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Language, nationalism, and populism in Belarus

By Alexandra Goujon
© Copyright Carfax Publishing Company, December 1999

Political leaders often use language as an instrument to establish their legitimacy. From the end of the 1980s, the Belarusian language became the symbol of Belarusian independence; however, it has never been the language of power.1 The language law of Belarus, which was adopted in 1990 and made Belarusian the official language of the state, appears to have been more a symbolic action for a new appropriation of power than the statement of a real political will. During perestroika political elites, mostly Russophones, preferred to rely on the language situation inherited from the Soviet system, in which the majority spoke Russian, rather than question a policy that could guarantee their popularity. When Alyaksander Lukashenka came to power in 1994, the gradual process of Belarusian language development was slowly reversed in order to integrate language policy into the continuity of Soviet practice. The promotion of the Russian language and the increase of discrimination against Belarusian have taken place along with the establishment of an authoritarian regime, which is based on press censorship, arrests of political opponents, and the monopolization of social, political, economic, and cultural activities.2 Faced with a direct threat to its existence, the Belarusian language became, as was the case during the Soviet period, a language of opposition and of counter-power.3 Belarusian leaders have tried to keep the Belarusian language and the discourses related to it out of power. The opposition, however, uses Belarusian as a political weapon against the regime, seeking to transform Belarusian into a future language of power. Considering the language as a crucial political issue, language policy is a way to manage and control not only the use of language, but also the discourse and the persons who are using it. In that context, language implies a speech, and the French distinction between langue and language is interesting in this respect. Language politics implies social and political representations of language and speech, which can be studied, analyzing the influence of political actors on these representations and the way in which they deal with the language problem.

Nationalism and populism correspond to two types of legitimization relevant to the perception of language issues in Belarus. As an instrument of nation and state building, political actors often consider language to be the unique and absolute symbol of a nation, Nevertheless, none of them agrees on the meaning of the terms "nation" and "nationalism." Assuming that nationalism is "a political principle which asserts that political unity and national unity should be congruent,"4 the significance and the comprehension of "national unity" differ according to political actors and their ideologies. For Belarusian nationalists, language represents, both symbolically and ethnically, the nation. "National unity" is then intrinsically linked to language.5 According to President Lukashenka, the concept of "national unity" refers to the notion of "people" [narod] in the sense of a community in which national differentiation is of little importance.6 His language policy is based on the language of people and the "popular" language. To justify such policies, Lukashenka appeals to the sovereignty of people using, among other things, referendums and his personal charisma. This symbiosis between people and president involves a populist type of legitimacy, even a national populism.7

The Belarusian Language: A Symbol of Cultural Existence and Political Opposition to Soviet Politics

At the end of 1980s, the Belarusian language became the major means of communication for some Belarusian intellectuals, who expressed their political, social, and cultural claims in favor of Gorbachev's reforms. To speak Belarusian represented in itself a testimony of national culture. By establishing it as the spoken language, intellectuals wanted to promote language rights and to denounce the policy of discrimination toward Belarusian, and particularly the decline of its teaching. The first collective action of Belarusian intellectuals consisted of two protest letters to Gorbachev. One condemned the secondary use of Belarusian in schools and in daily life, and the other proposed measures to improve the status of the Belarusian language in education and administration.8 These letters did not challenge the ideological bases of the Soviet regime but, on the contrary, leaned on them (and principally on Lenin's writings) to demonstrate the misguided practices that had developed in language issues. Leaders of national movements, created in the late 1980s, cited both Lenin's writings and the 1920s' language politics of Belarusianization to legitimize their discourses and actions.

Although perestroika saw the encouragement of free speech, the intellectuals' language claims seemed legitimate because of their significant role in the implementation and the realization of language policy. The processes of creating a uniform language, in which intellectuals participated, are important factors in nation and state building.9 Since the end of the nineteenth century, language had been used by intellectuals to assert their right to exist, although simultaneously the Russian Empire took measures to limit the use of the Belarusian language and to condemn its supporters and the political and ideological content of their speeches.10 In the Belarusian national revival movements, the role played by grammarians, philologists, historians, and producers was particularly important in a period when national language, as a speech instrument and matter, served to promote the idea of political separatism. The slogan of "the right of nations to self-determination" together with the ideals of socialism prompted some intellectuals to become involved in a struggle for national autonomy and independence. In this way, the politician and grammarian of the 1920s, Branislau Tarashkevich, the author of the first modem Belarusian grammar, became the symbol of the struggle over language politics and an example for intellectuals at the end of 1980s.11 Generally, Belarusian intellectuals perceive the beginning of the 1920s as an idyllic period because of the official language policy, dating from February 1921, which provided equal rights for the Belarusian, Russian, Yiddish, and Polish languages. The Belarusianization process that followed this decision appeared as the consecration of the Belarusian language but also of the Belarusians themselves. While official projects concerning Belarusian academization were in progress, political repression of "nationalists," which began at the end of the 1920s, was carried out, together with the implementation of a decree on the Belarusian language (the reform of 1933), which transformed Belarusian into an academic but Sovietized language. At the same time, Belarusian was marginalized compared to Russian, which was promoted until the end of the Soviet Union.

In Soviet Belarus, language policy fitted into the Soviet nationalities policy, which revealed the complex interaction between different forms of identity and language affiliation.12 The notion of Belarusian identity, symbol of the "nationality" (nacyjanalnasc), appeared as secondary in relation to the first identity affiliation, "Soviet citizenship" (savieckaje hramadzianstva), which symbolized membership of the "Soviet people" (saviecki narod).13 Belarusian was treated as a second-rank language in comparison to Russian, which was exalted as the language of "interethnic communication" and the language that expressed most accurately the ideals of communism.14 Initiated in the 1930s, the promotion of the Russian language was heightened during the Brezhnev period, when propaganda was directed at intellectuals and population to show "love for the Russian language."15 The concept of a "second mother tongue" is significant in this respect and attests to the use of practical and rhetorical measures by the Soviet authorities to transform the forms of identity and language allegiance to the benefit of the Soviet ideal.

