[lg policy] Soft Belarusization: A New Shift in Lukashenka's Domestic Policy?

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Wed Apr 22 15:18:39 UTC 2015

Soft Belarusization: A New Shift in Lukashenka's Domestic Policy?
21 April 2015

Russian pro-government media outlet Lifenews has recently criticised
Lukashenka's decision to not participate in the 9 May Victory Day Parade in
Moscow. Many in Russia think that Minsk's integration rhetoric has been
replaced with a form of soft Belarusianisation​ . Following the events in
Crimea, Lukashenka has begun to demonstrate more support and concern for
the Belarusian language and national history.

Still, he is trying to maintain some balance and good relations with Russia
for the sake of its economic support. The last time the political scale
shifted in this direction, increased rhetoric about independence and more
engagement with Europe followed.

In addition to the state's renewed interest in Belarusisation and cultural
initiatives, support for these changes in society is also on the rise. The
'soft' Belarusisation policy and the activity of the organisations such as
Art Siadziba are in growing demand in Belarus.

*Soft Belarusization as a Response to Russian Aggression*

The term 'soft Belarusisation' was employed by Lukashenka publicly for the
first time during his open dialogue with the media in January 2015. Judging
by his words, it appears that Lukashenka regards Belarusisation as means of
countering Russian influence. "Some in Russia are bothered by some soft
Belarusisation … while in Russia they are accustomed to using terms like
'the Russian World', 'soft power'. We have promoted 'soft Belarusisation'
[at home]," said Lukashenka.

However, the reality after Crimea's annexation has discounted popular
opinion (especially among opponents of the regime) that Lukashenka is an
ideological supporter of Russia and is willing to sacrifice Belarusian
independence, if need be.

On the contrary, after following the events in Crimea, Lukashenka has
solidified his role as a mediator and peacekeeper on the Ukrainian issue
and has started moving slowly towards promoting a Belarusian national
revival. Lukashenka explained his new position by stating, “I support the
Belarusian language, because it distinguishes us from the Russians. This is
a feature of our nation”.

*Language, History and Political Balance *

The Belarusian head of state explained his new policy in simple and
in April 2014 when he declared, "we are not Russians, we are Belarusians",
a mere month after the occupation of Crimea began. In the past, he has
freely spouted off slogans like "Belarus and Russia are one nation" and
other similar phrases indicating their oneness.

As of late, he has turned towards employing the Belarusian language in his
speeches. The Ministry of Education's own policies also appear to be
following Lukashenka's lead. For example, according to Minister of
Education Mikhail Zhuravkov, “we will soon come to understand that we need
to have more than half of all academic subjects in the Belarusian language”.

Official attitudes towards history have also changed. Previously, the
authorities mainly focused their energies on the Great Patriotic War (World
War II), but now their opinions have shifted towards early periods of time
in Belarus's history. The installation of a monument in honour of Algerd,
the Grand Duke of Lithuania, is just one such example, erected in Vitebsk,
near the border with Russia, on 27 June 2014 (Vitebsk's City Day).

The Grand Duke Algerd doubled the domain he reigned over through wars with
Moscow at a time when Belarusian lands were an essential region in the
Grand Duchy of Lithuania. It is plain for anyone to see how this historical
figure does not suit Lukashenka's prior rhetoric about the "historical
friendship and unity" of Belarus and Russia.

The Vitebsk Cossacks and the Communists have made an appeal to Minsk,
asking Lukashenka not to erect the Algerd monument. Historical memory, as
it turns out, is much more important to the authorities than local
pro-Russian social movements' support – and the monument was solemnly
unveiled as officials from Vitebsk looked on.

Lukashenka justified this move, saying, “At one point in Vitebsk ... some
people started saying that because of the [process] 'soft Belarusisation',
Belarus will lose out on its Russian interests, and so I asked the
question: where are our interests? Everything that is on Belarusian
territory is our vital interest”.

Altogether this form of Belarusisation, i.e. the gradual, largely voluntary
extension of the use of the Belarusian language, support for the
development and dissemination of Belarusian culture, historical and
cultural heritage via the creation of cultural policy, is slowly beginning
to take hold.

*Not Only State: Public Belarusization *

Of course, this policy of Belarusisation is not simply the domain of the
Belarusian authorities. In society, demand is growing for the promotion of
the Belarusian language and the nation's history and culture. The events in
Ukraine have increased these types of initiatives’ popularity and
stimulated manifestations of patriotism and national identity.

Consider the recent Festival of Belarusian Culture “Sniezhan” (31 January
2015) or a Belarusian language pub-quiz game “Varta” about Belarusian
history (held three times from February-April 2015) that recently sprung
up. There is also the independent cultural initiative Art Siadziba (Art
Headquarters) that organises a variety of popular events
to promote Belarusian culture and the arts and manufactures clothes with
traditional Belarusian ornamentation.

Last, but not least, is the “Mother Language Festival”, organised by Art
Siadziba 22 February 2015 (International Mother Language Day by UNESCO).
Thousands of Belarusians attended free open courses in the Belarusian
language called Mova Ci Kava & Mova Nanova in Minsk and many regional towns
thanks to growing popular demand.

*What Will Belarusisation Lead To? *

Lukashenka, however, has to seek a balance between both sides. On the one
hand, he has to use his traditional fraternal rhetoric and alliances with
Russia to get it to provide Belarus with loans and discounted energy. On
the other hand, Lukashenka needs to guide Belarus away from Russia, be it
through a policy of 'soft Belarusisation' or improving ties with the West
in order to minimise potential threats to Belarusian sovereignty and to his
own power.

All of these initiatives aimed at promoting Belarusisation – sponsored by
the state and civil society – are extremely popular and relevant. To some
extent, it reflects a new national-oriented period in Lukashenka’s policy.
New possibilities are slowly emerging for Belarusian political and civil
actors. Leading up to the presidential election in November this year, one
can only view from afar how they use this window of opportunity.

*Vadim Mojeiko*


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