Belarus is haunted by a ghost. It is not a brutal autocrat who oppresses his own people, disregards international law and threatens the country’s neighbors. Nor is it the international isolation of Belarus or the country’s rapidly collapsing economy. At least not if you read the Russian media.
According to a growing number of pro-Kremlin commentators, the bogeyman that haunts Belarus is the threat of “Belarusization,” that is, the promotion of the Belarusian language, history and culture.
In an extensive recent essay for APN, a Kremlin-affiliated publication with nationalist political commentator Sergei Shiyenko argued that Belarus, like Ukraine before, is trying to “synthesize a new ethnic group and a nation-state project on an anti-Russian basis”.
According to Shiyenko, “Belarusization is the cornerstone of the concept of creating a new nation from an isolated section of the Russian people under a state that was created accidentally at the beginning of the 20th century. Without Belarusization, the nation-building will reach a dead end, the “Republic of Belarus” will lose its meaning. “
This was not an isolated reference. One recently news APN called Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya an “advocate for Belarusization” and stated that she “advocates expanding the use and popularization of the Belarusian language and culture”.
Elsewhere an article in Rubaltic.ru asserts the civic organization Francisak Skaryna Belarusian Language Society, founded in 1989, sought “the forced Belarusianization of all areas of public life, including the education system”. And in an essay in Regnum, commentator Sergei Atyemenko noticed that Aljaksandr Lukashenka came to power in 1994 when he promised “an end to the criminal, violent Belarusianization” of the country.
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These increasingly frequent references to Belarusianization have several common and historically imprecise threads.
Similar to the allegations made by Vladimir Putin regarding Ukraine in his infamous essay from July 2021, the authors of these articles on Belarusianization typically falsely argue that Belarus is indistinguishable from Russia. They also claim that Belarus, like Ukraine, is an artificial nation that was created in Soviet times. And they falsely claim that the Belarusians’ desire to be a sovereign nation with its own history, culture and language is driven, as in Ukraine, by a vicious and irrational “Russophobia”.
In view of Russia’s growing military, economic and political footprint in Belarus, the theatricality about the creeping Belarusianization may seem irrational at first glance. After all, Russia’s dominance in Belarus is arguably stronger than ever.
Russia and Belarus recently completed the Zapad-2021 military exercise, the largest in Eastern Europe in four decades. That year the two countries also conducted a record number of joint military exercises, with constant rotations creating a de facto permanent Russian troop presence in Belarus. Moscow and Minsk are also there Definition three joint training institutions, including one in the Belarusian region of Hrodna near the Polish and Lithuanian borders.
Economically, Belarus remains highly dependent on Moscow, whose economy is effectively supported by the import of heavily subsidized Russian oil and the export of refined petroleum products as well as the export of potash fertilizers. Tycoons affiliated with the Kremlin are meanwhile expanding their presence in Belarus.
Politically, Lukashenka’s international isolation has made him more dependent than ever on the Kremlin. And to be sure, Putin’s regime is now active put the parts in place to ensure that Moscow controls the Belarusian legislature Pro-Kremlin parties.
Despite Russia’s undoubtedly strong position in Belarus, fears of pro-Kremlin commentators over Belarusianization are fueled by trends in public opinion that show a deterioration in Belarusian traditionally positive attitudes towards Russia.
According to a November 2020 Chatham House poll, 33.3 percent of Belarusians say that integration with Russia would make Belarus more corrupt. 39.4 percent say it would mean the end of Belarusian statehood, and 45 percent say that Belarusians can only improve their identity in a fully independent country.
Likewise, a survey by the Warsaw Center for Eastern Studies (OSW) at the end of November and beginning of December 2020 showed that 43 percent of Belarusians consider Russia to be the greatest threat to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Belarus, the highest value among all countries listed in the survey.
A clear reassessment of the country’s history and national identity is also underway. A growing part of the Belarusian public is now looking at the European history of Belarus before its incorporation into the Russian Empire in 1796. Above all, they turn to the centuries in which today’s Belarus was part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
According to last year OSW survey, 62.2 percent of Belarusians believe their country should take inspiration from times when they were not ruled by Russia in a short-lived attempt to establish an independent state in 1918. Only 28 percent now named the Soviet Union.
As the Kremlin consolidates the Lukashenka regime, the Belarusian people are increasingly turning to the west. Viewed from Moscow, this may look like an anti-Russian campaign of Belarusianization. But in reality we are experiencing a European nation that is rediscovering itself. Like the Ukrainians before them, the Belarusians are now continuing the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Brian Whitmore is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, Assistant Professor of Practice at the University of Texas at Arlington, and host of The Power Vertical Podcast.
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