Nationalist Currents in Belarus
By Vasily Andreev
Nationalism in Belarus, in comparison with the other Slavic republics in the CIS, Russia and Ukraine, is not well-developed. The reasons for this are to be found both in the history of the Belarusan people in this century and in the policies of Belarus’s leaders — Stanislav Shushkevich and Aleksandr Lukashenko — after 1991.
For almost their entire history, the Belarusan people have not had their own state. Attempts to create one were not supported by a majority of Belarusans. This was so both during the Revolution and the Civil War, and also during the Second World War. There were 100,000 anti-Communist partisans in Belarus during the last war. In spite of this, they hardly gave any support to R. Ostrovski’s self-proclaimed "Belarusan Rada," and, moreover, did not have a clearly-defined political and economic program. They simply strove to expel both the Germans and the pro-Communist partisans from their own regions. Western Belarus was the only one of the USSR’s regions acquired in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact where there was no anti-Soviet partisan movement after the war.
The second main reason why the Belarusan nationalist movement is not particularly well-developed is the policy of forced Russification that was practiced by the Tsarist government and by the Soviet government. Tsarism did not consider Belarusans to be a separate ethnic group; they were seen as Russians, who had lived for a long time under Catholic Poland and Lithuania. Consequently, the Belarusan language was seen as a dialect of Russian. The Soviet government, although it recognized Belarusans as an ethnic group, did not renounce the policy of Russification.
The results of this policy did not take long to appear. By the middle of the 1970s, virtually all power in the republic was concentrated in the hands of non-Belarusans (mostly Russians), and all government record keeping was done in Russian. Culture in Belarus became almost completely Russian in terms of language: in universities, they virtually stopped training teachers of the Belarusan language; there were virtually no Belarusan national schools left, and of the republic’s fifteen theaters, only three put on plays in Belarusan; there were no Belarusan-language films at all. (1)
According to the 1979 USSR Census, 25 percent of the residents of Belarus consider Russian to be their native language. This is an unusually high figure for the national republics of the former Soviet Union. For example, the number of Ukrainians who consider Russian to be their native language hovers around 12 percent, and almost no natives of the Caucasus or Central Asia do so.
The republic’s large cities, in several of which, the number of non-Belarusans actually exceeds the number of Belarusans, were subjected to the most Russification, and a majority of the population there does not know the Belarusan language at all.
Enforced Russification and the loss of national consciousness linked with it also led to the fact that in Soviet times, there was no nationalist or patriotic dissident "underground" or powerful national movement in emigration, such as existed in almost all the former USSR’s large ethnic groups, including the Russians themselves.
Democrats versus Derzhavniki
Under these circumstances, most of the nationalist organizations in Belarus arose on the basis of the republic’s democratic movements, created during the days of Gorbachev’s perestroika. This pertains, above all, to the Belarusan Popular Front [BNF], led by Zenon Poznyak, the Belarusan National-Democratic party, The Belarusan-Social Democratic Gromada, and several other organizations. (2) Subsequently, all these organizations developed a clear nationalist bent, and strove, above all, to defend the country’s sovereignty and the status of Belarusan as the national language.
The "nationalization" of Belarus’ democratic movement was also not unrelated to the emergence of great-power [derzhavnye] "patriotic" parties which opposed the disintegration of the USSR, and after December 1991, advocated its restoration in various forms. Some of these parties and organizations were pro-Communist, and some, on the contrary, were anti-Communist and imperial in nature. But all of them, in essence, were movements of an authoritarian type, and opponents of a liberal market economy and democratic freedoms.
Therefore, many Belarusan democrats gradually began to associate the fight against the totalitarian threat, and the fight for human and democratic values with activity directed towards preserving and reinforcing Belarusan sovereignty.
The largest of Belarus’ national-democratic movements is, as was mentioned above, the Belarusan Popular Front (its full name is the Belarusan Popular Front "Revival"). The Front’s organizational committee was created on October 19, 1988. The organizing committee was headed by well-known democratic commentator Vasily Yakovenko. In May 1989, Zenon Poznyak, who, at the time, was a research fellow of the Institute of History at the Belarusan Academy of Sciences, became chairman of the organizing committee. Poznyak has led the BNF ever since.
The Front’s main goals, which have remained fundamentally unchanged to this day, are: the national revival of the Belarusan people, strengthening the republic’s national sovereignty, and making Belarusan the country’s single official language. The BNF is a vehemently anti-Communist organization. In its documents, the CPSU, and afterwards, the Communist Party of Belarus, are always characterized as "fascist" organizations. For its principled anticommunism, the Front’s leaders were constantly subjected to persecution by the authorities.