Even if Soviet propaganda produced some real results in language matters, leading to the depreciation of national languages, intellectuals still discussed the fate of Belarusian at informal and even official levels. Thus, before perestroika, some spokespersons condemned Soviet language policy and supported non-Russian languages. This was the case with some members of the Belarusian Writers' Union, such as Vasil Bykau, whose world-renowned writings and speeches promoted Belarusian literature.16 Other intellectuals such as A. Kauka and A. Bembel' expressed their opinions more overtly on Belarusian language issues.17 Disseminated outside Belarus, their texts emphasized the link between language and individual or collective belonging.18 The association between language and nationality, they point out, is reminiscent of Soviet nationalities policy. For A. Kauka and A. Bembel', the "extinction" of the Belarusian language leads to the suppression of the Belarusian people. In addition to the outlets of publication it offers to intellectuals, the Belarusian diaspora promotes Belarusian in its newspapers and public speeches. The use of Belarusian was a sign of recognition inside Belarusian communities in United States, Britain, Australia, or Germany that suggested support for the Belarusian Popular Republic.19 The moral and, later, financial support of the diaspora for Belarusian intellectuals who were defining themselves as supporters of the national language is particularly important in understanding the persistent attention to language as a symbol of the nation.20

The intellectuals' letters at the end of 1980s were the first steps toward collective action in favor of cultural and political requests. The rallying of intellectuals around Belarusian language issues led to the formation of organized mobilization structures like Martyrolog Belarussii (the historic-civilization society to commemorate the victims of Stalinism) and the Belarusian Popular Front, in November 1988.21 The Popular Front, whose activities in 1988-1989 were focused on the exposure of the Kurapaty mass grave and the Charnobyl disaster, has long emphasized Belarusian language issues. Since 1989, the Popular Front, which condemns discrimination against the Belarusian language, has devoted a chapter of its program to it. It mentions the need to promote Belarusian to the status of state language and to implement measures for the development of the national language in the country. Also, some Popular Front members were involved in informal organizations promoting Belarusian for several years. The Society of Belarusian Schools, created in 1983 by members of youth groups, had the aim to encourage education in Belarusian by collecting signatures in favor of the implementation of Belarusian courses.

Language claims are displayed inside unofficial organizations like the Popular Front, which was forced to hold its founding congress in Lithuania due to the hostile attitude of the Belarusian authorities, whose goals were to control and limit the demands for promotion of the Belarusian language. The creation of the Belarusian Language Society in June 1989 demonstrated the desire of Belarusian leaders to maintain control over language issues.22 The founders of this Society were the Writers' Union, the Ministry of Culture and Education, and other official organizations. The aims of the Society were: "the use of Belarusian language in all spheres of social life in the BSSR, the all-round development of the [Belarusian] language, preservation of its purity and originality, retention and development of national culture and folk traditions, formation of national consciousness, and the elimination of national nihilism."23 The concern with language issues and the limited nature of the resolutions, together with the creation of the Belarusian Language Society, demonstrate the Belarusian authorities' plans to deal with the problem within official frameworks and organizations.24 In 1988, a commission on Belarusian language was created in the Belarusian Cultural Fund, which bad itself been founded in the previous year.25 At the same time, a rubric devoted to Belarusian was launched in the Writers' Union newspaper, Litaratura i Mastatstva. The Language Law was the result of this political strategy, which consisted of finding some compromise solutions to satisfy the demands of the political opposition.26

At the end of 1989, a special commission was set up by the Belarusian Supreme Soviet in order to develop a Language Law. This law, which was adopted in January 1990, was a compromise in itself because, while promoting Belarusian to the status of official language, it cited the right of the populace to freely use Russian as the language of communication between nationalities.27 The Language Law was essentially a compromise solution between two types of demands - the nationalist movement's desire to promote national culture, and the leadership's insistence on a continuation of Soviet national policy.28 The law also shows that in 1989-1990, Soviet and Belarusian leaders believed that consent on cultural issues could appease the political demands of the opposition. The Popular Front's members considered this law both as the incomplete realization of their requests and as a faqade behind which Belarusian authorities tried to protect themselves in order to maintain their political authority and continue Soviet practices in this field. In September 1990, a program for the development of the Belarusian language and other national languages of the BSSR over the next ten years was approved.29 The Language Law and this program were increasingly questioned after the election of Lukashenka as president of Belarus in 1994.

Bilingualism and Populism: Language Politics and Political Discourse

Although the program of the development of the Belarusian language was in progress in 1993, some prominent officials advocated the return of bilingualism and the status of state language for Russian.30 Adopted in 1994, the Constitution confirms, in Article 17, in accordance with the 1990 law that "the state language is Belarusian.31 But the election of Lukashenka created important changes in language politics and the political use of languages. The electoral promises of Lukashenka, who almost exclusively speaks Russian, were to promote integration with Russia and to satisfy the Russophones of Belarus, who represent a large majority of the people.32 This policy was developed rapidly after the referendum in May 1995, in which one question concerned the language: "Do you agree to give the Russian language an equal status with the Belarusian one?" to which 83.1% of voters answered in the affirmative. This measure would be an electoral promise of the president, who wished to appeal to the concerns of a large part of the population that was dissatisfied with previous language policy.33 At the end of 1994, a group of citizens had appealed to the Central Electoral Commission for a referendum concerning the granting of state status to the Russian language.34 Approved in 1996 during a new referendum, the revised version of the Constitution officially attributes the status of state languages to Belarusian and Russian.35

