Belarus, a country in Eastern Europe, faces a challenge: its native language is in danger of being lost. According to the 2019 census, Belarusian is only “commonly used” by around 2.4 million people. Russian, the language of Belarus’ larger neighbour, is the most commonly used language for nearly 6.7 million of the country’s 9.2 million people. Belarusian has been described as “endangered,” primarily due to the suppression of the language both historically and presently.
Even after independence in the early 1990s, Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko continued to suppress the Belarusian language, viewing it as “below” the Russian language and having a strong distaste for it. According to Lukashenko, “lofty” ideas cannot be expressed in Belarusian, only in Russian. This raises some unanswered questions: why does the modern Belarusian state continue to suppress its own language, and how does the Russian-speaking majority in Belarus influence Belarusian politics?
Belarus’ National Identity and Russification
Belarus was a part of Russia from 1776 to 1991, and before that, part of the Kievan Rus, a medieval-era coalition of Slavic territories, a fact which Russia has emphasised to justify its influence in the region. As part of Russia’s policy of maintaining control over its Soviet borders, Putin’s government has encouraged a broader Russian identity that goes beyond its internationally-recognised post-Soviet borders. For example, Putin has claimed that southern Ukraine forms a Russian region named “Novorossiya,” which has an independent identity from Ukraine. This identity is based upon the fact that at least a plurality of residents in southern Ukraine speak Russian.
Similarly, Belarus’ Russian-speaking majority has led to the nation having especially strong ties with Russia. In Soviet times, Belarusian identity was already fragile compared to the national identities of other republics in the union; this trend has continued in independent Belarus. Belarusian identity is at risk of being absorbed by a Russian one, and this is only accelerated by Lukashenko’s actions to suppress the Belarusian language, as language is closely tied to identity.
Belarus and Russia Today
Today, Belarus and Russia remain strongly tied together. The Union State Treaty between Russia and Belarus, signed in various phases throughout the 1990s, has allowed for cooperation between the two nations financially and militarily. The Union State’s ultimate goal of unifying Belarus and Russia has not yet been achieved. However, the two nations have common foreign interests and have cooperated in foreign matters, especially in the recent Ukraine crisis. Russia has stationed tens of thousands of troops in Belarus as part of its military assault on Ukraine, and Lukashenko has repeatedly come out in support of Putin’s actions as well as the separatist regions in eastern Ukraine.
Lukashenko has become warier of Russian influence in Belarus in recent years. After Russia’s illegal actions in Ukraine in 2014, Lukashenko spoke Belarusian in public for the first time in 20 years in what experts saw as a political tactic. This shows that language is a symbol of Russian influence in the country. Despite his public support for Russia and the Union State, Lukashenko also wishes to maintain his own grip on power, which would likely decrease in the event of the unification of Russia and Belarus. However, Russia is also Belarus’ closest and only ally in the region, which has led to Lukashenko downplaying the Belarusian national identity in favour of Putin’s policy of Greater Russia. It is in Lukashenko’s best interest to work with Russia as closely as possible, as, especially after the 2020 Belarusian protests, his regime is only supported by Putin’s similarly dictatorial government.
The Belarusian Language in Belarusian Opposition and Nationalism
Belarusian as a language has seen more use with the country’s opposition groups, and during occasional flares of nationalism. Immediately after Belarus’ independence, for example, the country passed a wide-sweeping law that would see Belarusian become the dominant language in all walks of life within a decade. However, due to Mr. Lukashenko’s actions, this never came to be. Instead, Belarusian identity and language have found a new life amongst Belarusian opposition groups, which have rallied around independent Belarusian symbols as a wall against Russian influence in the country.
Ultimately, Mr. Lukashenko has a fine line to tread. He needs the support of Putin and Russia but also needs to prevent his nation from being completely absorbed in Russian identity. This has resulted in him flip-flopping on his stance on the Belarusian language, from saying that all Belarusians should know Belarusian to discrediting the tongue.
Years of cooperation with and occupation from Russia have made Belarusian national identity particularly weak, which means that it is even more difficult to reclaim the now-endangered language. Ultimately, it is the people of Belarus that will decide whether their national identity can be maintained.
Edited by Barbara Amona Purdie