Even before the BNF’s founding congress, it helped elect Stanislav Shushkevich, Yuri Voronezhtsev, and other democrats as people’s deputies of the USSR. In 1990, in the elections to the Supreme Soviet of Belarus, the BNF created the "Democratic Bloc," which served as the main alternative to the Communist Party. In spite of the overwhelming support which it received from the people (in just one year of existence, tens of thousands of people joined the BNF), it lost the elections. In 1990, the BNF had a faction of 36 deputies out of 360 in the republic’s Supreme Soviet. True, other deputies sympathized with the Front, and were elected with its support. But throughout its existence, the Belarusan Popular Front played the role of an opposition party, first, to the Communists, then, to Stanislav Shushkevich, and now, to Aleksandr Lukashenko.
On June 30-July 1, 1990, the BNF held a conference, called "Nezalezhnaya Belarus" [Independent Belarus]. The conference participants rejected any cooperation with the so-called "healthy democratic forces" in the CPSU and called on these Communists to leave the party. At the same time, individual membership in the Front was introduced.
On June 19, 1991, the BNF was registered by the Ministry of Justice of Belarus.
In 1993, the BNF leadership discussed the question of converting the Front into a political party.
On May 29-30, 1993, the third congress of the BNF was held in the Janka Kupala Theater in Minsk, at which a new program was adopted. At the same time, a congress of the BNF Party was held, a reserve structure, in case the BNF as a "movement" was not permitted to participate in the elections.
The BNF’s political priorities, as is made clear in its program, are the country’s independence, democracy, and anti-communism, which is now understood to mean the fight against "remnants of the totalitarian system." The Front advocates the building of a market economy, but with the preservation of state control and elements of planning. Human rights must be observed, but only insofar as they do not conflict with the rights of the nation. The Belarusan National Front advocates a parliamentary republic and was against establishing the post of president.
In foreign policy, the BNF is rather clearly anti-Russian and pro-Western in orientation. Back in 1993, the Front’s leaders came forward with the idea of creating a Black Sea-Baltic alliance, which would be composed of the Baltic states, Ukraine, Belarus, and Poland.
The BNF also opposes Belarus’ membership in the CIS and its collective security treaty. The Front was also absolutely opposed to the signing and ratification of the treaty to create the Community of Sovereign States (the SSR, or the Community of Russia and Belarus). After the BNF led mass protest actions against this treaty, it was subjected to serious repression by the government.
The confrontation between the BNF leaders and Aleksandr Lukashenko began in 1994, when, as was mentioned earlier, Zenon Poznyak and his supporters opposed the establishment of the presidency, and, consequently, Lukashenko’s candidacy for the post. The first result of this confrontation was the expulsion of BNF members and supporters from all government institutions. Without having its representatives in government organs, the Front was forced to turn to active measures, i.e., to mass street protest actions against Lukashenko’s policies. The largest of these actions were the mass meetings and demonstrations in Minsk on March 24 and April 2, each of which was attended by approximately 50,000 people.
In the middle of April, the Belarusan authorities decided to put Zenon Poznyak on trial for organizing mass disorders. The latter was forced to leave Belarus, and went in turn to Ukraine, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, where he tried to talk the local political leaders into speeding up Belarus’ acceptance into the Council of Europe, which, in Poznyak’s opinion, would "make up for" the negative consequences of Lukashenko’s rule.
On April 26th of this year, on the tenth anniversary of the Chernobyl accident, the Belarusan Popular Front organized a procession called "The Chernobyl Road–96." Originally conceived as an action in memory of the tragedy’s victims, the demonstration became a big political show, with the participation of not only the BNF’s supporters, but of nationalist activists, who had arrived from neighboring Ukraine. As a result, the "Chernobyl Road" ended in a riot. After that, many BNF leaders were arrested. Poznyak himself, who was also faced with imprisonment, received asylum in Ukraine.
Since then, the BNF has continued to organize protest actions against Lukashenko’s activities, such as picketing the latter’s residence. In connection with the most recent events in Belarus, the Front has limited itself to engaging in some street demonstrations. It can do virtually nothing else, since most of its leaders are either under arrest or outside of Belarus, and most of the BNF’s activists and supporters have been kicked out of all government institutions. The BNF is almost completely unrepresented in the lower house of parliament in its new composition, which is totally dominated by the president’s supporters.
At the present time, the BNF’s membership does not exceed 10,000, although, under today’s conditions, many try not to "advertise" their membership in a "disgraced" organization.
The National-Democratic Party of Belarus (NDPB) was formed in June 1990 by members of the BNF’s radical wing. The party’s main goal, as stated at its founding conference, is the revival of the Belarusan state, language, and culture. Only people who consider themselves to be Belarusans and speak Belarusan can become members of the party.
