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Belarus 2020: A course to decolonisation?

Belarusan and Soviet flags on parade, during a protest against the so-called “parasites’ tax” in Minsk, March 2017. Photo (c): Anton Matoĺka. Used with permission.

My last article “three naïve questions about Belarus” has prompted many questions. First and foremost, they concern the language we use in Belarus to talk about our national identity. The situation is unique, to put it briefly. In the worst possible sense of the word.

Belarus, the 13th largest country in Europe, is formally bilingual. But in practice things are different: this is not a bilingualism where one can simply indicate your preferred language of communication and speak it to a state official as you please. No, in common practice, officials interpret bilingualism not as an obligation to respond in either state language (Belarusan or Russian), but as their freedom to respond in either of the two. Fortunately, at least in the case of written appeals, there is a legal requirement to respond in the language used by the sender.

This is not the kind of bilingualism where people can freely choose what language they want their children to be educated in. In fact, if Belarusan-speaking parents want their children to have classes or study groups conducted in our national language, they often have to send them to schools in remote regions. Nobody compensates them for transportation costs. Their requirements simply cannot be fulfilled in schools closer to where they live. And this state of affairs is still called “bilingualism.” It is a bilingualism thanks to which Belarus has become the most Russified country of all those which were once under Soviet rule.

With that in mind, let's consider the results of the many “decolonising” projects carried out in Belarus between 2010 and 2019.

From “Budzma!” to business initiatives

The well-known civic campaign “Budzma Belarusami!” (“Let's be Belarusans!”) began at the start of the decade. After the mass protests of the 2000s, the authorities decided on a “final solution to the opposition issue” and dispersed protesters with brutal force in 2010. Subsequent searches of activists’ homes and detentions forced many into a long depression. It was fertile soil for a campaign to strengthen national identity.

In a sense, the move was cognitive psychotherapy on a national scale: lead Belarusan society by the hand to the mirror, show it the beauty of its culture and say that Belarusan denotes success, stylishness. It's was a shock to colonial culture, where for decades everything original, everything indigenous, was dismissed as second-rate. During this period, Budzma helped launch the Ad.nak! festival, which gave a boost to the growing fashion of using the Belarusan language in advertising. Large businesses started to regard their native language as an effective tool for communication once more. At the start of the millennium, that had seemed unimaginable, and of no use to anybody.

Animation for the “Budzma Belarusami” song, one of the most viral of all the campaigns mentioned in this article.

An entire article could be written solely about the presence of the Belarusan language in business. In brief, the trend is towards the merging of medium- and small-sized businesses, which support Belarusan language and culture, while large business sometimes operate quite prominently in Belarusan. For example, the A-100 chain of petrol stations announced their transition to the Belarusan language. One company even produced cornflower-flavoured ice cream (the cornflower is a popular national symbol of Belarus), while the country's largest mobile operator made cultural development part of its company policy and supported, for example, the youth activist Andrej Kim's initiative to show films dubbed in Belarusan. The latter is particularly important given that despite the packed halls of the country's 60 or so cinemas, all state film distribution is still carried out in Russian.

WTF is a vyshymayka?

Thanks to a systematic media campaign to “get culture out from between the weather forecast and sports and onto the front pages,” Budzma created the prototype of one of the most prominent domestic brands of the last decade: t-shirts bearing traditional Belarusan motifs. The campaign was unable to ensure their mass production, but nature abhors a vacuum, and by the middle of the decade Paval Bielavus, organiser of the events, developed Budzma's idea further and created the “vyshymayka,” a factory-produced product bearing folk art patterns. Together with Bielavus's online shop symbal.by, several small businesses with a slant towards Belarusan culture became visible in the market. Some of their products were at least, if not more aesthetically striking than Symbal's t-shirts. A good example was the urban brand LSTR.

budzma, symbal

Belarusans wearing Vyshymayki. Image from budzma.by and symbal.by. Used with permission.

The vyshymayka became by far the most popular trend. The idea of a vyshymayka parade was eventually appropriated by the state-run Belarusan Republican Youth Movement (analogous to the Soviet Komsomol movement). It was an ugly move, but it can also be credited with situating Belarusan identity at the forefront of all state media broadcasts, giving the population at large a simple and understandable signal—and permission from the authorities to think about their national identity. This fact became even more salient in Belarus in the context of the Russian-Ukrainian war raging to the south, which began with calls for “unity” of the de-Ukrainianised east of the country with the so-called “Russian world.”

For a long time, Bielavus and his colleagues worked on both the symbal.by online store and Art-Siadziba, a civic cultural initiative, and only separated the two projects in 2017. Understandably, people often confuse the two initiatives, which collaborated for many years on many projects. The most prominent of these was the celebration of the centenary of the Belarusan Democratic Republic, or BNR.

#BNR100

Charter of the Belarusian People's Republic (1918-1919). Public domain image.

On March 25, 1918 the third charter of the Belarusan Democratic Republic (or Belarusan People's Republic) was signed. This short-lived entity at the end of the First World War was the first modern Belarusan proto-state, and one of several in the pan-European “independence parade” of 1918. After the restoration of Belarusan independence in 1991, the date acquired a renewed significance; in the era of current president Aliaxandr Lukašenka (also known as Alexander Lukashenka – ed.) it has become an important, if unofficial, public holiday. Accordingly, public processions for Freedom Day are dispersed with varying degrees of police brutality.

