for a long time, and a significant part of the civilian population was evacuated to Russia. In their place, many more Russian military personnel drafted from the entire empire came to Belarus. These groups of armed people with no previous connection to Belarus seized power and contributed to the creation of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic. A short period of Belarusianization in the 1920s resulted in the flourishing of Belarusian culture. At that time, the Bolsheviki decided to conduct their propaganda in the languages of the respective titular ethnic groups in the territories with a non-Russian majority to win local support and secure their power. As a result, for a short period of time, Belarusian became the dominant language in government, schooling, media, and book publishing in Belarus. This was sufficient for a large wave of Belarusian intellectuals to emerge.

However, at the end of the 1920s, Belarusianisation was curtailed and replaced by Stalin’s purges in the state apparatus and among intelligentsia. Their scale can be illustrated by the events of the night from October 29 to 30, 1937, when 132 representatives of Belarusian culture, science, art, and government were murdered in the Amerykanka prison in the center of Minsk. According to Leanid Marakou, a researcher of those events, the political repressions in the Soviet-controlled part of Belarus in 1937-38 affected about 100,000 people, and this level of repression was unprecedented even in comparison with other regions of the USSR. Another factor that had an impact on the situation was the reform of the Belarusian language introduced by the Soviet authorities in 1933. The reform artificially brought Belarusian closer to the Russian language. Being a politically motivated tool, it was approved without any public discussion.

After World War II, Belarusian schoolchildren became major targets of Soviet assimilationist policies. The systematic and violent Russification of Education intensified after 1959. Back then, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev visited Minsk and pronounced that ‘the sooner we all start speaking Russian, the faster we shall build communism.’ As a result, by the end of the 1980s, almost 80% of schoolchildren in Belarus had studied in Russian. At the same time, Belarusian schooling was eliminated in all large cities, and an inferiority complex was cultivated among Belarusians regarding their native language. The national revival at the end of the 1980s and independence of Belarus from the USSR contributed to the reversal of this trend. Belarusian language started to gradually return to public life and the education system. However, this wave was also short-lived, as it was stopped by the power of Aliaksandr Lukashenka.

Lukashenka and the Belarusian language

In the Constitution of Belarus, which was adopted on March 15, 1994, the language issue was regulated as follows: Belarusian was the only state (i.e., official) language. Russian enjoyed the status of the language of interethnic communication, and the right to its free use was guaranteed. It was a compromise wording that reflected the linguistic reality of that time and supported the Belarusian language in its full return to all spheres of public life after decades of Soviet repression. The coming to power of Aliaksandr Lukashenka changed this status quo.

On May 14, 1995, Lukashenka held a referendum, which became a major successful step towards transforming Belarus into an authoritarian regime. One of the four referendum questions addressed the language question. Belarusians were asked whether they agreed to give Russian language equal status to Belarusian. The decision to hold a referendum was preceded by the incident on the night of April 11–12, 1995, when Lukashenka’s security forces in masks and camouflage beat 18 members of the Belarusian parliament, holding a hunger strike inside the parliament building as a protest against the referendum. According to Mikhail Pastukhou, a former judge of the Constitutional Court, this very fact of the beating of the MPs casts doubt on the validity of the decision that formally authorized the referendum. In other words, the pressure on parliament through physical force towards its members can be interpreted as coercion, while the beating of MPs constitutes a violent seizure of power.

Moreover, as Pastukhou argues, bringing the language issue to a referendum violated Belarusian legislation, both procedurally and in essence. The decision to conduct the referendum was made one month before the new parliamentary election, while the legislation directly prohibited any measures to change the constitution during the last six months of the parliament’s term of office. In addition, the law on national referenda stipulated that questions that, among other things, violate state guarantees of the existence of Belarusian national culture and language cannot be brought to a referendum. This was followed by the hierarchy of official languages of Belarus established by the Constitution, and the referendum threatened the status of the Belarusian language. According to Pastukhou, the wording “equal status” is also insufficient to confirm the status of Russian as the state language.

All of these facts indicate that the Belarusian referendum of 1995 was legally invalid, not only in the language issue. This means that the decisions made at it are subject to cancellation, and the relevant article of the Constitution of Belarus must be returned to its original wording, which recognizes Belarusian as the only state language, while Russian enjoys a guaranteed status as the language of interethnic relations.

