Belarus: German Broadcaster Makes Waves With Russian-Language Plans
Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Mon Aug 22 14:13:56 UTC 2005
Sunday, 21 August 2005
Belarus: German Broadcaster Makes Waves With Russian-Language Plans
By Jan Maksymiuk
In June, Germany's international broadcaster Deutsche Welle announced its
plans to launch a Russian-language information program for Belarus called
the "Belarusian Chronicle." Official Minsk has so far remained silent
about plans for the daily show, which is scheduled to begin in October.
But many of Belarus's opposition and pro-democracy circles -- who in
theory could only benefit from such an endeavor -- have reacted with
alarm, indignation, and even hostility. They want Deutsche Welle to speak
Belarusian to Belarusians.
Media have since reported that Deutsche Welle won a European Commission
tender to organize radio broadcasts to Belarus. Bidders reportedly
included international broadcasters Euronews and BBC World Service.
Brussels will spend 138,000 euros ($169,000) annually to support Deutsche
Welle's Belarus project, which is to continue for three years. It was
initially reported that Deutsche Welle would broadcast 15 minutes a day to
Belarus, but Deutsche Welle's Russian Service Director Cornelia Rabitz
later signaled that her team might in September come up with a 30-minute
daily program in which 15 minutes would be devoted to European
developments and another 15 minutes to Belarusian domestic news.
Aleh Trusau -- chairman of the Belarusian Language Society, a
nongovernmental group working to support the mother tongue of most
Belarusians -- was the first to urge Deutsche Welle to launch its Belarus
broadcasts in Belarusian. "[Deutsche Welle broadcasts in Russian] would
plunge Belarusian listeners deeper into the Russian information space and
increase their isolation from Europe," Trusau argued in an open letter to
Deutsche Welle in June. And in an interview with RFE/RL's Belarusian
Service later in the month, he clarified his position further by saying,
"There are a lot of Russian-language sections in international
broadcasters -- Voice of America, BBC, Deutsche Welle -- that employ
emigrants from Russia with an imperial point of view. For them, Ukraine
and Belarus are not full-fledged nations."
'Better Than Nothing'
Belarusian opposition leaders seeking the role of a joint democratic
candidate to face President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in the 2006 presidential
ballot were cautious after news emerged of Deutsche Welle's plans. United
Civic Party leader Anatol Lyabedzka said Deutsche Welle's broadcasts in
Belarusian would be a more appropriate option but immediately added, "If
we cannot influence the development of events, Russian-language broadcasts
are better than nothing at all." However, most opposition leaders with any
chance of securing the democratic parties' presidential nomination have
chosen not to comment on the issue in any way.
As for anti-Lukashenka intellectual circles in Belarus, Deutsche Welle's
project has sparked a heated debate over the fate of the Belarusian
language in particular, and the country's political and civilizational
choices in general. Belarusian political scientist Vital Silitski, in an
emotional letter published in the Minsk-based "Nasha Niva" weekly earlier
this month, appealed to Belarusians to boycott Deutsche Welle's
Russian-language broadcasts. Silitski argued that the choice of Russian
for broadcasting to Belarus is the result of a "complete misunderstanding"
of the Belarusian situation by "European bureaucrats" who, according to
Silitski, are following Lukashenka in his attempts "to instill the notion
in public opinion that the Belarusian language has no prospects or real
demand among Belarus's citizens."
Silitski claimed that the EU decision to sponsor broadcasts to Belarus by
Deutsche Welle's Russian Service is "absurd," since the service employs
people "for whom Belarus is just an extra job and from whom one cannot
expect a deep knowledge or understanding of processes under way in
Belarus." Silitski stressed that "the revival of national consciousness is
a necessary condition for democratization of any nation" and again scolded
"European bureaucrats" for what he perceives as their support of "the
tendencies than consolidate the dictatorship in Belarus." "Nasha Niva"
called on its readers to become signatories to Silitski's appeal.
Will Brussels Think Twice?
German diplomat Hans-Georg Wieck, former head of the OSCE Advisory and
Monitoring Group in Minsk and a staunch advocate of EU-sponsored
broadcasting to Belarus, responded to this wave of protests in Belarus
through RFE/RL's Belarusian Service earlier this month. Wieck said that
neither Brussels nor Deutsche Welle is against Belarusian-language
broadcasting. According to Wieck, there is currently no money to organize
Belarusian-language broadcasts. "This is a problem of means. Now in
Russian, later in Belarusian," Wieck said. "The [Deutsche Welle] new
project is only the beginning." Wieck stressed that reaction to the
Deutsche Welle project in Belarus is quite understandable.
