Belarus: Hopes for democracy and doubts about national identity

16 March 2006
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Belarusian intellectuals' lack of consensus over Belarusian history prevents them from forming a national ideology that might replace the dominant Russophilia, says Lithuanian commentator Stasys Katauskas. This identity crisis stems from a weak nation-building process in the late nineteenth century, leaving a gap in national consciousness that could be filled by the Soviet identity. Hopes for democracy in Belarus will remain unfulfilled until a clear and qualitatively different ideology acceptable to the whole of society arises, says Katauskas.

With the approaching presidential elections in Belarus, the country increasingly becomes a focal point for the Lithuanian media. Some articles analyze possibilities for political and social change in the neighbouring country, others deal with the problem of Belarusian identity and the new historical tendencies associated with it that are becoming increasingly visible in present-day Belarus. However, what is striking is the lack of any attempt to forecast the future of the country that takes into consideration the present state of the national consciousness of the Belarusian people. That is why I would like not only to discuss the types of identity that exist in contemporary Belarus, but also to analyze how they affect political processes occurring in the society. Without any pretensions to a thorough discussion of separate identity types, I nevertheless hope that my insights will add a new aspect to the discourse surrounding the problems of Belarus.

At first glance, one sees many contradictions in present-day Belarus that are difficult to comprehend. Belarusians are Eastern Orthodox: the oldest stone building in the territory of Belarus is the Church of Polatsk Witnesses, where people living in the territory of Belarus received baptism. To the north of Minsk, in the town of Zaslavlis, there is a monument to Duchess Rogneda – the daughter of Duke Rogvolod of Polotsk, the hero of the wars between Polotsk and Kiev in the eleventh century. Turau, an Orthodox state independent from Kievan Rus’ in the south of Belarus, was founded over a thousand years ago. All this bears witness to an old tradition of statehood for Slavs who lived in the present territory of Belarus. True, historians think that the creators of statehood in this area, including Duke Rogvolod, might have been of Viking descent, as in other lands of the eastern Slavs. However, monuments belonging to this period are few: a church in Grodno, the previously mentioned church in Polotsk, and almost nothing more, except a variety of archeological findings. Today, while looking at the silhouettes of Minsk, Grodno’s Old Quarter, and the old architectural monuments of Nesvyz, Pinsk, and Mohiliav, we see a Catholic central European architecture that is totally different from Byzantine cupolas or the “onions” of Russian Orthodox churches.

About eighty per cent of the inhabitants of Belarus are Belarusian, but the Belarusian language is used by only one third of the almost ten million inhabitants. Even the websites of nationalist organizations often use the Russian language. Formally becoming a republic in 1991, Belarus chose Belarusian as its official language, along with a red and white flag and a coat of arms related to the Lithuanian Grand Duchy. But in a referendum in 1995, the nation voted for giving official status to the Russian language alongside Belarusian; a second referendum to restore the former Soviet flag and symbols was rejected but the changes were implemented nonetheless. This means that the Soviet heritage is closer to most Belarusians than anything that associates Belarus with the Polish-Lithuanian state that ceased to exist in the eighteenth century, or with the independent Republic of Belarus that was almost established in 1918.

The very notion of independence in Belarus is often used in a distorted sense. Although the main street of the capital is called Independence Avenue, and the largest square of Minsk Independence Square, independence in Belarus does not mean the formation of an independent state, but the victorious march of the Red Army over the territory of Belarus in 1944. After WWII, during which the country was devastated, Belarus was further Russified and the Belarusian language ousted from public life.

The situation after the end of the Soviet period is well illustrated by a statement by the renowned Belarusian poet Anrej Chadanovich, who claims that the first person he heard speaking the Belarusian language in his childhood was Santa Claus, leading him to think that the Belarusian language was the language of Santa Clauses. On the other hand, Chadanovich, like many other Belarusian writers, writes in his native language. The Minsk-based cultural journal Arche, also prefers the native language, as do many of the country’s intellectuals.

Despite political repression, there are a number of nationalist organizations active in Belarus. Opposition to the present regime, though split, still exists. In many mass rallies in Minsk, one can see red and white flags. During the last decade, mass rallies convened by the opposition were attended by thousands of people (30 000 in 1999). A few weeks before the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, between five and six thousand people protested against the “rigged” election in Minsk. But a high percentage of Belarusians support president Lukashenko, even according to the opposition’s estimates.

Belarusian youth subcultures have different ideological and political orientations and attitudes to Belarusian history. One could enumerate their ideological, political, or cultural divergences, but the most important point is that they reflect the enormous gap between intellectuals and the majority of Belarusian society and even nationalist groups. What is the reason for this? What identity crisis is Belarus encountering, and how does this affect the political situation in the country? In order to answer these questions, it is necessary to recall how models of cultural and political identity came into being in eastern Europe.