The 1995 referendum, which led to official bilingualism in Belarus, revealed the populist style of Lukashenka's politics, which are based on his conception of democracy as the "power of the people."36 Along with representative democracy, Lukashenka insists on the necessity of developing some forms of "direct democracy," such as the referendum, which "allows citizens to express directly their wishes, in solving major social life problems."37 These referendums enable the political conceptions, and maintaining the illusion of the decisive role of the people in political and social choices.38 Terms such as "people" or "popular" are used excessively to give citizens the impression that they are actively participating in social, economic, and political life, while the president takes under control all spheres of social activity. "To give the choice to the people" is also one of his favorite comments. Lukashenka regularly states proudly that he was elected by "the people," with the support of about 80% of voters. He defines himself as a "popular president" in the sense of someone who is "popular," but also "someone who comes from the people." This direct relationship between the head of the state and "his" people, which is based on a rejection of mediators and particularly political parties, comes within the framework of a populist type of legitimacy.39 The 1995 referendum, which appealed to the sovereignty of the people and provided citizens with an illusionary choice, contributed to this type of legitimacy: to rely on the decision of the people while its conditions, success, and realization are dependent on the political authority. During the referendum, all the conditions were arranged to incite citizens to answer positively to the question of equal status between the Russian and Belarusian languages. In addition to the propaganda against the supporters of Belarusian language, the way in which the question was formulated and the persistence of Soviet patterns of representation in the language area militated toward a positive (yes) vote.

To justify a language policy based on bilingualism, the Belarusian authorities claimed that the previous policy was designed to discredit Belarusian people. The 1990 Language Law was presented as being imposed from the top largely by Popular Front members, without any consideration of the "opinion of the people."40 The program linked to the realization of law was denounced because of its constraints, i.e. the fact that it forced people to speak Belarusian.41 A connection between the Popular Front, violence, and the promotion of the Belarusian language was established under the patronage of Lukashenka. Linked to the illusion of the Popular Front's access to power,42 this connection, symbolized by the statement be-en-efauskaja mova [the language of the Popular Front],43 promoted the identification of an internal enemy. Several days before the 1995 referendum, a documentary film was broadcast on television. This film made a parallel between the Popular Front, symbol of opposition to the president, and the supporters of the collaborationist government during the World War 11, using the pretext that they employed the same national symbols, spoke the same language, and both supported independence for Belarus.' In a visual and rhetorical way, Belarusian speakers were equated with internal enemies, and described as "fascists."45 Belarusian was presented as the language of a violent enemy, as was the 1990 policy favoring its development. Lukashenka opposed this policy, most notably through the use of the referendum, presented as one of democratic choice.

The notion of equality between the two languages in the referendum question referred, a priori, to equity in language policy and an equality of rights between the Belarusian speakers and the Russian speakers, and more generally, between Belarusians and Russians. Under these conditions, it seemed logical that the answer would be "yes" to the question "Do you agree to give the Russian language equal status with Belarusian?" Nevertheless, the Soviet experience proved how it was possible officially to recognize equal status between the languages while practically encouraging inequality by promoting Russian as the "language of the Soviet people."46 Otherwise, the question of equality between the two languages refers to the problem of bilingualism and freedom of choice in language matters in daily life and in education. Soviet Language policy based on bilingualism took great pride in promoting the freedom to choose one's language, even if this right was not respected in practice.47 In Belarus, state language policy directed the citizens' choices but, at the same time, provided the illustration of individual responsibility and involvement. Notions such as "equality" between languages or "freedom" to choose one's language are part of the populist conceptions of democracy and justice that Lukashenka developed.

Equal status between the Belarusian and Russian languages refers directly to the question of bilingualism, which constituted one of the bases of Soviet language policy. However, bilingualism was not, in practice, a symbol of equality, insofar as Russian was considered and presented as a superior language. Apart from its development at the academic and political levels, the Russian language was also a symbol of social promotion. In contrast, the "national" language was associated with private speaking and considered inseparable from its rural roots.48 In the collective imagination, Belarusian represented an archaic and rural language, which could not, intrinsically, be elevated to the rank of a language of "high culture."49 Only a few intellectuals disagreed, attempting to emphasize its literary and theatrical history and its capacity to be a language of "high culture." Lukashenka has on several occasions stressed the superiority of Russian," relying on Soviet propaganda, which depicted Russian as the language of modernization, culture, and civilization." Arguments used during the Soviet period referred to Russian as "the language of prestige and power" and made reference to the question of social roots." In Belarus, according to the authorities, the existence of a majority of Russophones objectively justified a policy that favored Russian. The authorities referred to the fact that the majority spoke Russian and to a common feeling in favor of this language, forgetting to mention that they were the direct consequence of Soviet language policy.

The amendments introduced in June 1998 to the Language Law of 1990 revealed the unequal practice of bilingualism in Belarus. After the 1995 referendum, which gave the Russian equal status with the Belarusian language, it was necessary to amend the law to introduce the Russian language in all articles that had previously been limited to Belarusian. The stipulations concerning use of the Russian language were added by two conjunctions: "and" and "or." The new version of Article 7 declares, for example, "Acts from the higher organs of State power and administration are adopted and published in Belarusian and (or) in Russian."53 This law does not protect the equality of language because it does not require the official documents to be published in both languages. The law presents political leaders with the choice to use, according to their inclination, one of the two languages. These amendments were also a way to legalize bilingualism and to limit the opposition's right to request official documents in Belarusian according to the 1990 law.

The use of the mixed language called trasianka, reveals how the Soviet policy of bilingualism failed and how this failure affected the language situation in Belarus. As a result of Soviet language policy, the trasianka (the lexical, grammatical, and syntactic mixture of different languages (Russian and Belarusian, Russian and Polish, Russian and Ukrainian) became an institutionalized practice. This mixture of languages demonstrate the perversion of the language system, which originated as a result of the insistence on equal command of languages. Beginning in 1988, Zianon Pazniak, head of the Popular Front, has denounced bilingualism, which he believed would result in a situation where "the largest portion of the Belarusian population speaks a Creolized (mixed) Russo-Belarusian 'pseudo-language,' called trasianka, which in a literal translation means 'a mixture between hay and straw.'"55 According to Pazniak, "the existence of pseudo-language stops the internal and spontaneous development of a culture because it impedes the national consciousness of an individual, his social, cultural, and spiritual 'I.'"56 However, the trasianka, employed mainly in rural regions, does not seem to pose a problem to the authorities, though it blurs the distinction between social groups on which Lukashenka bases his legitimacy when he makes the contrast between the "people" and intellectuals.56 Criticized by some of the latter as a hybrid system in which ultimately people lack facility in any language, the trasianka appears as a form of "popular language," used by some politicians to show their integration into society.