Wieck, who was instrumental in uniting the cantankerous Belarusian
opposition behind a single challenger to President Lukashenka in the 2001
presidential ballot, is doubtless among the most knowledgeable Western
experts on Belarus. He is also one of the very few who seem to understand
the important role of the Belarusian native linguistic and cultural
heritage in the possible democratization of the country. In 2001, some
forces in the anti-Lukashenka electoral coalition all but sabotaged the
opposition campaign because of what they regarded as a disastrous choice
of opposition candidates. Uladzimir Hancharyk, the single candidate
"imposed" by Wieck on the Belarusian opposition in 2001, was a Soviet-era
trade-union functionary who remained utterly indifferent to the revival of
the Belarusian language and culture. This revival, which is being ardently
advocated by a significant segment of the Belarusian opposition as a sine
qua non for Belarus's "return to Europe" and no less stridently opposed by
Lukashenka as a major obstacle to his "back-to-the-USSR" drive, has now
been dealt a serious (even if indirect and/or unintended) blow by Brussels
and Deutsche Welle.
Will Brussels, as Wieck expects, think twice and take a more favorable
stance toward the Belarusian language (read: find money for
Belarusian-language broadcasting) in the future? Judging by all
appearances, not in the not-so-distant future. Because Brussels still
faces the task of crafting a strategic policy toward Lukashenka's Belarus
that would map out long-term priorities, not just "emergency measures" on
the eve of major political campaigns in Belarus, to which Deutsche Welle's
Belarus project appears to belong.
It is difficult to imagine any "colored revolution" taking place in
Belarus next year. And it has already become obvious beyond any doubt that
Europe's assistance to pro-democracy activism in Belarus -- if it is to be
efficient -- should not limit itself to training in election techniques
but rather embrace a much wider program of activities intended to bolster
Belarusians' awareness that they are not a "Russian" nation (as recently
suggested by Russian President Vladimir Putin) and that they actually
belong to Europe, not to Eurasia. The promotion of the Belarusian
language, whether as a tool for imparting free and unbiased information or
a means for attaining a stronger sense of national pride by Belarusians,
arguably should be one of the key priorities in such a strategic program
of European assistance to Belarus.In no former Soviet Union republic is
the situation of the titular language so pitiable as in Belarus. Although
the 1999 census suggested that 73.7 percent of Belarus's population
declared Belarusian as its native language and 36.7 percent said it speaks
Belarusian at home, Belarusian has been almost completely replaced by
Russian in public life and state-run media.
Deutsche Welle's Russian Service Director Rabitz told Belarusian
journalists that her company should be praised rather than criticized for
its Belarus broadcasting project. "It is stupid to say that Russian is bad
and Belarusian is good," Belapan quoted her as saying on 8 August. Rabitz
also noted that Deutsche Welle has been broadcasting in Russian to five
post-Soviet countries in Central Asia, where she said these programs are
valued, not criticized. Rabitz's irritation is perhaps to be expected.
However, as far as opponents of Russian-language broadcasting from abroad
to Belarus are concerned, both of those arguments miss the point.
Apples And Oranges
First, nobody in Belarus appears to be imposing such a "bad-good"
evaluation on the two languages. The protests are directed primarily
against what is perceived as Deutsche Welle's emblematic support for the
policies and ideology of Russification promoted by Lukashenka in Belarus.
Some might ask, not without reason, why Deutsche Welle found funding five
years ago to sponsor Ukrainian-language broadcasting to Ukraine -- the
country Russified to a level comparable to that of Belarus -- and was
unable to repeat the act with regard to Belarus.
Rabitz's implicit comparison of Belarus with post-Soviet Central Asia, her
opponents in Belarus say, does not hold water either, since none of those
five post-Soviet republics has launched the kind of nationally traumatic
linguistic and cultural policy that Lukashenka did 10 years ago in
Belarus. In no former Soviet Union republic is the situation of the
titular language so pitiable as in Belarus. Although the 1999 census
suggested that 73.7 percent of Belarus's population declared Belarusian as
its native language and 36.7 percent said it speaks Belarusian at home,
Belarusian has been almost completely replaced by Russian in public life
and state-run media.
On the other hand, while many Belarusians (including many with university
diplomas) find it difficult to speak or write freely in Belarusian, the
overwhelming majority has no problems whatsoever in understanding the
language. Therefore, a Belarusian-language broadcaster could reach the
same audiences in Belarus as a Russian-language one. This was amply
demonstrated by the highly successful, private, Belarusian-language Radio
101.2 in Minsk, which was closed down by the Lukashenka administration in
mid-1990s because, as one commentator put it, it broadcast in the language
of freedom, not that of suppression.
One of the participants in the "Nasha Niva" discussion about Deutsche
Welle's planned broadcasts to Belarus said the use of Russian language
strips the project of any practical efficiency. He argued that tuning in
to the Deutsche Welle Russian-language program on shortwave (over which
Deutsche Welle will broadcast to Belarus) would be incomparably harder
than tuning in to a Belarusian-language broadcast because of a multitude
of other Russian-language stations on the shortwave spectrum. Thus the use
of Belarusian by Deutsche Welle would arguably be a more pragmatic option.
Some in Belarus believe that argument is even more appealing than any case
based on Belarusian trauma resulting from its government's linguistic and
[For more on Belarus, see the dedicated archive on our Belarus country
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