Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 158

Representatives of civil society in Belarus and the Executive Council of the Rada of the Belarusian Republic are appealing to the European Commission (EC, executive arm of the European Union) and the German government-connected international broadcaster, Deutsche Welle Radio, to correct their recent decision to start broadcasting to Belarus in the Russian language, instead of using the native language of the country.

The political faux pas (Fehltritt in German) originated in a decision by the Brussels-based European Commission and was accentuated by a polemical response from Deutsche Welle (DW) to appeals from Belarus.

The EC recently held a tender to broadcasters for a contract to launch a daily, 30-minute news-and-analysis radio program to Belarus, to be aired in the Russian language. The project forms part of the European Union’s stated intention to create alternative and accessible information sources for Belarus (an intention that in turn forms part of the EU’s draft action plan to promote democracy in Belarus). However, the EC provides a meager €138,000 annually for the radio project. DW plans to launch the program in September through its Russian-language service.

That choice of language has been met with consternation and criticism from Belarusian democratic opposition and intelligentsia representatives. An appeal from those circles, penned by Popular Front leader Vintsuk Vyachorka and prominent analyst Vital Silitski, notes that the decision reflects a “complete misunderstanding” of the potential for revival of the democratic nation in Belarus. Referring to the experience of post-Soviet transformation, the appeal notes, “The recovery of national identity is a key factor in the democratization of any nation.” President Alexander Lukashenka’s regime understands this fact and is therefore discriminating against the Belarusian language in favor of Russian, telling the country and Europe “that the Belarusian language has no prospects and that there is no demand for it among Belarusian citizens.”

Thus, the authorities “infringe every day on the right of Belarusians to listen to news in their own language,” the appeal notes. It therefore expresses dismay at the EU’s choice of language for its broadcasts, which in effect “lines up behind the authorities’ policy,” unwittingly “following the official propaganda line” that people are not interested in the Belarusian language. To rebut that assumption, the document cites 1999 census data showing that more than three-fourths of the population regard Belarusian as their native language (Belapan, August 5).

Another appeal to the EU, which is due for international release today after circulating within Belarusian democratic circles, notes that Brussels’s decision singles out Belarus from among the other post-Soviet countries in Europe by choosing to address Belarusian society in a way that “perpetuates the Soviet legacy of Russification” — a decision it deems “unjustified and unacceptable.” It also deems it discriminatory, inasmuch as Belarusian retains the status of an official language in Belarus and is not less commonly understood than the Russian language. The document notes that promoting European values in Belarus “necessitates encouraging in the public consciousness those aspects of the national legacy that unite Belarus with Europe, in contrast to the legacy of Soviet Russification and to the current regime’s [policy of] imposing re-Russification.”

The document urges the EU to encourage Belarusians’ feelings of kinship with Europe “based on the elements of national consciousness that they historically developed while [existing] within a European context. By contrast, a legacy shared with the Soviet Union or the Russian empire cannot foster a sense of kinship with Europe, for which reason the present regime cultivates all aspects of that Soviet/Russian legacy in Belarus.” Citing the record of Belarus’ neighbors (Poland, the Baltic states, Ukraine) the appeal underscores the connection between overcoming Soviet-era cultural legacies and reasserting a European identity based on national cultures. Because the EC’s decision on broadcasting overlooked this crucial link, the broadcasting project in its present form “critically compromises its essential purposes.” The document calls on the EC “most urgently” [i.e., ahead of the planned launch of the broadcasts in September] to review its decision (www.radabnr.org ).

The EC is not known to have responded publicly. For their part, Deutsche Welle representatives defensively cite the terms of the EC’s tender and contract, which only authorize funding for DW’s Russian Service to launch Russian-language broadcasting to Belarus. That Service’s chief, however, went further in an interview with an independent Belarusian news agency, where she rationalized the decision on three grounds. First, DW has already been broadcasting a Russian-language program to Central Asia for four years. Second, broadcasting to Belarus in Russian is at least “doing something,” and thus better than the alternative option of “doing nothing.” And, third, “it is stupid to say that Russian is bad and Belarusian is good,” the chief is cited as arguing (Belapan, August 8).

The first assertion implies that an undesirable precedent should be taken as point of reference. The second argument suggests that an inappropriate project is defensible simply for “doing something” merely because it “does something” — a more appropriate justification for an EU-funded make-work project than for a worthy democracy-promoting effort. The third assertion would seem to obviate the need for seriously addressing the Belarusian democrats’ concerns.