Language is directly linked and subordinated to political discourse. Lukashenka does not hesitate to use Belarusian on solemn occasions such as Republic Day, while reserving the use of Russian for his highest official meetings. The use of different languages allows him to embody distinct social and political personalities according to circumstances and to display the appropriate self-image: to point out his rural roots, his social ascent, his intelligence, or his capacity to speak Belarusian.

The capacity to speak Belarusian is often called upon by the political leaders to demonstrate their support for the Belarusian language. Nevertheless, Belarusian is only officially used in extraordinary circumstances and much is done to reduce its use. To speak Belarusian means to oppose Lukashenka's regime, which is illustrated and emphasized by the fact that discourses in Belarusian mainly emanate from the opposition. Belarusian leaders want to reduce the use and area of statement of the Belarusian language, and above all the Tarashkevich (the Classical orthography) Belarusian language used by the Popular Front and Belarusian intellectuals-which is different from the so-called "Soviet" Belarusian language. The Classical orthography was described by Branislau Tarashkevich, politician and author of the first Belarusian grammar, represents the language of the national revival movement, whereas the Soviet Belarusian language corresponds to the academic and Sovietized language stemming from the 1933 reform.57 The Classical pre-reformed orthography, also referred to as "the language before the 1933 reform," is the supreme symbol of the opposition to the Lukashenka's regime. In addition to bringing about a general decline of education in Belarusian in schools and universities,58 Belarusian authorities have adopted measures aimed particularly at limiting speech in Belarusian and the spread of this form of the language. In 1998, the threat of abolition of the Belarusian Humanities High School-the only high school in Minsk to offer education in Classical Belarusian-aimed at reducing the development of a Belarusian-speaking elite, convinced intellectuals of this institution to join the cause of the opposition. Several demonstrations were organized to support the high school (its status was not changed, but its director was replaced). The mass media were also persecuted by censorship and demands for cultural uniformity. In 1996, the independent Radio 101.2, which broadcast in the Classical pre-reformed language, was suspended for "technical reasons."59 In 1997, the newspaper Svaboda, which was founded in 1990, was banned.60 In 1998, the authorities took on the newspaper Nasha Niva, one of the main opposition newspapers published in the Tarashkevich language. The newspaper's editorial staff received a warning from the State Press Committee accusing it of "distorting generally accepted language norms."61 The authorities used this warning to put pressure on the newspaper, although the statement about "generally accepted norms" was meaningless, since there were no legally binding standards for Belarusian spelling.62 After the Language Institute of the Belarusian Academy of Sciences issued a report supporting the newspaper, legal proceedings against Nasha Niva stopped. As for the Belarusian Language Society, it was expelled from its offices in the spring of 1998, and it also had its possessions confiscated. Its newspaper Nasha Slova, is regularly threatened by local authorities. Otherwise, Soviet Belarusian is used in some official publications, such as Litaratura i Mastatstva, which helps maintain the illusion of a non-discrimnatory policy toward Belarusian. Its use is based on the official language practices inherited from the Soviet system.63

National Language and Nationalism: Reverence, Right, and Threat of Purism

As far as political conditions of the language debate are concerned, support for the Belarusian language is integrated within a broader political struggle against Lukashenka's regime. Since the end of the 1980s, one of the most active political parties advocating the primacy of the Belarusian language has been the Belarusian Popular Front. At the time of its creation, speaking Belarusian had an important political significance: it initially signified support for perestroika, and subsequently support for independence. The 1990 Language Law and its developmental program represented a symbolic victory for the Popular Front, which shortly afterward won some seats in the Supreme Soviet and contributed to the declaration of Belarusian independence on 25 August 1991. Nevertheless, the practical implementation of the law was difficult, mainly because of the lack of will among a political elite that for the most part spoke Russian. The development of education in Belarusian in schools and universities was abandoned after the 1995 referendum, which provided state language status to Russian along with Belarusian. The Popular Front, the Belarusian Language Society, and some intellectuals again took up the theme of Belarusian language promotion as a symbol of opposition to Lukashenka's politics. In addition to the Belarusian Language Society's statements, the rise of authoritarianism in Belarus gradually induced other political parties and organizations to join the language cause, which is evident in the declaration of the Congress of Democratic Forces in January 1999, which appealed to the moral responsibility of Belarusian citizens to "save the Belarusian language."64

To speak Belarusian is a political action; it is to take a position against Lukashenka's authoritarian regime. The correlation between language identity and politics constitutes the ideological basis of the Popular Front of some intellectual groups. According to this perspective, the support of the national language, considered as the core of the nation, is one of the fundamental elements of the fight for democracy, not only because to speak one's national language is a right, but also because it signifies a defense of national interests.65 In turn, President Lukashenka uses language identity, referring to the Soviet use of the term "nationalist" as a pejorative word, to attack all those who speak their national language. Lukashenka's language policy, which favors the practice of Russian, endeavors above all to reduce the role of legal entities that are propagated in Belarusian. As there is an association between spoken language and the individual, the deviation appears clearly. For the advocates of the Belarusian language, only Belarusian speakers are considered as authentic patriots or "nationalists"-in the positive sense of the term.66 In some political and intellectual circles, Russian is defined as the language used by the occupying force and is frowned upon, despite the fact that members of such circles have a good command of this language. Beside symbolic and militant aspects, the goal is to discredit the system of bilingualism. The authorities on the other hand, consider Belarusian speakers as "enemies of the people," as does a large part of the population, which is again influenced by Soviet patterns of thinking. These patterns testify to the politicization, almost intrinsically, of the language issue in Belarus, as in most of the Newly Independent States and more generally in countries where different language communities exist.67

