On March 25, opposition demonstrators marked the 90th anniversary of the declaration of independence of the Belarusian National (People’s) Republic (BNR). The crowd was estimated at several thousand and refused to be confined to the officially sanctioned route from the National Academy of Sciences to Banhalor Square. Instead, an attempt to congregate in the more central Yakub Kolas Square was countered by police carrying batons, resulting in about 100 arrests (Radio Polonia, March 26; RIA-Novosti, March 25). Among the arrested were some familiar figures, several of which have been released from detention recently: Zmitser Dashkevich, Artur Finkevich, Katsyaryna Salawyova, Krystsina Shatsikava, and Ivan Shlya. According to one report, the number of arrests was limited only by the amount of space available in the police vans (Naviny, March 26).
Such repressive tactics are hardly new to Belarus and the response seemed familiar in other respects, too. Thus on March 23, the authorities commemorated the 65th anniversary of the Khatyn tragedy, reportedly (not all historians accept the official version of events) burned down by the Nazi occupants in the middle of the German-Soviet war, killing 149, including 75 children. Representing President Alexander Lukashenka was the head of his administration, Henadz Nevyhlas, who declared that Khatyn was “a bleeding wound, preventing our people from forgetting the historic memory” (Itar-Tass, March 23). The recognition of an official Soviet-era tragedy and the crackdown on demonstrators suggest that little has changed on the part of the Belarusian government. The current impasse with the United States only adds to that conclusion (see EDM, March 14).
However, a remarkably candid discussion of the BNR took place over three days prior to the 90th anniversary in the presidential newspaper (SB Belarus’ Segodnya, March 22). Hosted by the paper’s editor, Pavel Yakubovich, it featured six leading historians of Belarus, five of which are affiliated with the Institute of History at the National Academy of Sciences: Alyaksandr Kavalenya, Mikalai Smyakhovich, Uladzimir Lyakhousky, Valyantsin Mazets, and Syarhey Tratsyak; and one, Vitaly Skalaban, from the National Archives. The discussion took place in the form of a roundtable, and comments were solicited from the general public. Clearly these comments were not censored, and the surprise engendered is evident from one reader who writes that the roundtable is the first public discussion about the BNR in the past 80 years!
Some observations would still fit well into the former Soviet analysis. Smyakhovich seems upset that discussion centered on the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and the First World War, because the panel was forgetting that the possibility of statehood developed only after the victory of the October Revolution. The Bolsheviks’ position was that every nationality in the Russian Empire had the right to a national home. Tratsyak maintains that all facets of real statehood were absent from the BNR. Rather it was a political center with pretensions to statehood. Smyakhovich also points out that aside from a small portion of the peasantry, the majority did not support the new state; it lacked the support of the most vital element – the people.
The other panelists, including the Lukashenka acolyte, Yakubovich, who begins by stating that “The BNR is part of the history of Belarus…the event has relevance for each of us,” offer broader perspectives. Yakubovich feels it is critical to provide an objective appraisal of events today, when Belarus is on the path of national statehood. Kavalenya comments that the Soviet view was critical largely because the BNR leaders were negative toward Bolshevik ideals. Others focus on the limitations of statehood under German military rule and the lack of official recognition even from neighboring states, but acknowledge the significance of the event.
Lyakhousky, who is the most sympathetic toward the BNR, remarks that in the Soviet period, it was regarded as a puppet state, but “in our view” it was a political formation created in February 1918 from the organizational structure of the 1917 all-Belarusian Congress, having as its goal real independence. Thus the formation of the BNR constituted an important stage in the path to sovereignty of the Belarusian nation. Later he adds that the proclamation of the BNR influenced the future political steps in Belarus – elsewhere the next stage is stated to be the formation of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic.
Not surprisingly there are limitations to the discussion. No mention is made, for example, of the continuation of the BNR in emigration, and it is declared to have lasted in exile form only until 1925. Most historians make reference to the nation-building campaign of the Lukashenka government, thus a political purpose to the discussion cannot be ruled out. However, the debate appears open and frank, resembling in form some of the early revelations under Gorbachev’s glasnost campaign of the late 1980s. Having opened this most sensitive issue, the historians are unlikely to stop here. Moreover, it can be surmised that the debate has the approval of the authorities. Yakubovich noted that only certain questions had been broached but this would not be the last such meeting.
The contrast between the official display of force against those recognizing the anniversary and the calm and frank discussion of its importance by members of the Institute of History suggests mixed signals on the part of the regime. The most positive sign is that the roundtable appeared in the most widely circulated newspaper in Belarus.
The authorities have resolved to include this pivotal event in the new national history but seem to be incapable of moderating their violent attacks on those who commemorate it.