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Article by Vera Rich: Belarus: Nation in Search of a History, 1991 and all that

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Belarus: Nation in Search of a History, 1991 and all that

By Vera Rich

THE REPUBLIC of Belarus, an ex-Soviet state of some 10.2 million inhabitants, did not so much win independence as have it thrust upon it. In August 1991, its hardline Communist leaders openly gave their backing to the anti-Gorbachev Moscow coup. When the coup collapsed, the Belarusian hardliners in the Supreme Soviet, fearing the wrath of Gorbachev, made common cause with the small group of pro-democracy People's Deputies and, on 25 August 1991, proclaimed independence.

Belarus had, on paper, been 'independent' for more than 40 years; like Ukraine, it was a founder member of the United Nations and a member of UN agencies, including UNESCO and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). But this ploy by Stalin to get two extra votes in the UN, in spite of Soviet lip-service to the cultural and linguistic rights of the non-Russian nationalities that comprised almost half the population of the USSR, provided no defence against the long-term aim of sliyanie - the 'alloying' of more than 100 ethnic identities into a single, Russophone, Soviet 'nation'. And, though the decision was not at the time made public, Belarus was chosen by the Soviet ideologues as the test-bed of this policy.

It was, in many ways, an appropriate guinea-pig. Belarus had already been subjected to intensive Russification during the nineteenth century, its language forbidden and its mainstream religion, the Eastern-rite Catholic Church (which might otherwise have served, as it did in western Ukraine, as a guardian of national culture) forcibly merged with the Russian Orthodox Church. Following the national revival after 1905, and the window of 'Belarusianisation' in the 1920s, the intellectual elite of Belarus was virtually wiped out (either shot, or terrorised into silence) during the 1930s. World War II meant the loss of one in four of the population – including the destruction of the centuries-old Jewish community which, as its own members eloquently attested, had lived in amicable symbiosis with its Christian, Slav co-habitants for centuries. Furthermore, Belarus in the Cold War era was the most highly militarised area of the Soviet Union, being viewed as the advance post against the NATO powers. And, since Soviet military policy virtually never allowed its soldiers to serve in their home republics, and Russian was the language of the army, the military presence was inevitably a powerful tool of Russification.

Sliyanie worked well. By the early 1980s, there was not a single Belarusian-language school in the capital, Minsk. And since all teacher training was Russophone, even schools in remote rural areas where the language survived were, by force of circumstance, gradually Russified as elderly Belarusian-speaking teachers retired.

Since there was no other obvious unifying shibboleth and symbol of identity – as, for example, the Catholic Church was in neighbouring Lithuania – the language issue took on a special importance to those who wished to preserve national identity. The handful of samizdat and expressions of dissent in Belarus during the Brezhnev era concentrated on saving the language. The first manifestation of glasnost in Belarus, in December 1986, was a 'Letter to Gorbachev' signed by 28 prominent intellectuals, demanding the linguistic and cultural rights enshrined in the Soviet constitution.

But language alone could not kick-start an opposition movement. That was accomplished by two major revelations of the late 1980s: the excavations carried out at the Kurapaty (Windflower Hill) picnic ground in 1988 by a then-unknown archaeologist named Zianon Pazniak, which disinterred the remains of Stalin's victims (some of whose personal effects could still be identified by surviving relatives) thought to be as many as 200,000; and the even more traumatic disclosure, in February 1989, of the true extent of the fallout from the nuclear power station disaster at Chernobyl, in Ukraine, in April 1986. The hitherto-secret maps and data, made public by the efforts of a nuclear physics professor, Dr Stanislau Shushkievich, revealed that more than 20 per cent of the territory of Belarus had been seriously contaminated. Yet, for almost three years, in much of the affected area, agricultural production had continued and no special safety provisions made for the population. Furthermore, two 'hot spots' were revealed far from the main contaminated area, where rain had chanced to fall just as the radioactive plume was blowing back towards Moscow. Chanced? Or, as the rumours now began, deliberately 'seeded to bring down the cloud and save the Soviet capital?' The Soviet authorities denied the allegations, but many scientists studying the fallout patterns remain open-minded.