If the authorities consider the native language to be alien and hostile, organizations that promote Belarusian view it as a guarantee of honesty and patriotism. In the face of the Belarusian authorities' measures to reduce education and publication in Belarusian, different actions of protest and mobilization have been launched. The Belarusian Language Society has issued regular statements in its newspaper Nasha slova and in various other independent newspapers. One of the goals is to make the population aware of the language policy, which is often carried out underhandedly and threatens groups and institutions "case after case."68 Demonstrations are regularly organized to protest such policy, most notably in the case of the Belarusian Humanities High School. Some symbolic actions have also been launched by groups such as the editorial staff of Nasha Niva, which, in November 1998, initiated the Belarusian "Language Day," also called the "Day without any other language." On the second day of each month, the editorial staff asks its readers to speak, read, and listen only in Belarusian.69 As a moral obligation, Nasha Niva tries to report on the difficulties encountered by Belarusians in speaking their "own" language in their "own" country. The description of these difficulties, which are related to the social and ideological stereotypes and patterns of representation that were disseminated in the Soviet Union, incites the population to question the nonsensical situation of not being understood in one's native language in one's "own" country.70 Parallel with collective actions, some advocates of the Belarusian language have protested individually against the official language policy, refusing to pay their rent or other bills because they are not in Belarusian.71 Aside from language claims, these actions symbolize the right of the moral and physical existence of Belarusians. This question is related to the direct connection between language and identity.

In response to Lukashenka's use of populist tactics to establish his language policy, the political opposition attempts to stress the democratic aspect of the Belarusian language. A definite correlation between language and political discourse exists, which follows the logic of. "We speak Belarusian and we support democratic values, therefore Belarusian is the language of democracy." The Belarusian language is opposed to Russian, considered the language of persecution and communist ideology. In addition to emphasizing the democratic aspect of Belarusian, opponents of Lukashenka's regime insist that being allowed to speak their native language constitutes a basic human right. For some organizations that promote Belarusian, to speak their language is a right of statement,72 as illustrated by the mobilization of the International Center against Censorship, Article 19, in the case of Nasha Niva.73 The restrictions on the use of the Classical (Tarashkevich) language constitute an act of censorship directed against those who use this language and who represent the strongest supporters of Belarusian and the independence of the country.

The Classical (Tarashkevich) orthography, symbol of the political involvement and national pride of its supporters, is also opposed to Soviet Belarusian, which in its distorted form symbolizes Soviet repression of Belarusian culture. The existence of two Belarusian languages demonstrates the lack of "generally accepted language norms" and leaves the question of the spoken Belarusian language in abeyance.74 In support of the Classical (Tarashkevich) orthography, intellectuals emphasize the purity of language and speech.75 For them, it is not sufficient merely to speek Belarusian, one must enunciate the "pure," the "true," of the "natural" Belarusian, the Tarashkevich language (tarashkievica). Tarashkievica is thus compared to narkamauka, the name given to Soviet Belarusian, which reveals the scorn of some intellectuals toward this language. The term narkamauka is employed to stress the "impurity" of the defined language and the danger it represents for the natural development of Belarusian culture. By contrast, the Classical (Tarashkevich) orthography is presented as traditional and the language of the roots.

According to this logic, it is "unhealthy" to use either Soviet Belarusian or trasianka. In this respect, the editorial staff of Nasha Niva commented that the "Language Day" held on the second day of each month "should become, for Belarusians, the National Health Day."76 The Belarusian language, presented as the pure core of the nation,77 could prove the existence of a people and its culture. The "purity" of the Belarusian language is perceived as a way to preserve the existence of Belarusians.78 According to Belarusian nationalists, to suppress the Tarashkevich language is tantamount to threatening the physical existence of the Belarusian nation. This could lead to conceptions that emphasize not only the "purism" of the Belarusian language but also the "purism" of Belarusians. The Belarusian authorities' measures in language matters are considered threatening to the existence of the language and, by association, the Belarusian nation. The use of terms like "cultural genocide" or "ethnocide" is an indication of the development of a certain type of speech used to denounce Lukashenka's language and cultural policies.79 Making reference to the "ethnicization of social and political relations,"80 this speech, which is sometimes stronger in tone, responds to the moral and physical violence to which supporters of the Belarusian language and culture have been subjected. In 1998, the Popular Front approved a statement to condemn the threats toward the Belarusian Humanities High School, which was called "No to the cultural genocide of the Belarusian nation!"" The aim was to demonstrate that the authorities wished to destroy those who used the native language.

Its supporters argue that the Belarusian language, and more particularly the Tarashkevich version, which has an ethnic value, is the unique statement of the nation, especially since it is a manifest element of national and political identity. As the core of the nation, language does express national affiliation. In accordance with this type of rationality, the Popular Front and the organizations promoting national culture refer to the 1989 Soviet census, which reported that 77.9% of the population of the republic declared themselves to be Belarusian and 74.5% of them indicated Belarusian as their "native language" (rodnaia mova).82 Nevertheless, some studies showed that these data were related to questions that led to an association between "native language," "nationality," and "citizenship," all the more so because all these questions were closely related.83 Otherwise, the notion of "native language" refers to the language of roots (rod) more than the language spoken since childhood. To alter these results and above all, to justify the new language policy, the Belarusian authorities created other questions regarding language for the 1999 census. In the space devoted to language issues, three distinct questions were presented to the citizens: "native language," "in which language do you speak most often at home?" "in what other languages do you speak fluently?"84 As in the 1995 referendum, the second question regarding the use of a common language, to which a majority of the population would likely answer "the Russian language," is a way both to legitimize the pro-Russian language policy and to support Lukashenka's foreign policy, which is oriented toward Russia. Various statements or recommendations were issued and published by several opposition organizations to condemn and warn the population against such politics.85 The Belarusian Language Society asked Belarusian citizens to "not reject their native language."86 The intellectuals opposed to Lukashenka's regime want to use the language as a symbol of political resistance but have to confront the majority and daily-life use of the Russian language. The problem of their campaign is that it involves a break with the existing system of representation inherited from the Soviet period and the previous language policies. In using a populist and pragmatic discourse, President Lukashenka has the advantage of being able to lean on and continue an existing system, which is easier than making wholesale changes, especially when it concerns individual identity and language practices.