However, against the backdrop of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, the authorities in Minsk chose to accommodate the centennial of the Belarusan Democratic Republic. They even set aside a venue in the heart of the capital specially for the celebrations. Art-Siadziba, which acted as technical operator for the event, went into emergency mode to ensure a good showing for the ceremony, and was able to gather more than 50,000 people on the streets. The last time Minsk had seen a public gathering of that size was during the so-called “Minsk Spring” protests of 1996 and the Plošča protests of 2010.

The mass celebrations made Bielavus and his partners Matolka and Palchys into a trinity of media heroes. Another coalition member, leader of the Belarusan Popular Front Ryhor Kastusioŭ, also showed his skills in negotiating with the authorities. The move of a single man greatly strengthened the image of his entire party, which had been marginalised after the successes of the early 1990s. The following year a split occurred in the ranks of the festival's organisers. Two separately organised Freedom Day celebrations took place in parallel. It is a bitter irony, given that exactly a hundred years before, in 1919, a split also occurred in the BNR itself, when two competing meetings of the Rada, its parliament, signalled the beginning of the end for the young republic. Every one hundred years, Belarus gets the opportunity to try to achieve something as one; many Belarusans can't even unite in an attempt to try.

Online versus offline

After #BNR100, Art-Siadziba continued its painstaking attempts to organise decentralised cultural events, training seminars, and conferences for young people. Thus MovaChallenge was launched on Instagram, in which participants are given tasks to try and switch to using Belarusan in their daily lives, thereby overcoming one of the most enduring stigmas in Belarusan society. But while it may be easy to find a supportive community online, real life can be less welcoming to such initiatives.

However, life offline makes for stronger social ties, which helped create MovaNanova, an educational project whose name means “Language Anew” in Belarusan. Many initiatives feel removed from ordinary people. MovaNanova was different. Hleb Labadzienka and Alesia Litvinoŭskaja simply launched a chain of informal educational circles. Over the past five years, these courses have become an integral part of urban life in major regional centres as well as a dozen smaller cities, as there is not a single university in Belarus which operates entirely in the national language, and not a single wholly Belarusan language television channel. While there is one university project working in conjunction with the Partnership for the Belarusan Language, the state has so far expressed no interest in supporting it.

A strange fact is that Alesya Litvinoŭskaja taught the Belarusan language to Stefan Eriksson, who was Swedish ambassador to Belarus from 2008-2012 and won widespread affection from Belarusan society for the respect he showed to the national language and the warmth of his public appearances. Some of Eriksson's colleagues have clearly made note of his successful style. Perhaps they received recommendations from their communications consultants, or perhaps the new generation of diplomats coming to Belarus simply see the country as something more than a buffer zone.

A few words about partisan traditions

When trying to understand the stark division between activists and “the ordinary masses,” many people invoke battlefields and military struggles between two irreconcilable camps. These metaphors aren't often accurate, but they certainly useful when describing Ihar Slučak, known as the “language inspector.” A real “forest brother,” a real lone partisan, Slučak, a qualified lawyer, started the initiative “Jurisprudence in Belarusan,” through which he methodically coerced state officials into answering correspondence in the language it was sent in. The words “one partisan made the whole region quake in fear” are well-suited in his case.

Map showing percentage of requests from citizens which received a response in the Belarusian language, based on data from 2012-2018. Image by Ihar Slučak / Alyaksandr Arsyonau. Used with permission.

Another campaign aimed to widen the use of the Belarusan language in sports. With their huge fan bases, sports clubs turned out to be far more attuned to the use of their native language than the old school Soviet state officials. From 2015 to 2018, the number of major league football clubs in Belarus which displayed players’ names on their uniforms in the national language increased from zero to 12 (out of 16). This has since become an established way of rating the “Belarusanness” of sports clubs.

By the end of the decade, Slučak realised that there were prospects in scaling up his language campaign. Alongside the activist Alina Nahornaja, he took the best suggestions from these initiatives and published them in the book Abaronim Movu! (“Lets Protect the Language!”), a compilation of practical recommendations for protecting Belarusan language rights.

The visual style of the “language inspector's” activism has become less pointed. These days, he increasingly opts for the carrot over the stick, and highlights the positive aspects of Belarusan language use. It's a sensible move, given that state functionaries are not merely bureaucratic automata who write official responses, but also human beings. After all, given that the Donbas scenario (i.e. Russian armed intervention in the country) can by no means be ruled out for Belarus, a functionary's acts tomorrow could be influenced by how he approaches such issues, even while they may seem insignificant to him.

Belarus 2020

However, the localised successes described above should not lull us into the illusion that here has been significant process for Belarus as a whole. Yes, the national language has appeared in business contexts, albeit timidly. The authorities have not crushed grassroots linguistic initiatives, but that doesn't mean they support them. Several monuments to princes of the medieval Grand Duchy of Poland-Lithuania, of which Belarus was a member, have been erected, alongside those to other figures who were not honoured under Soviet rule. But there is still no systemic support for the national language in education, culture, or the ideology of the state.

Given the domination of Russian-language media, many Belarusans see themselves stuck in an information environment which is run on somebody else's terms. That's why media activists have already launched a campaign to localise content in Belarus.

Without a doubt, the past decade has seen a growth in public interest in national identity, and plotted a course away from postcolonial stagnation. The question for the next decade will be whether external threats and globalisation will compel the Belarusan state to listen to these grassroots demands and follow that course.

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