The shock of these revelations triggered various citizens' movements under the umbrella of what was originally called the Belarusian Popular Front for Perestroika-Renaissance (BNF). In the first-ever multi-party elections to the Supreme Soviet of Belarus in March 1990, several of these movements sponsored pro-democracy and pro-independence candidates of whom 38 were elected to the 360-seat assembly. As a sop to the democrats, Shushkievich was appointed deputy speaker – the one moderate in an otherwise hardline establishment.

A few token pieces of pro-Belarusian legislation were passed: Belarusian was made the state language, and on 27 July 1990, the sovereignty of Belarus was proclaimed. A few days later, on 6 August, (the anniversary of the publication of Skaryna's Psalter, a group of young people, under the formal auspices of the Belarusian Language Society, proclaimed the re-establishment of the long-outlawed Belarusian Eastern-rite Catholic Church – an act that challenged not only the hardline rulers of Belarus, but also the Vatican bureaucracy who feared this initiative would rock the carefully trimmed boat of papal Ostpolitik.

With independence, the Soviet emblems were replaced by the white-red-white flag and Pahonia (Pursuing Knight), symbols dating back to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania-Rus [more formally, The Grand Duchy of Litva, Rus', and Samogitia – ed.]. Schools and universities hastily introduced courses in Belarusian history. The hardline speaker of Parliament resigned, and Shushkievich took his place, becoming, in the absence of a president, simultaneously the head of state. Hitherto semi-official newsletters became fully-fledged, legally registered journals. Minority religions – including the Eastern-rite Catholics – were granted legal status. The restitution of Church property confiscated by the Soviets began. And a whole sheaf of nation-building initiatives came into being, including a search launched by Foreign Minister Piotr Krauchanka, for a twelfth-century treasure of deep symbolic importance – the Cross of St Euphrosyne of Polatsak with its double-barred form, as in the symbol of the pagan god, Yaryla – that had gone missing during World War II. Failing the recovery of the original cross, Krauchanka said, Belarus would use some of its tiny gold reserves, mainly recycled scrap from military electronics, to create a replica of the Euphrosyne cross as a national treasure for the future.

Economically, however, all was not well with the new state. The aftermath of Chernobyl ate up 15 per cent of GDP; Russia's oil and gas producers began to demand what they claimed to be 'world prices' for supplying Belarus's energy needs; 70 per cent of Belarusian industry had, in Soviet times, been military-related – and now the arms race was over. Ex-hardliners in government and Parliament blocked moves towards privatisation of industry and agriculture and, by their obstructive attitudes, deflected would-be foreign investors to more receptive business climates, usually to neighbouring Baltic states with a similar industrial base.

The first major blow to democracy came in December 1993. Public opinion, which had little understanding of economics, attributed the ever-rising prices and falling standards of living to corruption in high places. Alaksandr Lukashenka, an ex-hardline Communist member of Parliament, levelled charges of corruption against Shushkievich. Although the allegations were unfounded, Shushkievich (who had collapsed in the Parliament chamber with a heart attack) resigned. A few weeks later, when the presidential election campaign began, Lukashenka declared his candidacy, campaigning on a populist programme of an economic upturn and end to corruption – though with no policy proposals for achieving this. But with no expertise in assessing the claims of rival candidates and thinking anything better than the stagnation of the last three years, the Belarusian electorate chose Lukashenka.