Modern nations in eastern Europe emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century. It was during this period that national interpretations of the history of those countries were formed, and that individual systems of national symbols and signs (national anthems, coats of arms, flags) became the basis of a shared historical memory. A common language and religion played an important and often decisive role in the creation of nations. The ethnocentric ideologies of nation states often made reference to illusory forerunners in the Middle Ages. Then, a small, but nationally-minded and educated community of people usually forged the new identity.

What national ideology the Belarusian intelligentsia of the late nineteenth century did create was half-baked and has not survived. This was the result of unfavourable internal and international conditions: neither the Polish nor the Russian vision contained an independent Belarus; claims to Vilnius created an obstacle for any agreement with Lithuania; and, in addition, Bolshevik propaganda had spread throughout the country. Even religion could not play a consolidating role in nation-building – the Uniates were already crushed in the first half of the nineteenth century and the highest Orthodox authorities were subjected to Russia. The politics of denationalization implemented at the beginning of the nineteenth century left its own mark. Thus, when independence was declared in 1918, it received far less support from the population than similar declarations in the Baltic countries.

A lack of recognizable political symbols and ideologies is often made up for by foreign substitutes. This happened in Belarus. The identity formed during the Soviet period gradually became dominant and soon occupied the central position of the national consciousness. What ideologists of Alexander Lukashenka’s stripe preach today can be called a model of Soviet identity adapted to Belarus.

Of course not everyone agrees with this model. Looking at how Belarusian scholars view the history of their country, we find that there is not a single, commonly adopted and satisfying version. Some treat the Belarusian ethnos as a result of the formation of the Grand Lithuanian Duchy and interpret the events of the last two centuries as the result Belarus’ enforced suppression of its natural historical development. Others stress the intimacy of Belarusians and eastern Slavs, their position hardly differing from the official Soviet historiography that argues that the formation of the Grand Lithuanian Duchy and Lithuanian-Polish state distorted the natural cultural space of Orthodox Belarus lands. Some even claim that the Grand Lithuanian Duchy was a Belarus state. Of course one can treat such a position as the delirium of radicals that ignores obvious historical facts, while others can be reproached for performing the role assigned to them by power. But it is important to point out that all these positions are to a larger or smaller degree echoed in contemporary Belarusian society, where several contradictory models of identity can be observed. However, the dominant model is that which has little in common with liberal Western values and which is subservient to the dictatorship.

A paradoxical situation has arisen, in which hopes of a shift towards democracy are associated with national revival, the use of native language, and the symbolism of the Republic of Belarus of 1918 – all those things that were rejected by the majority of the population of independent Belarus. The legacy of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy and the cultural heritage of the Lithuanian-Polish state seems to be the only remaining alternative to the pro-Russian ideology reigning in the country. However such an attempt is bound to fail, since many Belarusians do not recognize these values as their own, and because of neighbouring countries’ disapproval. It is no secret that Lithuanians, Poles, and Ukrainians do not agree with some Belarusian intellectuals’ claim for Belarus’s role as the leading nation of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy. Many Belarusians, too, feel that Belarus was not dominant among the nations that made up the Grand Duchy.

In addition to its ideological weakness, the opposition also lacks economic strength. Therefore it seems that the democratization of Belarus will be some time in coming. Even if the opposition does win, there are no guarantees that its victory would be for long. Liberal reforms would lead to a temporary, and painful, social chaos. Moreover, since mature civil society does not exist, it would be naive to hope that powers that do not differ from President Lukashenko will not surface. The opposition itself lacks unity – different groups have different visions of the country’s past and future. Thus, a real rebirth of Belarus is hardly possible until a clear, qualitatively different ideology acceptable to the whole of society arises.

The Belarusian intelligentsia will have to search for the basis for this kind of ideology. A shift towards democratization and liberal Western values is hardly possible without a real national revival which would permit at least some attrition of the massive influence of Russia (unless Russia herself changes). Any attempt to divide Belarus and Russia is treated with a great deal of resistance by Russophone Belarusians. Whatever the cost, the interests of neighbouring countries must be considered, as must ways of making peace between the totally different models of identity that exist in the country. Baseless ambition must be abandoned. It does not look like Belarus society is ready for such steps.

The creation of pseudo-historical myths in the spirit of the nineteenth century can hardly provide the basis for a national revival. The opening up of the nation and the need to co-operate with neighbours would immediately expose the “historicity” of such myths. Changes of any kind must take place through the influence of neighbouring states, above all Russia, though Russia itself is likely to be an obstacle to the formation of an independent, free Belarusian society. However, if Belarusians are able to preserve the independent state that currently exists, this very existence, this entity, may become the basis for a free and democratic society. It is important not to lose sight of this possibility.

Published 16 March 2006

Original in Lithuanian
Translation by Almantas Samalavičius
First published in Kulturos barai 2/2006 (Lithuanian version)

Contributed by Kulturos barai
© Stasys Katauskas/Kulturos barai Eurozine

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