The politicization of language issues has increasingly intensified since the progressive implementation of Lukashenka's authoritarian type of rule. Language has been an instrument of power in political conflicts between Lukashenka and the opposition. In this respect, language is part of the "psychological" violence87 that exists in Belarusian politics today. The Belarusian authorities present Belarusian as the language of counter-power and instability, and as a source of violent acts. This image of the Belarusian language, largely spread by the official media, is notably linked to demonstrations organized by the opposition, which are depicted as violent behavior toward the political authorities. By contrast, the president's discourses in Russian exhibit power, stability, and social peace and are used to justify the expansion of the police in the country. In other respects, both sides use a political language that can make verbal reference to violence. Violence is also implied by the vehement tone of the language as well as in the general relationships between Belarusian and Russian speakers. In some places, people refrain from speaking Russian or Belarusian for fear of the possible consequences. Moreover, demonstrators propagating the Belarusian language often face the threat of police brutality, which underscores the symbolic importance of language issues in the current political context. The use of terms such as "fascist" by both sides to define each other is pertinent in explaining this phenomenon. The contemporary development of the language of violence on one hand, and the violence of language on the other, confirms the political and cultural situation in post-Soviet Belarus during the 1990s.


1. On the Belarusian language, see Belaruskaia mova. entsyklapedyia (Minsk: Belaruskaia Entsyklapedyia, 1994); Alexandra Goujon and Virginie Symaniec, Parlons biglorussien: langue et culture (Paris: L'Harmattan, 1997). back
2. On the Lukashenka regime, see Heinz Timmermann, "Belarus: eine Diktatur in Europa," Bldtterfiir deutsche and internationale Politik, Vol. 42, No. 5, 1997, pp. 597-4607; Rainer Lindner, "Prdsidialdiktatur in Weissrussland: Wirtschaft, Politik und Gesellschaft unter Loukasenka," Osteuropa, Vol. 47, Nos 10-11, 1997, pp. 1038-1052. back
3. On the relationship between language and power, see "La division des langues" in: Roland Barthes, Le Bruissement de la langue. Essais critiques IV (Paris: Seuil, 1984), pp. 119-133; Benedict Anderson, Language and Power. Exploring Political Cultures in Indonesia (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990); Jean-William Lapierre, Le pouvoir politique ef les langues. Babel et Leviathan (Paris, PUF, 1988). back
4. Ernest Gellner, Nations et nationalisme (Par-is: Editions Payot, 1989), p. 13. back
5. On the relationship between language and nationalism, see Joshua A. Fishman, Language and nationalism. Two Integrative Essays (Rowley, MA: Newbury House, 1975). back
6. On nationalism in Belarus, see Alexandra Goujon, "Belarusian Statehood and Lukashenka's Politics," Belarusian Review, Vol. 10, No. 4, 1998, pp. 7-10; Alexandra Goujon, "La construction de I'Etat-nation en Bi6lorussie: les fondements politiques et sociaux de deux formes de nationalisme," Cahiers Anatole Lerov-Beaulieu, No. 4, 1999, pp. 141-150. back
7. On populism, see Margaret Canovan, Populism (New York: Harcourt Brace Janovich, 1981); Ghita Ionescu and Ernest Gellner, eds, Populism. Its Meanings and National Characteristics (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1969). back
8. Listy da Harbacova (London: Association of Byelorussians in Great Britain, 1987); Roman Solchanyk, "Letters to Belorussians' Weekly Evidence Strong Support for Native Language," Radio Liberty Research, RL 425/86, 9 November 1986; "A Letter to Gorbachev: Belorussian Intellectuals on the Language Question," Radio Liberty Research, RL 142/87, 20 April, 1987; "An Open Letter to Gorbachev from Belarussia," Radio Liberty Research, RL 344/87, 19 August, 1987. back
9. Benedict Anderson, L'imaginaire national Riexions sur l'origine et l'essor du nationalisme (Paris: La Decouverte, 1996), pp 77-91. back
10. On the history of Belarusian nation, see David Marples, Belarus. A Denationalized Nation (Amsterdam: Harwood University Press, 1999). back
11. On the history of language issues in Belarus, see Virginie Symaniec, "Bi6lorussie: langues et politique," Nouveaux Mondes, No. 9 (Geneva: CRES, 1999), pp. 61-80; James Dingley, "Ukrainian and Belorussian-A Testing Ground," in Michael Kirkwood, ed., Language Planning in the Soviet Union (Basingstoke: MacMillan Press, 1989), pp. 174-188. back
12. On language policy in the Soviet Union, see Glyn E. Lewis, Multilingualism in the Soviet Union: Aspects of Language Policy and Its Implementation (Paris: La Hague-Mouton, 1973). back
13. On Soviet nationalities policy, see Jeremy R. Azrael, ed., Soviet Nationality Policies and Practices (New York: Praeger, 1978); Henry R. Huttenbach, ed., Soviet Nationality Policies. Ruling Ethnic Groups in the USSR (London: Mansell, 1990); Rogers Brubaker, Nationalism Reframed. Nationhood and the National Question in the New Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). back
14. It is necessary to note precisely that in the 1930s all languages in the Soviet Union, including Russian, were reformed in order to show the well-founded policy of the friendship between people (druzba narodov). back