However, the referendum had negative consequences. Two of these are discussed here. The first was the cessation of the reintroduction of Belarusian as the primary language of instruction in schools. In other words, a new wave of Russification of the educational process was launched. The long-term negative result of this policy can be illustrated by the data of the 2018-2019 academic year when the number of first-graders in the schools with the Belarusian language of instruction was below 10% for the first time. Moreover, rural schools substantially contributed to this figure because only approximately 1.5% of urban first graders were educated in Belarusian.

This was also linked to the second effect of the referendum. Lukashenka officials perceived the Russian language as a priori the first language. This meant that Belarusian-speaking citizens had to invest significant effort into fighting for their language rights. Instead of freely choosing the language of instruction for their children in school, parents face the need to collect additional signatures to launch classes with the Belarusian language of instruction. The same occurs with official documents, such as a driver’s licence. By default, they were issued in Russian. It is possible to get them into Belarusian, but to do so, one needs to know about this possibility and inform the relevant authority about it. Oddly enough, these bodies usually do not inform people about this possibility. In this way, the Lukashenka system tacitly relieves itself of the obligation to explain their rights to the population. The book “Language 404” by language activist Alina Nahornaja is an excellent collection of examples of discrimination faced by ordinary Belarusians in their attempts to exercise their fundamental right to use their native language in everyday life.

Thus, the practice of the Lukashenka regime regarding the use of languages is far from guaranteeing equality. This serves as evidence of the conscious abuse of the results of the legally invalid referendum and the discrimination of the Belarusian population based on language. As Nahornaja emphasizes, although the Belarusian language is one of the two state languages, the law does not work in reality because the situation around the Belarusian language resembles search error 404, known to all Internet users.

Regime’s legal manipulations in the language sphere

Article 50 of the Constitution of Belarus guarantees everyone the right to use their native language and to choose the language of communication. In addition, the state guarantees the freedom to choose the language of education and upbringing. Remarkably, these provisions remained unchanged in the current version of the Constitution, which was adopted at another legally invalid “referendum” held on February 27, 2022. Let us try to explain this with simple examples from general language-related legislation, the education sphere, and geographical and personal names.

When it comes to language choice, the corpus of Belarusian legislation usually uses logic based on the conjunction “or.” This implies a choice of one preferred language of communication, which is usually made by state officials who prefer Russian. As a result, as of 2021, only 1.4% of Belarus’ legal acts were issued in Belarusian. Many important laws do not have a Belarusian version and are only available in Russian. In this context, the following example is particularly characteristic.: The website of the National Legal Internet Portal of the Republic of Belarus contains Belarusian translations of the codes of the Republic of Belarus. These translations can be used in the practical activities of government bodies, other organizations, and citizens. However, they do not have a legal force, and only the officially published Russian-language original texts do. Although efforts to create Belarusian-language versions of the codes can be welcomed, their current legal status significantly limits their widespread use. Human rights activists have tried many times to solve this issue by replacing “or” with “and” in the relevant regulations (and thereby, for example, oblige state bodies to issue normative legal acts in two languages at the same time). They argued that the status quo meant discrimination and violation of law. However, no official body in Belarus during Lukashenka’s time sees a problem with such an obvious bias in favor of the Russian language.

As mentioned earlier, law guarantees the freedom to choose the language of education and training. The Education Code of Belarus, the core document that regulates these issues, contains a declarative provision on the equality of languages as one of the main directions for state policies in education. However, Article 82 of this Code states that the language of education and upbringing shall be determined by the founder of an educational institution. Under Belarusian conditions, this is the state. The phrase “taking into account the wishes” of the students or their legal representatives is supplemented by the phrase “when such an opportunity exists.” This creates many options for manipulation in the absence of a desire to ensure the rights of citizens enshrined in the constitution.

The third example is transliteration of geographical names. Until recent anti-scientific and completely nonsensical changes (which will be discussed later), this issue was regulated in such a way that Belarusian geographical names had to be transliterated from the Belarusian language in a uniform way based on the historical Belarusian Latin script. However, the websites of the state news agency and state bodies in their press versions ignored this requirement, as if it did not exist at all, stubbornly transliterating everything from the Russian language. This often concerns the transliteration of people’s names and surnames. The apotheosis of the morass in this matter was on Belarusian television. For example, while watching the football matches of BATE Barysaŭ, one could see that the names of the players on the shirts of the club were spelled out in Latin letters in compliance with the passport of a specific player. The default rule is that Belarusian is used for the romanization of personal names in official documents. However, TV captions provide the same surnames in their Russified forms. As a result, the viewer could get a strange impression as if it were not the same football player but two persons with different names.

