Belarus suffers identity crisis

June 2, 1995

Belarus's national identity has suffered a severe blow just as the second congress of the International Association of Belarusicists celebrate independence.

A national referendum engineered by President Alexander Lukashenka has backed a series of Russian-oriented changes to the way the fledgling nation is run.

These include virtual economic integration with Russia, wide powers for the Belarusian president to over-ride or dissolve parliament, the upgrading of Russian to the status of an official language - and the replacement of the state coat of arms and the red and white flag of independence with the flag and emblem used under Soviet rule (though without the hammer and sickle).

Alexander Barszewski, an academic from Warsaw commented during the ceremonial opening of the congress: "When we met four years ago, we seemed to be assisting at the birth of a nation. Now we are at its deathbed."

For almost the entire Soviet era, the Belarusian language was the victim of official neglect and discrimination. Russian became the language of education and administration and Belarusian history was taught from the Russian standpoint.

In the late 1980s, the language issue together with ecology, became the central focus of glasnost. A Belarusian Language Society was founded in 1989 and in 1990, Belarusian became the official language. When, in the wake of the aborted 1991 Moscow coup, Belarus proclaimed its independence, language teaching was upgraded, new history texts written, and Belarusian studies received priority status.

Last year, however, the pro-Russian Lukashenka, was elected president on a programme of prosperity and an end to corruption which he has signally failed to deliver. Once in power, his main aim seemed to be to integrate Belarus as far into the Russian economy and defence structure as possible and to do away with anything which symbolised independent and pro-western trends.

Two days before the Association of Belarusicists congress opened, the referendum endorsed the proposed changes.

On the first afternoon, proceedings were interrupted by an announcement that the president's chief aide had torn down the red and white flag from the presidential residence, and publically ripped it into shreds. By the closing day, the coat of arms had been removed from all public buildings, and the "new" red-and-green flag was flying.

The independent Belarusian news agency RID had had its telephones cut off, and - the final session of the congress was informed - new rules had already been drafted to give Russian preferential status as the language of instruction in schools from next autumn.

This left the congress in a dilemma. Should delegates resign themselves to the study of an interesting, but seemingly doomed, tongue or did they have what one participant called "a moral responsibility to their subject"?

The debate was sharpened by a report that the weekly newspaper Nashe Slova, published by the Belarusian language society, was under threat of closure.

The Congress voted to appeal to Parliament over the referendum and it was announced that the 1999 congress, will be held, not in Belarus, but in eastern Poland, where there is a large Belarusian ethnic minority.

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