In the 18 months of his presidency, Lukashenka, a former state farm boss, has failed to deliver the promised economic improvements. The most disadvantaged strata of society are worse off: he has cancelled even such concessions as the rights of pensioners to travel free on municipal transport; there has been no real movement on privatisation of either industry or agriculture; and major foreign companies who were considering joint ventures with Belarus are now pulling out. Lukashenka puts his hope for economic improvements in close ties with Russia, but the much-lauded customs union with Russia has brought no real benefits to Belarus and the Russian democratic politicians and pro-market economists have little use for Lukashenka's proposals. Lukashenka bolstered his pro-Russian policy with a referendum in May 1995 proposing closer economic ties. No media coverage was allowed to any viewpoint but his own. Though he won approval on the Russian front, the same referendum failed to endorse his wish to change the state flag and coat of arms back to those of Soviet times (minus the hammer and sickle) but the president simply announced to the world that the vote on the symbolica had gone his way.

The failure of the long-overdue parliamentary elections in May 1995 (there was insufficient turnout in 141 constituencies) allowed him six months of rule by decree. The country was peppered with directives which included a list of cadres not allowed to leave the country without his written consent (among others, university administrators and the editors of major newspapers) and a blanket ban on all textbooks in the humanities published since 1992. Many of his fiats have been ruled illegal by the Constitutional Court; but Lukashenka does not recognise its competence. He operates by a simple syllogism: the Constitution says Belarus is a presidential republic, he is the president, therefore any decision he takes is constitutional and anyone who opposes him is in breach of the Constitution.

In the past 18 months he has ordered the disconnection of the live broadcasting equipment from the Parliament chamber, sent riot police to arrest democratic members of Parliament, ordered the replacement of outspoken editors and tried to put the few newspapers which dared criticise him out of business. He has banned the newly formed unofficial union, arrested the leaders of the metro strike in August 1995 and sent its supporters to pick the potato harvest. While most of his decrees have been published in the official press, there is increasing evidence of a parallel system of unpublished diktats, delivered as telephoned 'hints' from the presidential aides.

Not surprisingly, the prevailing mood in Belarus is dark. The more politically aware intellectuals and young people are trying to keep alive the message of democracy; Belarusian PEN strives to foster at least the notion of freedom of speech and the printed word. And one positive spin-off from Lukashenka's one-man rule has been the drawing together of Russophone and Belarusian-speaking intellectuals. The notorious May 1995 referendum gave the Russian language equal status with Belarusian, effectively ending the post-independence programmes of positive discrimination. But if Lukashenka hoped this would split the country on language lines and marginalise the 'linguistic patriots', he was mistaken. Resentment of Lukashenka's methods is no less among Russophone democrats than among the most ardent advocates of the Belarusian language. And the most 'patriotic' Belarusian-language newspaper, the bi-weekly Svaboda (Freedom) now publishes a regular page of political commentary in Russian.

According to a political joke of the area, when the tanks are approaching, the Poles charge them with cavalry, the Russians attack them bare-handed and the Belarusians dig fox-holes and let the tanks roll safely over their heads. But even the greatest optimist must foresee a long, hard haul for Belarus towards democracy. On 10 December 1995, at the fourth attempt, the Belarusian electorate returned a quorate Parliament, 191 out of a possible 260 seats, but the pro-independence BNF was wiped out. A few pro-democracy candidates, including former parliament speaker and head of state Stanilaus Shushkievich, have got through and could form the nucleus of a possible opposition to Lukashenka. But the conduct of the elections underlines the bizarre nature of Belarusian 'democracy'. When Parliament's speaker, Miackyslau Hryb, wanted to address the nation, stressing the importance of a turnout adequate for a quorate Parliament, he was not given access to national television. Russian TV agreed to give him a slot, but President Lukashenka suspended the relay of Russian TV to Belarus 'on technical grounds.' Eventually, Hryb was able to address the electorate – but only via Radio Liberty from Prague.

In the meantime, one may recall the words of Svaboda after the trade union association of Papua New Guinea sent a telegram protesting against the suppression of the independent Belarusian trade unions: 'If only we Belarusians knew as much about what is going on in Belarus as the citizens of Papua New Guinea do.'


This article originally appeared on The Index on Censorship Web site, January, 1996, but apparently is no longer available there.

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