Thus, the system created by the Lukashenka regime provides many grounds for manipulation in the language sphere. Some legal provisions can be selectively interpreted, whereas others can be completely ignored.

Post-2020: attack against the Belarusian language

In August 2020, Lukashenka “won” another fraudulent election claiming to receive 80.1% of the votes. Belarusian society did not wish to be deceived by the regime. This has resulted in mass and long-term protests. The regime responded with unprecedented repression, politically motivated dismissals, and a nearly complete purge of civil society. As a result, thousands of people were imprisoned, and tens of thousands were forced to leave the country. Lukashenka’s opponents expressed that they wanted to live in a democratic country where their rights were respected, including the right to fully use their native Belarusian language in all spheres of life. It is not surprising that for the absolute majority of these people, the Belarusian language forms an important part of their identity, regardless of how often they use it in their daily lives.

Numerous public initiatives to learn Belarusian appeared in the mid-2010s, attracting many participants. This demonstrated not only the Belarusian society’s demand for improving knowledge of the Belarusian language but also diagnosed the inability and unwillingness of the state to ensure language rights for the majority of the country’s population. According to censuses, the majority of the population of Belarus considers Belarusian its native language. Starting in 2009, the state interpreted the native language as the first language learned in childhood, referring, among other things, to the recommendations of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). However, this approach completely ignores various ethno-psychological factors specific to Belarus. Commonly, people in Belarus know the Russian language better because it was the main language of education and work for them throughout their lives. At the same time, they often have a greater emotional attachment to the Belarusian language. Again, this is a wide field for manipulation by the state in its attempt to cover the inconsistencies of discriminatory language policies.

Therefore, after August 2020, the Belarusian language became a target of attack by the Lukashenka regime. Several levels should be distinguished from one another. The first one is individual. In 2022, the PEN Belarus recorded 1,390 violations of cultural rights, including 113 violations related to objects of historical and cultural heritage or the Belarusian language. Numerous cases have been recorded when security forces demanded or “strongly recommended” that detainees or prisoners not use the Belarusian language in oral and written communication. Speaking Belarusian can even be a reason for detention, as in the case of Ales Tsyrkunou. Thus, active speakers of the Belarusian language cause additional enmity among representatives of the Lukashenka administration.

The second level is institutional practice, both in the center and in the regions. For example, during the so-called constitutional referendum in February 2022, state authorities did not even bother to print ballots in Belarusian. In this context, the activities of the Ministry of Culture are worth mentioning. Owing to its sectoral focus, it has long been considered the most “Belarusian” central body. However, the banners commissioned by it to designate the anniversaries of famous Belarusians were produced only in Russian. Local authorities also followed this path. For instance, the members of the Slonim district council unanimously decided not to adopt their enactments also in Belarusian because, as they say, “it is more convenient for the majority.”

The third level is the context of regulations and bylaws. First, the decision to abandon scientifically based transliteration of the geographical names of the Republic of Belarus should be mentioned. It is based on the historical Belarusian Latin script. In 2013, it was approved by the United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names as the international romanization system for Belarusian geographical names. In addition to direct reference to the historical tradition of the Belarusian language, this system was reversed, that is, any Belarusian geographic name written in Cyrillic could be converted to Latin and vice versa an infinite number of times without losing the original spelling. The new format, published on April 4, 2023, lacks reversibility. Additionally, it contains several strange decisions. Specifically, the new official transliteration system completely ignores the Belarusian fricative sound H, which is a distinctive feature of the Belarusian literary language. Instead, it establishes that it should be romanized with the Latin letter G, which means plosive consonant. This is a characteristic of the Russian language, but it is quite rare in Belarusian. In addition, the regime sanctioned the possibility of transliteration from the Russian language, which cements the long-standing tradition of ignoring the Belarusian Latin script by the state news agency and various state bodies in the English versions of their websites. The lack of intellectual and historical literacy among those who introduced these changes is best reflected in the statement by Ihar Siarheienka, head of the Lukashenka administration, who claimed that the Belarusian Latin script is allegedly “based on the Polish version of Latin graphics, which since the 16th century was used to Polonize Belarusians and to convert them into Roman Catholicism.” For a person who knows Belarusian history, this statement sounds absurd and antihistorical. One should agree with Alina Koushyk, the Representative for National Revival in the United Transitional Cabinet, who in her comment on the ban of the Belarusian Latin script urged to continue actively using it where it is appropriate.

