Belarus is a peculiar place. It’s one of the few countries in the world where speaking your country’s national language makes you a pariah. In Belarus, communicating in Belarusian is an inherently political – and increasingly dangerous – act. Since its independence, Belarus has developed into a police state based on a national ideology that is based on the eradication of anything Belarusian. Except for occasional road signs and government plaques, you would be hard-pressed to find anything written in the Belarusian language in Europe’s last dictatorship. In modern-day Belarus, your chances of hearing Belarusian being spoken on the streets of Minsk are close to zero.
Welcome to Belarus, a country where the national language is an endangered species, spoken only by a small minority with just one Belarusian-language school in the entire country. Despite being a sovereign independent state since the fall of the Soviet Union, Belarus is a country void of Belarusians. Under Lukashenko’s authoritarian rule Belarus has become somewhat of an anomaly in the family of post-Soviet dictatorships. Unlike the likes of Karimov in Uzbekistan and Aliev in Azerbaijan, Lukashenko has not promoted Belarusian nationalism or attempted to rally around a sense of national identity to consolidate his power. In fact, Lukashenko’s regime has arguably done more to suffocate Belarusian language and culture than both during the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire.
To borrow Benedict Anderson’s terminology, nationalism is about creating the sense of an imaginiary community. More often than not, the national identity stands on two pillars: a national language and culture. The nationality identity promoted by Lukashenko’s regime, however, is based on nostalgia of the Soviet period. Lukashenko’s national policy has been to present Belarusians as neither Russian nor Belarusian, but entirely Soviet. Indeed, Belarus has managed to keep most of the facets of Soviet life intact with its collectivized farms, pioneer camps, nationalized industry and – most importantly, the predominance of the Russian language in all areas of life. While the rest of the post-Soviet states were busy creating their own national identities to legitimize their independence, Belarus has remained as if frozen in time. Just take a look at the lives of conscripts in Belarusian army, which has remained exactly as the Soviet army was over two decades ago.
If you flip through the country’s two government-owned TV channels, you’ll find a mix of old Soviet films, interrupted several times a day by numbingly boring news reports highlighting the country’s achievements in agriculture and ice hockey – all of it broadcast exclusively in Russian. Of all the post-Soviet republics, Belarus is the only post-Soviet republic in which the Presidential New Year’s Eve Address does not contain even a single phrase in the country’s national language , something even predominantly Russophone Kazakhstan cannot allow itself to do (Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev always delivers his speeches in both Kazakh and Russian, starting always with the former). Despite his thick Belarusian accent, Lukashenko makes a point of never speaking in Belarusian in public except when pronouncing the Belarusian presidential oath, which Lukashenko has had the pleasure of doing a whopping four times in a row.
Having enjoyed a short-lived period of acceptance in the period following the country’s independence until 1994, many experts see Belarusian as being on the road to extinction. Ironically, the most fluent Belarusian speakers tend to reside in diaspora communities outside of the country’s borders in Lithuania, Poland, Germany, US and Canada.
Instead of striving to create or reinvigorate their linguistic and cultural distinctiveness, as most recently independent nations have in the past, Belarus has taken systematic steps to anchor the country’s identity in a common Soviet past. Government-sponsored propaganda paints Belarus as a successor of the USSR, a country that continues Soviet traditions in opposition to both Russia’s greedy oil-driven capitalism and NATO’s eastward expansion. This narrative has not only been accepted by a large percentage of the country’s own population, but has also been successfully exported abroad to those in Russia that mourn the fall of the Soviet Union. Thanks to this reputation, Belarus manages to attract quite a few Russian tourists looking to relive the past in the country’s many Communist-style sanatoriums and health resorts.
Any aspect of Belarusian history or culture that does not relate to the Soviet past is either ignored or suppressed. In this regard, the Belarusian language is seen as being especially subversive and dangerous by the Lukashenko regime as its mere existence could prove fertile ground for the potential emergence of a non-Soviet national identity, one that would have closer linguistic, religious and cultural ties to neighboring Poland than Russia.
As a result, Belarus has turned into a historical anomaly: a country in which the ruling ethnic majority has saught to annihilate its own national and linguistic heritage in order to remain in power. Twenty years since coming to power, Lukashenko has so far been successful at driving Belarusian speakers either underground or out of the country, while appeasing the country’s aging and nostalgic population – his main supporters. If there ever is a post-Lukashenko Belarus, however, creating a new, Belarusian identity will be an uphill battle in a society made up of Soviet people in a post-Soviet world.