The Belarusan Social-Democratic Gromada (BSDG) was formed in December 1990 in Minsk, where a group of participants in the Forum of the Belarusan Intelligentsia announced that they would revive Belarusan social-democracy. In its program, adopted at its second congress in December 1992, the party proclaims its loyalty to the ideals of "classical" Western-style social-democracy. The BSDG speaks out in defense of the interests of workers, and against the excesses of employers, especially those of the directors of large industrial enterprises, who have been in their posts since Communist times. The party intends to apply for entry into the Socialist International.
In March 1991, a "servicemen’s section" of the BSDG was created, which later developed into the Belarusan Servicemen’s Organization [BOV], the republic’s largest "military" national-patriotic organization. The radicalism of the BOV, which was primarily made up of reserve officers, led to a conflict between the organization’s leadership and the high command of the Belarusan armed forces whom they accused of neglecting the national interests and acting on behalf of foreign countries.
As a result, on the initiative of the Belarusan Ministry of Defense, the Supreme Soviet passed an amendment to the law "On the Status of Servicemen," stating that it is forbidden for servicemen to become involved in political activity. After this, almost all the officers quit the BOV. Nikolai Statkevich the group’s leader was discharged from the armed forces last May. The BOV’s leadership opposed Belarus’ getting closer to the Russian Federation, and in fact, opposes any integration within the CIS. Statkevich condemned the signing of the CIS collective security treaty and the Russo-Belarusan agreement on the creation of the Community of Sovereign States.
The BOV ceased to exist as a legal entity in February 1994, when it was banned by a court decision because its charter was "not in harmony with existing legislation." After that, many BOV activists moved over to the BNF, and formed an unofficial detachment of bodyguards which guarded the BNF’s street demonstrations. At the present time, the BOV has ceased to exist as an independent political structure.
Now we must stop for a bit to discuss the imperial or great-power nationalist organizations. As noted above, these organizations advocate a union with Russia and are sometimes directly oriented towards Moscow. The largest organization of this type is the Slavic Union "Belaya Rus’." Formed in the summer of 1992, the Union calls for the union of all of the CIS’ Slavic republics into a single state. N. Sergeev is the organization’s chairman.
In addition to calling for the creation of a union of Slavic states on the basis of the republics of the former USSR, "Belaya Rus’" is also calling for Slavic solidarity in a broader sense. In May 1993, a Belarusan Committee of Solidarity with the Peoples of Serbia and Montenegro was created to appeal for aid to the Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia in their struggle for national independence and "national dignity." The members of the Union have picketed the embassies of the US, Great Britain, Germany, and Russia in Minsk on several occasions.
Another large imperially-oriented organization is the Belarusan People’s Movement (NDB), which was created in 1992. It is a coalition of "Belaya Rus’," Communist and pro-Communist organizations. The NDB called for the creation of a Russo-Belarusan confederation back in 1993. Later, it supported all of the Belarusan leadership’s actions on bringing Belarus closer to Russia and the other CIS states. The organization’s leaders, S. Gaidukevich and M. Ilyin, support giving both Russian and Belarusan the status of official languages.
In the economic sphere, the NDB advocates returning to a social form of ownership, and ending privatization, restoring a planned economy, and freezing prices on food products and basic consumer goods. A broad and rather amorphous coalition of various parties and movements (about 20 in all), the NDB is unable to speak as a single political organization, although some of its collective members (above all, the Communists and the Agrarians) are quite popular among the population and are widely represented in the organs of government, above all, in the newly-elected National Assembly of Belarus.
The Belarusan nationalist organizations – as well as the imperial "great power patriots" – have played virtually no part in Lukashenko’s confrontation with parliament and his other political opponents. Not represented in any government structures and having no access to the mass media, and therefore deprived of any possibility of making their case, and finding themselves virtually banned (like the BNF or the BOV), they have no opportunity to take an active part in the political struggle going on in the country, which, on the whole, is a fight among those who are on the political "summit." Granted, they are able to stage demonstrations and other such public actions, but these are quickly squelched by the authorities. Moreover, most of the country’s population has remained indifferent to the political battles at the highest echelons of the government, and has not reacted to the appeals of the opposition, including that of the nationalists.
In the near future, one can hardly expect a swift development of the nationalist movement in Belarus. Lukashenko’s rule is becoming more and more authoritarian. The Belarusan president maintains strict control over the mass media and the situation in the country as a whole, and, as practice shows, will not shrink from using force in the fight against his enemies. This policy will soon lead to the withering away of nationalism as an opposition tendency. A consistent development of the Belarusan national movement will only resume after power changes hands in Minsk.
1. "Pis’ma Gorbachevu," London, 1987, pp. 2-3.
2. A Gromada is a rural commune or assembly in Belarus or Ukraine.
Translated by Mark Eckert