15. Isabelle Kreindler, "The Changing Status of Russian in the Soviet Union," International Journal of the Sociology of Language, No. 33, 1982, pp. 7-39; Patrick Sdriot, "La langue, corps pur de la nation. Le discours sur la langue dans la Russie brejndvienne," Les Temps modernes, No. 550, 1992, pp. 186-208. back
16. Jan Zaprudnik, "Developments in Belorussia since 1964," in George W. Simmonds, ed., Nationalism in the USSR and Eastern Europe in the Era of Brezhnev and Kosygin (Detroit: University of Detroit Press, 1977), p. 111. back
17. Aleh Bembel', Rodnae Slova i Maral'na-estetychny pragress (London: Association of Byelorussians in Great Britain, 1985); Letter to a Russian Friend: A "Samizdat" Publication from Soviet Byelorussia (London: Association of Byelorussians in Great Britain, 1979). Initially published anonymously, this book is known to have been written by Aliaksef Kauka. back
18. The Association of Byelorussians in Great Britain played a deciding role in this respect. back
19. On the history of the Belarusian Popular Republic, see Vitaut and Zora Kipel, Byelorussian Statehood: Reader and Bibliography (New York: Belorusian Institute of Arts and Sciences, -1988). back
20. For example, Said Negipoglu, "'Your Second Native Language'. The Soviet Campaign of Cultural Genocide," Problems of the Peoples of the USSR, No. 17, 1963, pp. 3-7. back
21. On these questions, see Alexandra Goujon, "Le processus de fon-nation d'une opposition politique et nationale en Bidlorussie: le Front populaire bi6lorussien (1988-1991)," Revue d'Etudes Comparatives Est-Ouest, Vol. 29, No. 1, 1998, pp. 69-96. back
22. Ustanouchy Z'ezd Tavarystva Belaruskai Movy Imia Frantsiska Skaryny (Minsk: Navuka i T&hnika, 1992). See also Litaratura i Mastatstva, 30 May 1989. back
23. Jan Zaprudnik, "Belorussian Reawakening," Problems of Communism, July-August 1989, p. 50. back
24. Notably, the Belarusian Language Society was created several days after the Founding Congress of the Popular Front. back
25. The Belarusian Cultural Fund is, in fact- the Belarusian branch of the Soviet Cultural Fund. back
26. The creation of such organizations is also a way to keep on the official side some intellectuals who might otherwise be tempted to work in informal structures. back
27. See the language law in Litaratura i Mastatstva, 2 February 1990. back
28. On language laws in other Soviet and post-Soviet Republics, see William Fierman, ed., "Implementing Language Law: Perestroika and Its Legacy in Five Republics," Nationalities Papers, Vol. 23, No. 3, 1995, pp. 505-659. back
29. "Dziarzhaunaia pragrama razvitsia belaruskai movy i inshykh natsyianal'nykh mou u Belaruskai SSR," Litaratura i Mastatstva, 28 September 1990, pp. 1-3. back
30. Hil Hilevich, "Nezalezhnasts' movy-nezalezhnasts' dukhu," in lak ne spynic' uzykhodu Sontsa ... (Minsk: Navuka i Tekhnika, 1993), p.7; Valentin Taras, "lazyk iii mova?" Narodnaia hazeta, 26 June 1993. back
31. Konstitutsiia Respubliki Belarus' (Minsk: Polymia, 1994), p. 6. back
32. One should note the difference between Lukashenka and Leonid Kuchma, the Ukrainian president, who began to speak Ukrainian after his election in 1994. back
33. See Lukashenka's program in Narodnaia hazeta, 14 June 1994; Nezavisimaia gazeta, 29 May 1997. back
34. Ustina Markus, "The Bilingualism Question in Belarus and Ukraine," Transitions, Vol. 2, No. 29, 1996, p. 18. back
35. Kanstytutsyia Respubliki Belorus' (Minsk: Belarus, 1997), p. 8. back
36. Sovetskaia Belorussiia, 26 November 1998, p. 2. back
37. Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus Tomorrow (Geneva: East European Development Association, 1998), pp. 36-37. back
38. Ustina Markus, "Lukashenka's Victory", Transitions, Vol 1, No. 14, 1995, pp. 75-78; "A War of Referenda in Belarus," Transitions, Vol. 2, No. 25, 1996, pp. 12-15. back
39. Pierre-Andr6 Taguieff, "Le populisme et la science politique. Du mirage conceptual aux vrais probl@mes," Vingti@me si&le, No. 56, 1997, p. 16. back
40. When the language law was adopted in January 1990, Popular Front had no seats in the Supreme Soviet. It gained some seats only after parliamentary elections in March 1990. back
41. Concerning this period, many Russian speakers, even if they supported the Language Law, were apprehensive about the methods by which this law would be implemented. back
42. Interview with S. Navumchyk, 5 January 1996. back
43. Viktar Mukhin, "MnUauskaia mova," Nasha Niva, Vol. 124, No. 3, 1999. MnUauskaia mova means literally the language of the BNF, Belarusia Narodny Front, Belarusian Popular Front. back
44. Svaboda, No. 19, 1995. back
45. In the post-Soviet Belarus the concept of "fascism" seems stronger than the one of "nationalism" to denounce the opposition. back
46. In this respect, Lukashenka said that the Russian language is, in fact, not a "Russian language," but the language that Slavs founded together. Imia, 17 May 1995, p. 11. back
47. Isabelle T. Kreindler, "A Second Missed Opportunity: Russian in Retreat as a Global Language," International Political Science Review, Vol. 14, No. 3, 1993, pp. 261-262. back
48. In his interview with a Russian newspaper, Lukashenka mentioned, indirectly, the association between language and rural origins. Nezavisimaia gazeta, 29 May 1997. back
49. Concerning the concept of "high culture," see Ernest Gellner, Nations et nationalisme (Paris: Editions Payot, 1989). back
