The 60th anniversary of Victory Day, commemorated on May 9, brought about two controversial and quite unexpected events for Belarus. The first was Belarus President Alexander Lukashenka’s failure to appear at the grand celebrations in Moscow as anticipated. The second was the renaming of the two principal streets in the city of Minsk, without any debate and without the requisite prior permission from the Minsk city council.
That Lukashenka would appear at the parade in Moscow seemed a foregone conclusion. He had attended the 50th anniversary parade in 1995. On April 22, Mikalai Cherhinets, head of the permanent commission of the Council of the Republic on foreign affairs and national security, noted the possibility that Lukashenka might even meet U.S. president George W. Bush while he was in Moscow. One week later, Uladzimir Hryhoryeu, Minsk’s ambassador to Russia, told a press conference, “Lukashenka will definitely return to Moscow” after leading the Victory Parade in Minsk (Narodnaya volya, May 12).
Subsequently, the independent media in Moscow and Minsk have debated the reasons for his absence. The official reason provided was that Lukashenka decided to celebrate Victory Day with his own people. It is not a very satisfactory explanation, particularly when his Ukrainian counterpart, Viktor Yushchenko, found time to attend celebrations in both Moscow and Kyiv. One view is that the Americans requested that he not be present, as President Bush was unwilling to share a podium with “the dictator Lukashenka” (Moskovsky komsomolets, May 10).
The website of Charter 97 maintains that Lukashenka was “expelled from Moscow,” citing a report from the Financial Times Deutschland newspaper that the Kremlin asked the Belarusian president to leave Moscow in order that President Bush should not be forced to stand alongside the man he had publicly censured (Charter 97, May 11).
Having resolved or been obliged to spend the day in Minsk, Lukashenka caused an uproar when he made a decision to rename several streets in the capital, most notably those of the two main thoroughfares, Skaryna Avenue and Praspekt Masherava. They were renamed respectively as Independence Avenue and Avenue of the Victors, on the grounds that the new names would help commemorate the major events of the war and the present. The names Skaryna and Masherau were reassigned to other, less prominent streets in Minsk (Sovetskaya Belorussiya, May 10).
The immediate reaction in Minsk was one of shock. Members of the Minsk City Council denied any knowledge of the name changes, and former minister of agriculture Vasil Lyavonau stated that the president wanted to erase the name of Piotr Masherau from popular memory, destroy the national consciousness of this period, and impose his own image on the people (Narodnaya volya, May 12). The daughter of former party leader Masherau, Natalya Masherava said that the decision had caused her extreme pain and that, in her opinion, Skaryna and Masherau were national and sacred names for the country. Her father, she says, did not deserve to be treated in this way, to be removed from history and public memory (Narodnaya volya, May 14).
Anatol Lyabedzka, leader of the United Civic Party, has proposed that the citizens of Minsk should express their anger at the violation of the law, the outrageous assault on memory and history, as well as the unnecessary waste of money involved in the name changes by holding a referendum on July 3, the national holiday (Narodnaya volya, May 14 and 19). However, in a sober assessment of the situation, Mikhail Lazavik, secretary of the Central Election Commission, noted that a group of 50 people would need to collect signatures from at least 10% of the electorate of the capital (120,000 people) and that the process would take at least four months, assuming that all the signatures were verified (Narodnaya volya, May 18).
Lukashenka’s decree represents a grand gesture gone badly wrong. Communists have protested angrily at the assault on a national hero (Masherau), and the Lenin Young Communist League has organized a series of events across the country to commemorate the achievements of Masherau, including a conference, sports activities, and an essay writing contest among Belarusian students (Charter 97, May 20). However, the decision to remove the name of Frantsishak Skaryna is arguably more serious. It shows a shocking disregard for national history. Skaryna was a Renaissance scholar who translated and published the Bible into Old Belarusian, and he is one of the few figures from the Belarusian past to survive both Soviet and post-Soviet rewriting of national history.
The events of recent weeks have placed unprecedented pressure on the Belarusian president and, if he was indeed asked to leave Moscow, it signifies the further deterioration of relations with Belarus’ closest ally and neighbor. Lukashenka clearly thought to deflect attention from his Moscow departure by equating his own term as president with the wartime victory. However, by removing the names of Skaryna and Masherau from the center of Minsk, he undermined his own strategy by offending those who revere past and recent national heroes of Belarus.
These are difficult days for Belarus’ president and this latest empty gesture of making sudden symbolic name changes smacks of desperation.