Belarusians Step Out From Under Russia's Shadow

Why you should care

Because this authoritarian government has long frowned upon expressions of national identity — until now.

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The concession took observers by surprise: Not only did the Belarusian government approve the celebration of Freedom Day on March 25, cherished by a small number of nationally conscious citizens, it would also provide the equipment for a concert in downtown Minsk, the capital.

Long averse to outward displays of national pride, which have been associated with the political opposition, President Alexander Lukashenko was offering a compromise by approving the first-ever public celebration of the holiday. It marks the birth of the Belarusian People’s Republic, a short-lived state proclaimed during World War I — and the closest Belarus has ever been to an independent country before 1991.

When March 25 came, the authorities honored their pledge, but arrested dozens of demonstrators who staged an unsanctioned march. The two developments offered a telling portrait of Belarus today: Ever wary of dissent, Lukashenko’s authoritarian government is nevertheless experimenting with expressions of national identity in ways it never has before.

There are more and more topics that are no longer taboo.

David Marples, historian

For more than two decades since he came to power, Lukashenko built a rigid regime that sought legitimacy in the country’s shared identity with Russia, its erstwhile ruler. Expressions of Belarusian nationalism, as well as the language itself, became a calling card of the marginalized opposition, which Lukashenko considered his personal enemy. But the unrelenting crises that have engulfed Ukraine — a fellow former Soviet republic — over the past four years, with Russia at their center, have also sparked a subtle yet definite shift in Belarus.

Now, whether in the promotion of certain symbols or the tacit acknowledgment of certain parts of history, it’s clear “there are more and more topics that are no longer taboo,” says David Marples, a leading Belarus scholar and historian at the University of Alberta. Meanwhile, demand from society for a more distinct national identity appears to be growing. The question, however, is how far the government will go in fostering such sentiments.

Unlike neighboring Russia and Ukraine, which enjoy richer national traditions formed by a larger cultural elite over past centuries, Belarus lacks a well-defined identity. The country’s current narrative was forged during the 20th century, when it became heavily Russified as a member of the Soviet Union but also benefited from widespread industrialization, which laid the foundation for a modern state and economy. “Lots of people have this connection in their minds between the Soviet period and Belarusian development,” says Elena Gapova, a sociology professor at Western Michigan University.

After Belarus became independent in the early 1990s, breaking away from a collapsing Soviet Union, the country’s then leadership attempted to promote a unique identity rooted in recent history, adopting the flag and coat of arms of the Belarusian People’s Republic. But when Lukashenko rose to power in 1994, he reversed course and returned Soviet-era symbols.

Then came the crisis in Ukraine. After a street revolution in Kiev ousted the pro-Russian president in 2014, the Kremlin deployed powerful propaganda to spark discontent among Russian speakers in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. That resulted in the annexation of the Black Sea peninsula, as well as the outbreak of a bloody war that still hasn’t ended — two scenarios Lukashenko desperately wanted to avoid in his own country. He began talking tough with Russia and asserted Belarusian sovereignty by refusing to host a Russian military base and making overtures to the West. To minimize the threat at home, says Yuri Drakakhrust, a journalist who covers Belarus for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, his solution was to “de-Russify Belarusians in a way that they won’t notice.”

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A woman holds the red and white flag of the 1918 Belarusian People’s Republic that has become an opposition symbol, as she takes part in a rally in Minsk on March 25, 2018.

Source SERGEI GAPON/Getty

What followed was a subtle campaign to promote a civic identity decoupled from Russia in order to emphasize the country’s independence. Shortly after the war in eastern Ukraine broke out, Lukashenko delivered a major speech in Belarusian, and since then, he has publicly called for boosting language lessons in schools — both steps nearly unthinkable only a few years ago. Other gestures have ranged from small — such as ditching a symbolic ribbon used by Russia to commemorate World War II — to bureaucratic, such as appointing officials who appear to be more patriotic.

Also significant has been the regime’s treatment of history, which is often politicized in ex-Soviet countries. Besides allowing the Freedom Day celebration, authorities also approved the installation of a memorial in Minsk commemorating two founders of the Belarusian People’s Republic, and have lent platforms to academics who cast the crypto-state in a positive light as a precursor to Soviet Belarus. Taken together, the journalist Drakakhrust adds, the government’s logic is simple: If Belarusians are being slowly weaned off their cultural dependence on Russia, something else needs to take its place. “And that’s exactly what Lukashenko is trying to explain to his people by pursuing this form of ‘soft Belarusianization,’” he says.

Still, none of this means Belarus is on the verge of full-scale democratization. Elections are still rigged, and opposition activists are routinely harassed. Lukashenko remains in control of this state-sanctioned cultural rebirth, and he’s in no hurry to speed it up. Such a move could invite unpredictable consequences.

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People attend an event marking the 100th anniversary of the proclamation of the Belarusian People’s Republic outside the National Academic Bolshoi Opera and Ballet Theatre in Minsk.

Source Viktor Drachev/Getty

But others argue there’s also a more organic process at work — one that’s almost inevitable for nations finding themselves after a long period of colonial rule. For example, while fewer people today speak Belarusian comfortably than a generation ago, says Andrej Dynko, chief editor of Nasha Niva, a respected news site, a growing number of them believe it’s still an important part of Belarusian heritage. He adds that demand for traditional Belarusian embroidery and other nationally themed apparel has also grown. “More people consider themselves above all else as ‘Belarusians,’ not ‘Soviet’ or ‘Russian’ people,” Dynko says.

That’s on top of collective economic achievements that spark pride, such as a homegrown IT sector that has cemented Belarus — alongside Ukraine — as something of a regional tech hub. “It may be changing in spite of Lukashenko in some ways,” says Marples.

If that’s the case, then keep your eye on Belarus. Winds of change, once they start blowing, aren’t easy to control. With its modern history, Belarus knows that well.

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