The fourth level is an attack on Belarusian literature in the context of a regime’s fight against imaginary extremism. Here, it can be exemplified by the decision of the Prosecutor’s Office of the city of Minsk to declare extremist two poems (“Płyvuć viatry” (English: Winds Run) and “Hutarka staroha dzieda” (English: Old Grandfather’s Conversation) by the classic of Belarusian literature Vincent Dunin-Marcinkievič (1808-1884). These works were written during the anti-Russian uprising of 1863 (also known as the January uprising). In the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania, this uprising was led by Kastuś Kalinoŭski, commonly known as the father of Belarusian nationalism. Dunin-Marcinkievič’s works depict the struggle against foreign power. This case became a precedent for how deeply the Lukashenka regime wanted to reassess Belarusian history. It was also the first attack on the prominent personality of Belarusian culture. Interestingly, the National Bank of Belarus issued in 2016 a collector coin that depicts the sculptural composition of composer Stanisław Moniuszko and playwright Dunin-Marcinkievič, two famous residents of 19th century Minsk, and creators of the Belarusian national classical opera.

Thus, the level of repression and discrimination against the Belarusian language and its active speakers increased significantly after the 2020 “election.” It has several levels described above and is, therefore, systemic, as it affects not only contemporary Belarus but also the country’s history with its prominent personalities.

How can the crisis be overcome?

According to UNESCO criteria, the critical threshold for language self-regeneration is 30% of real speakers. In 2009, the UNESCO World Atlas of Languages classified Belarusian as vulnerable. This is the first and safest degree of language endangerment. In this situation, most children still speak the language, but this practice may be limited to several spheres (e.g., only home communication). Belarusians are the only titular nation in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as in the former USSR, whose national language is in danger of disappearing.

As demonstrated above, the Lukashenka regime did not contribute to the development of the Belarusian language. It also creates systemic obstacles to its full development by ignoring the Belarusian society’s public demand for its native language. As a result, further Russification of the country is taking place under the guise of official bilingualism and declarative equality of the two state languages. At the same time, the regime uses its impunity in attacks on the historical wealth of the Belarusian language, as evidenced by the absurd justification for abolishing the transliteration of geographical names based on the historical Belarusian Latin script.

An eloquent illustration of this absurdity is the draft “Concept of Development of the National Cultural Space” presented by the Ministry of Culture of Belarus in September 2023. Its content and terminology are imbued with typical narratives of Lukashenka regime propaganda, which in many ways copy Russian examples. For instance, the text contains concepts such as “cultural import substitution”, “creative patriotism, and “traditional spiritual values”. As for the language situation, the authorities recognize that the problem with the Belarusian language is the decline of its usage as a means of conversation among the population. Interestingly, the document also provides figures for books printed in Belarus in 2022. Out of 8,586 book titles, only 1,067 were in Belarusian. The total circulation of all books was 20.13 million copies, of which only 2.83 million were in the Belarusian language. In other words, these numbers only emphasize the declarative nature of “equality” of languages in contemporary Belarus. Another characteristic feature of current regime narratives is the contrast between Russian and Polish influences. The period of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth is interpreted as “attempts of Polish assimilation of the Belarusian people.” In turn, the results of two centuries of Russification policies are interpreted as “the traditional Belarusian-Russian bilingualism” which forms “an integral part of the historical and cultural heritage of the Belarusian people.” Thus, cultural officials are selective about the historical facts that contributed to the formation of this bilingualism. One should agree with Siarhei Budkin, the head of the Belarusian Council of Culture, that the authorities’ motivation to create this document was based on fear of an external threat.

Despite repression inside Belarus, one can observe an increase in demand for the Belarusian language in society, both within the country and among those who went into exile. Therefore, one of the key tasks of the Belarusian democratic forces is to increase the role of the Belarusian language in the society of a new Belarus. The concept of national revival envisages increasing the role of the Belarusian language in society by expanding its use in various spheres. However, this process is long-term. For instance, it is planned that document flow and communication with officials will switch to Belarusian within five years. In the case of the media and education system, this process should take more than ten years.

Alina Koushyk emphasizes that Belarusians will not be able to build a national state without strengthening the role of the Belarusian language. This assessment is correct, and Belarusian society demonstrates a demand for it. Post-Lukashenka Belarus will require systemic and comprehensive endeavors to minimize the negative consequences of the regime that has existed since 1994. The full and non-violent return of the Belarusian language to all spheres of Belarusian society should be a priority in this process.

By Dr. Kiryl Kascian