Nation-Building Picking up Pace in Belarus

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 41

Unveiling ceremony for the memorial to the Lutskevich brothers, in Minsk, March 13

A memorial to the Lutskevich brothers was installed, on March 13, in downtown Minsk. It consists of a large engraved stone commemorating two houses where, in 1896–1906, Anton and Ivan Lutskevich lived with their families (, March 13). Both led the Belarusian national movement and initiated the short-lived (March–December 1918) Belarusian People’s Republic (BPR) (see EDM, January 25). Although only members of the opposition attended the ceremony of the memorial’s opening, the event itself could not possibly have occurred without permission, if not support, of the authorities. The preparation for the March 25 meeting and the concert is also in full swing. This so-called Liberty Day used to be celebrated exclusively by the opposition.

On March 15, at the National Historical Museum, in Minsk, the exhibition “1918: BPR—Idea, Country, and State—Step to Independence” opened. On the same day, at the Institute of History of the Belarusian Academy of Sciences, a conference devoted to the BPR’s role in Belarusian history took place. Presenting at that conference, Igor Marzalyuk, the chairman of the parliamentary Committee on Education, Culture, and Science and a professional historian, opined that the BPR was the forerunner of Soviet Belarus. Moreover, the respective line of succession was formalized by the 1925 resignation of the entire Council of the BPR and a simultaneous transfer of its prerogatives to the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic, following which most members of that Council returned to Minsk from the West. That means that subsequent developments and initiatives taken on behalf of the BPR—like, for example, an enthusiastic and sycophantic letter to Adolf Hitler sent by the BPR’s self-proclaimed President Vasil Zakharka—have little, if anything, to do with the BPR itself and cannot possibly cast a pall over it, Marzalyuk argued (BelorusskyPartizan, March 15).

Nevertheless, passions fly high on social media and in certain Belarusian periodicals. On the one hand, the idea to celebrate the BPR’s centennial is being repudiated by the Communists (, March 16) and by the intellectual heirs of West Rusism, a school of thought recognizing Belarusian specificity only within the confines of the Russian world (Politring, March 12). On the other hand, the radical opposition continues to claim that any concession from the “regime” must be a trap (see EDM, March 7). It appears increasingly clear, however, that public expressions of skepticism and hostility to the celebration of the BPR are shortsighted, even as vehicles for self-promotion.

As Alexander Baunov of the Moscow Carnegie Center showed in his perceptive piece (, March 15), in Russia any opposition tends to disavow and reject the political regime it competes with altogether. No sense of shared legitimacy (solidarnaya legitimnost) exists between the government and the opposition. At the same time, in the eyes of most people, the powers that be are associated with control over the state territory and with life support systems like heating, communication, transportation, etc.; so while many express their dissatisfaction with those, nobody wants their destruction and immersion into chaos. In that regard, Belarus is much like Russia, only more at odds with itself. At least in Russia, the mutual hostility of political opponents does not trigger excommunications from Russianness, unless of course a certain political actor has alien (e.g., Jewish) roots seen as a badge of disloyalty. In contrast, in Belarus, political debates among ethnic Belarusians invariably lead to or even begin with expressing strong doubts about the political opponent being genuinely Belarusian, not a Russian satrap or a sellout to the West.

In that sense, the significance of the aforementioned events for Belarusian nation-building and, potentially, for democratization of Belarus is impossible to overestimate. Democratization can only occur on the basis of shared national legitimacy and never on the basis of mutually assured destruction and/or respective intent. Nothing confirms this idea more persuasively than a snarky article by Eurasia Daily, one of several Russian media outlets seemingly dedicated to unmasking Belarusian disloyalty to Russia. “ ‘Belarusization’ Has Consolidated the Belarusian Powers That Be and the Opposition,” reads the title of the article in question (EADaily, March 15). It expresses concern about national symbols like the white-red-white flag and a national emblem, outlawed in 1995, abundantly displayed at BPR-related events. It also discerns a contradiction between Alena Anisim’s statement that debating the BPR is more appropriate in scientific journals than on the public square, and the fact that three Belarusian authors of Regnum spent a year behind bars (see EDM, February 5) allegedly for following the same suggestion.

Like Marzalyuk, Anisim is a member of parliament; she also chairs the Belarusian Language Society, whose goal is to Belarusianize the country language-wise. On that front, however, there is little to celebrate. According to the just-published survey of 1,000 Belarusians aged 17–21, devoted to their secondary school perceptions, out of 25 subjects, Belarusian Language is considered of least interest to these students; and Belarusian Literature is 23rd. The list is topped by Informatics, followed by Physical Culture, Health Care, Russian Literature and a Foreign Language, which is usually English; Russian is never “foreign” in Belarus (Naviny, Belsat, March 14). Considering that, by now, rural folks who used to speak Belarusian naturally have almost died out, this situation does not bode well for the prospects of the first official language of Belarus.

The reality, however, may not be quite so grim. “One hundred years ago, the supporters of the absolutely new project ‘Belarus’ appeared literally from nowhere,” writes Dzmitry Gurnevich from the Belarusian Service of Radio Liberty. “But once favorable conditions came along, they gathered for the First All-Belarusian Congress…” [Likewise], when favorable conditions appeared in the early 1990s, “thousands began to generate the new way of thinking; it was a snowball effect… Wonders began to occur among people that used to be overwhelmed by fear and living on land burned out by Communists. […] Belarusians do not need to be coerced into being Belarusians. Rather, one should not stay in their way,” writes Gurnevich (, March 15).

Whether or not such optimism is justified regarding language, other aspects of Belarusian nation-building are indisputably gaining ground.