Belarus: Paradoxes of National Memory and Freedom of Speech

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 12

First government of the Belarusian People's Republic, 1918 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Belarusian opposition is looking forward to the centennial of the Belarusian People’s Republic (BPR). Proclaimed by a group of nationalist activists on March 25, 1918, this entity existed until December 1918 under German military occupation. The BPR lacked most of the typical trappings of statehood—sovereignty over its territory, a constitution, law enforcement, a monopoly on tax collection and on coercion, local administrations, or a system of courts. Nevertheless, since the early 1990s, the opposition has celebrated it as the first-ever attempt to establish a Belarusian state.

This year, the authorities have actually endorsed some exhibitions and one conference devoted to the BPR, at the Institute of History of the National Academy of Sciences (Belpartizan, January 19). The usually divided opposition has even created a working group that would organize a rally and a concert on March 25 (, January 15), and it rejected attempts by the most intransigent wing of the opposition, headed by Nikolay Statkevich, to “privatize” the celebration (, January 16). When questioned by Radio Liberty, Natalia Kachanova, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s chief of staff, said conciliatorily that “if the society needs this celebration, we will mark it together” (, January 19). In turn, Gennadz Davydska, the newly elected Chairman of the White Rus, a pro-government movement, suggested that although there is no clarity about the BPR, “we” may celebrate its centenary provided it is going to consolidate Belarusians, not divide them (Euroradio, January 19).

Davydska’s qualification goes a long way to explaining the government’s long-term approach to national consolidation. So does the idea of Yury Drakakhrust that the path of civic nationalism Belarus has taken under Lukashenka—that is, the path of convergence of different nationalist visions of Belarus on the basis of living together—has value in the eyes of Europe that no longer “loves ethnic nations” (, January 16).

Whether or not the opposition will reciprocate the conciliatory gestures of the government remains to be seen. In principle, civic nationalism as a platform for broad-based consensus about Belarus’s statehood is less confrontational vis-à-vis Russia compared with traditional Eastern European nationalism of the ethnic kind. The aforementioned BPR and its centenary are entirely the creatures of the latter. It is then no accident that on the other side of the barricade—i.e., in the circles that lean toward Russia but not to the point of surrendering independence—anything related to the BPR is treated as a subversive “political technology.” Much has been made of the subsequent collaboration of some members of the BPR’s Rada (Council) with the Nazis (Sonar2050, January 10).

However, grounds for tensions with Russia will likely remain regardless of what particular shape Belarusian nationalism eventually takes. First, the prices Belarusian enterprises pay for hydrocarbons are still significantly higher than those paid by their Russian counterparts; and this is the case not only within the Eurasian Economic Union, but also within the so-called Union State of Russia and Belarus. On January 17, Mikhail Myasnikovich, the chairman of the upper chamber of the Belarusian parliament, suddenly recalled this obstacle to economic integration and even declared that the 1999 Union State treaty, which envisages a level playing field for Russian and Belarusian production units, ought to be fully implemented. Some opposition-minded commentators cautioned against pursuing this goal, however, because some other provisions of the same treaty are a single currency and a common trade policy with respect to third countries. If Russia were to retaliate by demanding that these provisions be implemented, too, this would not be in Belarus’s favor (Naviny, January 19).

Second, tensions are brewing regarding the Russian-Belarusian border regime. Alexander Shpakovsky, a columnist for the Belarusian affiliate of Russia’s propaganda outlet Sputnik, predicts that if the ongoing negotiations between Minsk and Moscow about the mutual recognition of visas issued to citizens of third countries do not come to fruition, Russia will introduce passport controls on the now transparent border. President Lukashenka recently acknowledged Russia’s concerns and pledged his commitment to negotiate the issue (, January 16).

Third, the trial of three Belarusian contributors of Russian media outlets is coming to an end, and not only Minsk but Moscow, too, awaits its outcome. The three authors are charged with denigrating Belarusians as a national community. Artyom Shraibman, a political commentator of, recently made several meaningful observations about the trial. For one thing, Belarus’s criminal code lacks any article specifically outlawing appeals to undermine Belarusian territorial integrity and statehood. Consequently, a more abstract-sounding article about fomenting ethnic animosity has been invoked in this case. And determining what constitutes such fomenting is, in itself, a legal gray area. Ironically, the experts employed by the court used a Russian methodology due to the absence of its Belarusian counterpart. While it is true that the government has changed its attitude toward radical Russophiles, now considering them a potential threat, this about turn has not gained Minsk any true allies in the ranks of the opposition, because its members understand they can still easily fall prey to a similarly politically charged prosecution (, January 23).

Moreover, Shraibman argues, the government’s policy is inconsistent. On December 1, 2017, Lukashenka congratulated Belarusians on the 100-year anniversary of the First All-Belarusian Congress. According to the official and popular version of Belarusian history, it is this Congress, not the BPR, that expressed a “healthy nationalist” sentiment—i.e., the desire, however limited, for statehood under the auspices of the nascent Soviet Union. However, Wilhelm Knorrin, Karl Lander and Alexander Myasnikov abruptly terminated the congress. These three Bolshevik leaders called Belarusian a dialect of Russian, Belarusians a fictitious community and the attempts of some of them to achieve autonomy, even within Russia, criminal. “To have streets in Minsk that bear the names of these leaders and to keep their intellectual heirs in jail at the same time is pure surrealism,” Shraibman contends (, January 23). Finally, even those jailed journalists have probably realized that freedom of speech and other rights touted by the West are better than persecution of dissent, which they effectively call for when expressing their nostalgia for Soviet times (, January 23).

Indeed, rights and duties imply reciprocity; and national memory by its very nature needs to be inclusive, otherwise it is not national. The learning process in Belarus goes on.