Belarusian fightback for right to national identity

July 14, 2000

Belarusian President Alaksandr Lukashenka is under pressure to establish a Belarusian National University and introduce Belarusian-taught courses at other higher education institutions.

The Belarusian Schools Association - a non-governmental organisation of teachers and others concerned with education - has sent an open letter to Vasil Strazhau, the country's education minister, deploring the "disastrously low" proportion of school children studying in Belarusian-taught schools.

This, the association said, is due to the lack of Belarusian-taught courses at university level and what it called the "open hostility to the Belarusian language by officials at various levels".

The proposed National University is envisaged as an alternative to the existing Belarusian State University in Minsk, where the pro-Belarusian policy of the early 1990s has been largely reversed, and only a few courses, notably in the philology department, are still taught in Belarusian.

A law passed in 1990 envisaged the "Belarusianisation" of all branches of public life by 2000. After years of neglect of the language under the Soviets (when Belarus served as the test-bed for the policy of "alloying" the peoples of the USSR into a homogeneous Soviet nationality), some major efforts were made.

Belarusian-taught courses were introduced, a Belarusian language society founded and academics wrote glossaries of Belarusian terms covering the latest technological advances.

However, when Mr Luka-shenka became president in 1994, this trend was reversed. Russian was given equal status with Belarusian, while covert and, at times, overt pressure was exerted to give Russian priority language status.

Parents were pressured to vote in favour of their children's schools teaching in Russian, and - as the association's letter points out - even when they continued to opt for Belarusian teaching, in many cases the schools received orders to switch to Russian.

The pressure to switch to Russian was so great that Belarusian-taught education at the secondary level in the capital, Minsk, is confined to a single private lyceum - and even that has survived only thanks to a vociferous campaign by parents against government attempts to close it.

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