The newspaper Belarusy i rynok recently ran a series of articles on education, devoted first to the new school year, but second to proposed changes to orthography and punctuation in the Belarusian language. These new rules are anticipated to move from draft to law in short order, with little discussion among the public or among specialists in the Belarusian language.
The new school year began with fanfare. President Alexander Lukashenka opened Palesky University in Pinsk and announced the future Belarusian State University of Information and Electronics — a research and education complex that he maintained would be a Belarusian version of Harvard University. Meanwhile Belarusian students received instruction in their first lesson: “I live in Belarus and I am proud of it!” A new methodological concept elaborated by the Ministry of Education focuses on important monuments of Belarusian culture such as the Belaya Vezha forest, the medieval city of Polatsk, and the palace at Nesvizh, the ancestral home of the Radziwill family.
Under this façade of progress lies a stark picture: the closure of 580 schools over the past five years at a time when the number of pupils is rising after many years of decline: 92,301 children began Grade One in 2006, compared to 90,576 last year. Official figures from the Ministry of Education reveal that only 20.5% of students receive instruction in the Belarusian language. To protest this situation, the new Russian version of the history of Belarus for Grade 10 students was symbolically destroyed in Minsk’s Yakub Kolas Square by young protesters on September 1.
The same lamentable situation is reflected in the circulation of books, magazines, and newspapers. In 1999, 63.3% of books were published in Belarusian; by 2003 the figure was 48.4%. Only 10.5% of all single-circulation newspapers appear in the native language, and, from the perspective of Belarusian speakers, the situation deteriorates each year.
Language has long been seen as a political issue by the Lukashenka regime, which now appears ready to delve into the complex area of orthography. A new edition of the Regulations on Belarusian Orthography and Punctuation is in preparation. It is supported by Alexander A. Lukashanets, director of the Yakub Kolas Institute of Linguistics, who maintains that new rules are needed to reflect changes that have occurred over the past 50 years and to bring Belarusian orthography closer to the main principles of the language. Critics are in no doubt that this is a new move introduced by the regime to curtail further the use of the native language in Belarus.
At the core of the problem is the Belaruskaya hramatyka authored by Branislau Taraskievich in the late 1920s, which sought to systematize Belarusian orthography. The Belarusian Popular Front, for example, has always adhered to the Taraskievich orthography. Lukashanets argues that it is impossible to return to it as the “living language constantly changes and develops.” In 1933, the Stalin regime began its repression of Belarusian intellectuals and introduced an academic, but Sovietized, version. The new rules were systematized in 1957 and a new publication, Rules of Belarusian Orthography and Punctuation, appeared in 1959. In January 1990 Belarusian was adopted as the state language of the republic, but progress was curtailed abruptly by the Lukashenka regime, which advanced Russian to the status of second state language through a referendum of May 1995, with 83.1% support among voters.
The latest draft on orthography appears to be the priority of the Ministry of Education, which is being advised by Viktar Ivchankau. There has been no public discussion of the amended version and the new rules have never been published. The head of the Belarusian Language Society, Aleh Trusau, for example, has not seen the new draft. Linguist Zmitser Sauka commented that the decision is absolutely unique, because previous reforms did not interfere with punctuation. In his view, the changes are political and they are being rushed through. Earlier discussion among linguists, led by former director of the Kolas Institute Alexander Padluzhny, had not reached a satisfactory conclusion. Ivchankau did not participate in this discussion, yet the new draft is being presented as part of the “Padluzhny Project.”
Sauka notes that the more changes are introduced to language rules, the less such rules are used by the people, and the lower the number of students who will select Belarusian for their language examinations. Much of the Belarusian population speaks the mixed language –trasyanka– of Belarusian, Russian, and words derived from Polish and Ukrainian. Without publication of the draft version it is impossible to discern precisely the import of the proposed changes. But Lukashenka has consistently elevated the Russian language, derided those who advocate linguistic purity as encapsulated in the Taraskievich Orthography, and embraced the changes to the orthography introduced in the Soviet period.
Thus the new draft appears to be the latest stage in the regime’s assault on Belarusian language and culture, an integral part of nation building for any newly independent state. It highlights the irony of one of the new textbooks issued to first-year pupils on September 1: the third edition of Belarus: Our Motherland: A Gift from the President of the Republic of Belarus. According to the text, the word “president” must always be capitalized.
(Belarusy i rynok, September 4; Narodnaya volya, September 2; Statisticheskiy ezhegodnik 2004 [Minsk, 2004], p. 215; Nationalities Papers, December 1999)