50. Nezavisimaia gazeta, 29 May 1997. back
51. In Belarus, most of all in rural areas, Russian is presented as the language of educated and cultured people (bramy), contrary to Belarusian, which is considered the language of uneducated people. Lukashenka also uses such stereotypes. See Komsomol'skaia pravda, 3 July 1997. back
52. Milton J. Esman, "The State and Language Policy," International Political Science Review, Vol. 13, No. 4, 1992, p. 389. back
53. "0 vnesenit izmenemi i dopolnenii v zakon Respubliki Belarus'; '0 iazykakh v Respublike Belarus,' " 13 July 1998. back
54. Zenon Pozniak, "Bilingualism and Bureaucratism," Nationalities Papers, Vol. 16, No. 2, 1988, p. 269. The original version is Zenon Pozniak, "Dvuiazychnie i Biurokratizm", in Sapraudnae ablichcha (Minsk: Palifakt, 1992) p. 49. back
55. Pozniak, "Bilingualism and Bureaucratism," p. 270; "Dvuiazychnie i Biurokratizm," in Sapraudnae Ablichcha, pp. 50-51. back
56. Alexandra Goujon, "La construction de l'Etat-nation en Bidlorussie: les fondements politiques et sociaux de deux formes de nationalisme," Cahiers Anatole Leroy-Beaulieu, No. 4, 1999, pp. 141-150. back
57. Virginie Symaniec, "Bidlorussie: langues et politique, in Nouveaux Mondes, No. 9 (Geneva: CRES, 1999), pp. 61-80. back
58. The Belarusian Language Society adopts regularly statements concerning the Belarusian language situation. See its newspaper, Nasha slova. See also, RFEIRL Newsline, Vol. 3, No. 2. Part 11, 1999. back
59. The radio broadcasts from Poland. back
60. The successor of the newspaper Svaboda is Naviny. back
61. On this affair, see Nasha Niva, No. 11. No. 13, No. 14, No. 15, No. 16, and No. 18, 1998. See also, Jan Maksyn-@iuk, "Belarus: Language Goes on Trial," RFEIRL Newsline, Vol. 2, No. 152, Part 11, 1998. back
62. Vintsuk Viachorka, "Ahul'napryniatyia Nonny," Nasha Niva, No. 11, 1998. back
63. See also the newspaper Holas Radzimy, which is dedicated to Belarusian people abroad. back
64. "Pra dyskryminatsyiu belaruskai movy u R6spublicy Belarus," R6zalutsyia Kangresa demakratychnykh sil Belarusi, 30 January 1999. back
65. On the relationship between language and nation, see Pierre Caussat, Dariusz Adamski, and Marc Crepon, La langue, source de la nation. Messianismes siculiers en Europe centrale et orientale (du XVIIIeme au =me siecle) (Liege: Editions Mardaga, 1996). back
66. One should note the distinction in the meaning of "nationalism" between that of Western countries and the post-Soviet states, in which it is linked to the past negative use of the term by Soviet propaganda. back
67. See for example, As rid Von Busekist, La Belgique. politique des longues et construction de l'Etat de 1780 t! nos jours (Brussels: Duculot, 1998). back
68. Virginie Symaniec, "Pas A pas et au cas par cas," Perspectives BiRorussiennes, No. 10, 1998, P. 9. back
69. On this event, see Nasha Niva, No. 20, No. 21, 1998; No. 3, 1999. back
70. See, for example, Siargej Pul'sha, "Razmauliaiu pa-belarusku. Kronika udalaha &sp&ym@ntu:' Nasha Niva, No. 3, 1999. back
71. The amendments to the 1990 Law adopted in July 1998 are one way to answer such requests. back
72. See the newspaper Prava na VoIju, the news bulletin of the Human Rights Center "Viasna-96" (Spring-96), in which there are regular articles on language issues. back
73. "Belarus: New Clampdown on Press Spells Further Repression," Paper of Article 19, 5 August 1998. back
74. In this respect the Ukrainian case is different because of the existence of one official Ukrainian language. back
75. On the question of purism in language issues, see Paul N. Wexler, Purism and Language: A Study in Modern Ukrainian and Belarussian Nationalism (1840-1967) (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1974). back
76. See Nasha Niva, No. 20, 1998. back
77. Patrick S6fiot, "La langue, corps pur de la nation. Le discours sur la langue dans la Russie brejn6vienne," Les Temps modernes, No. 550, 1992, pp. 186-208. back
78, On the relationship between language and ethnicity in Belarus, see T. M. Mikulich, Mova i etnichnaia samasviadomasts' (Minsk: Navuka i Tekhnika, 1996). back
79. Alexandra Goujon, "'Genozid': A Rallying Cry in Belarus," Journal of Genocide Research, Vol. 1. No. 3, 1999, forthcoming. back
80. Martine Fourier and Genevieve Vermes, Quest-ce que la recherche interculturelle? Ethnicisation des rapports sociaux@ R"ismes, nationalismes, ethnicismes et culturalismes, Vol. 3 (Paris: ENS Fontenay Saint-Cloud, L'Harmattan, 1994). back
81. "Ne-kul'tumamu henatsydu belaruskae natsyi!," Zaiava Soirnu BNF "Adradzh@n'ne," 13 June 1998. 82. Nasha slova, No. 10, 1999. back
83. Brian D. Silver, "The Ethnic and Language Dimensions in Russian and Soviet Censuses," in Ralph S. Clem, ed., Research Guide to the Russian and Soviet Censuses (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986) pp. 70-97. back
84. Malady Front, No. 2, 1999, p. 4. back
85. Concerning the Belarusian Popular Front's recommendations, see BelaPAN, No. 70, 1999. back
86. "Ni pad iakim natsiskam ne admovirnsia ad rodnai movy," Narodnaia Volia, 30 January 1999. back
87. Serge Tchakhotine, Le viol des foules par la propagande politique (Paris: Gallimard, 1952). back

Alexandra Goujon is a PhD candidate at Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris, France.

Source: Nationalities Papers; Abingdon; Dec 1999; Volume: 27; Issue: 4; pp. 661-677; ISSN: 00905992

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