Belarusian Language: Current State and Perspectives
Twenty years after Soviet Union’s dissolution, Belarus still remains one of the least known and most stereotypically-perceived countries of the post-soviet area.
The general perception that currently exists in Central-Eastern Europe is that language is “a much more effective basis for political power than contiguity.” Language became a “legitimizing formula” for nation-building, so where there exists the decline of language, the state independence is under question (Schöpflin, 2000).
Such a perception influenced significantly the image of the Belarusian language. Introduction of Russian as a second state language in 1995 and further intentions of close integration with Russia were seen as an authoritarian path based on Belarusian weak national identity, strong connections with the Russian culture and general Sovietization of Belarusian population. This article aims to show the development of Belarusian language over the last 20 years in connection with the Belarusian national identity and explain the current linguistic situation taking into account previous Soviet practices of the national policies towards Belarusians and their language.
Belarusian language, language policies, Belarus, Russification Introduction Twenty years after Soviet Union’s dissolution, Belarus still remains one of the least known and most stereotypically-perceived countries of the post-soviet area. In fact, “the triadic relationship between the modern state, nation, and democracy remains undertheorized for long-established Western states, and therefore there has been a gap in the theoretical literature when scholars have investigated postcommunist states” That is why “a complication of newly Hanna Vasilevich is a PhD candidate at Metropolitan University Prague/ Institute of International Relations, Prague. Her research interests embrace national identity, interethnic relations and democratization in Central and Eastern Europe.
independent states, such as Ukraine and Belarus, not only introducing political and economic reform simultaneously but also building institutions and a state while forging a unified nationstate” has not been sufficiently investigated by the contemporary scholarship (Kuzio: 2002).
Thus, traditionally Belarus-related analyses are mainly focused on the current political situation (“the last dictatorship in Europe”) and the perspective of human rights violations (especially after the December 2010 presidential elections). Moreover, after the intensive processes of integration between Belarus and Russia, and the referenda of 1995 and 1996 the West became persuasively convinced that “the interethnic differences between the Belarusians and Russians are minimal” (Gradirovski and Esipova, 2008).
Such close relations with Russia and frequent equation of the Russian language with the Belarusian created the image of a “denationalized”, “Sovietized” or even “Russified” nation.
Grigory Ioffe goes even further, expecting potential identity loss via adaptation of Russian language since “…most Belarusians have adopted Russian as their primary language and remain unworried about the loss of identity likely to follow” (Ioffe: 2003).
This raises at least two questions: whether it is possible to measure and explain Belarusian nation-building through the prism of any theory and to what extent the ongoing forging of a unified nation-state in Belarus with the role of the traditionally considered elements of the national identity: culture, history, or language.
Indeed, for many scholars/analysts, language is seen a core for the national revival. “If there is a language, then its speakers constitute a community; if a community has its own language, it must be a nation; and as a nation, it has the right to constitute its own state and become a subject of history” Thus, the general perception existing nowadays is that in Central-Eastern Europe language is “a much more effective basis for political power than contiguity.” Language became a “legitimizing formula” for nation-building, so where there exists the decline of language, the state independence is under question (Schöpflin, 2000).
Such a general perception influenced significantly the image of the Belarusian language.
Rather short period of democratic development was strongly connected with the politics of Belarusianization (Belarusian language was officially the only state language from 1990 till 1995, when the official bilingualism was introduced as a result of the nation-wide referendum). The later introduction of Russian as a second state language and further intentions of close integration with Russia were seen as an authoritarian path based on Belarusian weak national identity, strong connections with the Russian culture and general Sovietization of Belarusian population.
However, despite the rather wide usage of Russian in Belarusian daily life, according to the last national census of 2009, the titular nation’s percentage in Belarus’ ethnic breakdown has increased to 84 per cent. These people strongly associate themselves with their country and highly value their independence (over the years the number of those who want to become an integral part of the Russian Federation has been limited to 2 per cent of population). Though not using Belarusian as a daily-life language, based on the census 2009 results, more than a half of Belarusians (60%) consider Belarusian their native language (rodnaja mova), though only 26% use it as a daily life communication language (Abakunčyk, 2011). And though the language situation leaves a wide scope for the future development, Belarusians have significantly strengthened their national identity over the 20 years of the country’s independence.
