About a thousand people gathered in the drizzling rain in a Minsk park to vote for a resolution which proposes a series of demands to the authorities. Among other things, they demanded to stop the raise of prices, to release political prisoners and to hold free elections. The organizers of the rally called it “People’s Assembly.” To make themselves more visible to the crowd, they mounted a sculpture of a stork stretching its wings.
“We have to get out of our holes. We have to get out of our kitchens. Instead of complaining to each other that life got hard, we have to change that life,” said, in Belarusian, one of the rally organizers, veteran of the democratic movement, Viktar Ivashkevich.
Law enforcement officers in plainclothes were recording the speech with small camcorders. The declaration was adopted unanimously. The rally participants decided to assemble again a month later to discuss the response of the authorities to their demands.
An opposition rally is one of the rare events in Belarus where one can hear Belarusian language. Despite the fact that the country has two official languages, Belarusian and Russian, the state TV airs its main news in Russian. The latter is also the language of record keeping in major companies, the language of the police and army.
Most Belarusian city dwellers prefer not to communicate in their native language in public places. According to Sevyaryn Kvyatkowski, coordinator of the Budzma (Let’s be) campaign, there are three reasons for that.”The first reason is that the Soviet government has made the Belarusian language unprestigious. In Soviet times, Russian was made the language of higher education. Only peasants spoke Belarusian, but those of them who moved to the cities tried to get rid even of the accent. So this is the legacy of communism,” Mr. Kvyatkowski told Blisty.cz. “The second reason is the political aspect,” he continued. “And the third one is that Belarusians are modest by nature, reserved and don’t like to stand out.”
According to Mr. Kvyatkowski, many Belarusians, especially in remote provinces, consider their Belarusian-speaking compatriots to be participants in democratic political movement. Previously these people could be identified with the anti-communist opposition. Now they are seen as opponents of head of state, who, according to the activist, “in principle is no different from the communists aesthetically or mentally.”
“Civic activity in Belarus in the late 1980s started with the creation of the Belarusian Popular Front, whose members were focusing on two issues,” said Mr. Kwiatkowski. “They started out with humanitarian activities, with the revival of national identity through the means of culture, but they also became a political force that fought for the representation in the government.” The expert doesn’t rule out that had those oppositionists focused only on politics and left culture alone, the Belarusian language would have greater state support today. Instead, the native speakers are now facing numerous obstacles in many spheres, including, for instance, the sphere of education. “I read the results of a census which stated that in my neighbourhood 60% of people considered Belarusian to be their native language, while 25% said they regularly used it,” said the source. “My son will go to school in one year. I will have to take him to the city center, because they have a Belarusian-language gymnasium there, and our neighbourhood doesn’t have one. It would be inconvenient for me.”
Campaign “Budzma” aims to promote the notion of Belarusians as European nation through cultural means.
Another Blisty.cz source, publisher and translator Zmitser Kolas, said that the Russification in Belarus started after the partitions of Rzeczpospolita in the 18th century, when this territory was ceized by the Russian Empire. “Belarusian was declared the “dialect of the Great Russian Language.” Russification was carried out through schools, and this concept was hammered into everyone’s heads all the time,” he said. When it came to creating the “Soviet people,” the process continued, and there were virtually no Belarusian schools left in the cities, the expert mentioned. However, there were still books published in Belarusian under the Soviets.
According to Mr. Kolas, Belarusians live in “linguistic immigration.” “Every person who wants to be educated and intellectually fed inevitably consumes certain kind of information. If one consumes information only in Belarusian, he won’t be able to become an intellectual or a culturally developed person,” he explained.
The interviewee illustrated this idea with an example from the sphere of education: “Only a meager amount of literary and scholarly translations is done into Belarusian. But how can you say that a child will develop normally if he reads only Belarusian folk tales, or stories by the Belarusian writers? This is not enough. In addition, one has to read the greatest pieces of world literature.”
Nevertheless, Belarusians want to speak their native language, which, according to Mr. Kolas, is evident from the census. “Most people state their native language is Belarusian without really knowing the language, which shows that people actually want to speak it. They want it in a way: “I would like to speak it, but when can I learn it? I have no time …” tells Mr. Kolas. “One is working. One has lots of other things to do. But they address him in Russian. But they offer him to read an interesting book in Russian. At the concerts they perform and speak in Russian. So, indeed, when will he learn Belarusian?”
Belarus, like many other countries, is experiencing strong urbanization. According to Mr. Kolas, many people from rural parts of the country who have decided to become city dwellers are “angry at the city which has made them forget their mother tongue.”
At the same time, there are some positive trends. Speaking on October 23 in Minsk at the convention of the Belarusian Language Society (BLS), chairman of this NGO Aleh Trusaw mentioned that thanks to the efforts of young employees of the Belarusian state TV “a regular show dedicated to the history of Belarusian words and phrases was created.” The show airs twice a week. “Belarusian language is gradually returning to news broadcasts, especially on regional TV stations,” said Mr. Trusaw. He thanked a state Trade Unions Federation for allocating in recent years the funds “to subscribe the district and school libraries, as well as the country’s museums, to the Belarusian-language publications.”
“The first students studying in Belarusian appeared in a number of regional and district centers of Belarus thanks to great efforts of parents and society,” said NGO leader. He noted that “the Education Ministry doesn’t really want to engage in the promotion of Belarusian-language education.”
“Our language situation leaves much to be desired, to put it mildly, and if we don’t pass our language to young people, especially in cities, because villages, unfortunately, go into oblivion, then the language will disappear, the state will disappear as well, and even the name of our people will be forgotten,” concluded Aleh Trusaw.
Talking to reporters at the BLS convention, philologist and opposition politician Vintsuk Vyachorka said that the Belarusian government’s strategic course was to sell the dominance of the Russian language in Belarus to Russia “in exchange for different kinds of privileges and geopolitical favors.” “The authorities need Belarusian only to scare the eastern neighbor on occasion, but not for a free man to speak Belarusian loud and with dignity,” said Mr. Vyachorka.
Belarus declared sovereignty in 1990. The Declaration of Sovereignty emphasized the inherent right of the Belarusian nation to have Belarusian as the official language. Condoleezza Rice, U.S. Secretary of State in the administration of President George W. Bush, dubbed the current Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka the “last dictator in Europe.” Mr. Lukashenka has ruled the country since 1994 and holds his office for the fourth consecutive term. He has solved the issue of removing restrictions on the number of presidential terms through a referendum in 2004. In 1995 Mr. Lukashenka solved the issue of making Russian a state language alongside with Belarusian through another referendum.
His political opponents doubt the validity of the results in both referendums.
In the past, there were substantial political differences between Mr. Lukashenko and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, but now both seem to be enthusiastic about creating the Eurasian Union – a supranational association capable, according to Mr. Putin, “of becoming one of the poles in the modern world and serving as an efficient bridge between Europe and the dynamic Asia-Pacific region.”
As early as 1999 Alyaksandr Lukashenka stated: “No one will ever touch me if the Russian leadership won’t betray me.”
Meanwhile, the fight of Belarusian people for their freedom and democracy remains tightly connected to their fight for linguistic rights.
Anton Taras, blisty.cz