Therefore, the central purpose of this paper is to show the development of Belarusian language over the last 20 years in connection with the Belarusian national identity and explain the current linguistic situation taking into account previous Soviet practices of the national policies towards Belarusians and their language.
Soviet Union and Belarusian language/Belarusian language on the eve of independence Belarusians are generally viewed as the most Sovietized nation of the former USSR, as Roger Potocki notes, “if Belarus was one of the most economically advanced republics, it was also the most backward in terms of national and civic identity. Today, although more than threequarters of the country’s population is ethnically Belarusian; most people speak Russian most of the time. Belarus was the most Sovietized and conservative of the USSR’s republics” (Potocki: 2002).
Thus, Potocki directly connects Sovietization and Russification, which go along with the lack of national identity. Thus, the working equation proposed by Western authors will be denationalization equals Sovietization plus Russification.
At the eve of Soviet Union dissolution, the last Soviet census of 1989 showed that 77.9% of the Belarusian SSR population considered themselves Belarusians and 74.5% of the population of the BSSR named Belarusian their native language (rodnaja mova) (Report on violations of the linguistic rights of the titular nation of the Republic of Belarus: n.d.).
These numbers followed the negative path for the Belarusian language as in the post-war Belarusian SSR the percentage of its active users among the titular nation’s members had constantly decreased. Three post-war censuses show that the percentage of Belarusians who indicated Belarusian as their mother tongue was quite high but still declining – 93.2% in 1959, 90.1% in 1970, 83.5% in 1979 and 80.2% in 1989 (Ioffe: 2003). Moreover, according to these census data it is argued that Belarusians had “‘the lowest level of native language loyalty among the 14 non-Russian Union Republic nationalities, and also [ranking] first in knowledge of Russian as a second language’. This decline is explained by the persistent postwar discrimination of the Belarusian language in the USSR. Report on violations of the linguistic rights of the titular nation of the Republic of Belarus: n.d.). As a result of the policy of Russification, the usage of Belarusian language was limited to the level of the secondary education, being the language of education only in some rural schools. However, it was removed from the specialized secondary and higher levels of education and already in 1970ss all Belarusian schools as in the cities as well as in the villages were liquidated. As a result of these policies in the entire Belarusian SSR population (including titular nation) the percentage of persons who indicated Russian as their mother tongue grew from 1100. thousands or 13.7% in 1959 to 1874.2 or 28.3% in 1989 (Smalačuk: n.d.).
Therefore, among all non-Russian Soviet republics, Belarus was regarded as the most “Soviet” and Russified one, and the Belarusian language remained rather as a colourful folkloristic attribute, but not as a dominant language of everyday life.( Vasilevich and Kaścian: 2010). Thus, as a “result” of Belarusian Sovietization, Belarusians did not publicly express their support for the Soviet Union dissolution.
In the Soviet times Belarus was portrayed as a partisan republic, one which suffered the most during the WWII, having been destroyed by 80 % and losing every fourth (even every third) person of its population. BSSR, being one of the closest republics to the Soviet border, from the beginning of its existence was seen as a buffer zone between Moscow and the enemies from the west. Successfully having played its role in the WWII, Belarusian territories were completely destroyed, making the western border vulnerable and unsafe. Therefore, lots of investments were made into BSSR, which were presented as a payback for all losses.
Economic prosperity was a certain payment for the suppression of any nationalist movement.
During the bloody 1930s Moscow had already exhibited its ability to totally liquidate the Belarusian intelligentsia and cultural elite. During this period Belarusians lost the majority (up to 90%) of the newly created (during the period of 1920s) elite and intelligentsia. Stalin’s position was that the national development became more a nationalist one which was considered to be dangerous for the Soviet regime. According to Wladimir Bortnik, Bolsheviks gave Belarusians the possibility to develop/explicate Belarusian cultural and organizational activities just in order to reveal and control those with nationalist ones that might represent danger (Bortnik: 1978). Belarusian language was considered a sign of bourgeois nationalism and was limited in its usage mainly in rural areas, whereas cities were more Russified;