When Lukashenko’s came to power in 1994, he announced a referendum which took place a year later. In it, amongst other things, there was the proposal to replace the white- red-white flag of independent Belarus with a green-red flag similar to the old Soviet Belorussian flag and to allow Russian as the official language alongside Belarusian. Many in Belarus claimed the referendum did not conform to a number of legal provisions and the International Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) declared that it contravened international norms. Despite this, Lukashenko got his way and the measures were implemented.
The the introduction of Russian as co-official language with Belarusian effectively stymied the previous government’s attempts to encourage the use of the language and, in reality, weakened its position as an official language. In theory, official documents could be published in either Belarusian or Russian: in practice, publication was almost always in Russian. Russian started to replace Belarusian in the media as well.
Another consequence of the new language policy was a decrease in the number of classes teaching Belarusian and classes. Belarusian language schools began to be closed immediately following the referendum. For example, by 1998, Language teaching in Belarusian and Belarusian courses gradually declined to the point that, by 1998, it was less than 30% from 70% five years earlier. In the Minsk region, the percentage fell from just under 50% to less than 10%.
One mother in Minsk summed up the changes in the experience of her children’s teaching.
‘When my first son went to school in 1989 (before independence), no school in the area could teach in Belarusian. My second son went to school in 1991 (immediately after independence) and had a choice of a number of schools to study in Belarusian. My third son went to school in 2000, no school in the area taught in Belarusian and therefore he had to commute to another district’
At time of writing, there are eight grammar schools teaching in Belarusian: six in Minsk (approximately 2 % of the total number of schools) and one in the South of Belarus. There are still schools teaching in Belarusian in the rural areas. However, these schools are closing due to the migration of people to the major cities where the children are less likely to get teaching in Belarusian.
The official view was that the decrease in the number of schools teaching Belarusian was due to ‘the preference of Belarusians themselves’, though it seems that generally official policy in Belarus has tended to reflect the will of the President rather than the will of the people. As Lukashenko stated ‘One cannot express anything significant in Belarusian. Belarusian is a primitive language.’
Some argue that measures downgrading of Belarusian were implemented out of a desire to maintain friendly relations with the Russian authorities who tended to see any attempt at raising the profile of the Belarusian language as a threat to the Russian language and, by association, a threat to Russian influence. Moreover, the question of the use of Belarusian became ‘politicised’ to the point where the use of Belarusian and the act of encouraging Belarusian became associated with the opposition party and opposition-minded intellectuals.
Official policy towards Belarusian was also reflected in the media output where Belarusian had been losing ground over the previous 30 years. There has been a gradual creep of Russian replacing Belarusian in the national and local media. In the 1980’s, there had been TV and Radio channels exclusively in Belarusian. Now the reverse is true.
As a result of renewed Russification of education and media, there is a marked shift in the use of Belarusian between the generations. The grannies who used to speak fluent Belarusian with their children and grandchildren are becoming fewer in number. Moreover, some argue that because of official discouragement of Belarusian and less books in the language, the content and quality of literary Belarusian has declined. They also claim that in general communication, the language has become less ‘authentic’ than in previous times.
Some are also concerned about the effects of ‘Trasianka’ (which literally means ‘hay, mixed with inferior or old straw’). Some are of the opinion that this has contributed to the decline of Belarusian in the country.
Others maintain the opposite, namely that ‘Trasianka’ has helped to maintain the presence of Belarus by people who might otherwise have switched to Russian completely. The argument goes that as ‘trasianka’ tends to be based on Belarusian grammar with Russian vocabulary, the basic substructure of the language still exists and therefore the switch back to Belarusian can readily be made by the simple re-adoption of Belarusian words. They would argue that had it been the other way round, i.e. Belarusian words on Russian grammar, the Belarusian language would have been more likely to die out.
After the Russian takeover of Crimea in 2014, and the fear of further Russian attempts at spreading its control, there were some changes in Belarus’ attitude to its own heritage at government level. More focus was paid to the role of the Grandy Duchy of Lithuania in Belarusian history, possibly as a message that ‘Belarus has not always been in the Russian sphere of influence’.
While there has been no significant changes to the teaching of Belarusian or the encouragement of the language, Lukashenko did give his first public speech in Belarusian in 2014. Whether this was a genuine attempt to create a national revival or a symbolic gesture to national sentiment to gain popularity or to play the ‘national card’ to put pressure on the Russian government to concede on a number of economic issues is debatable.
As of the beginning of 2021, the status and fortunes of Belarusian is changing yet again in terms of acceptability and usage. The opposition to President Lukashenko’s new term of presidency has given rise to a greater aspiration for national symbols such as the white-red-white flag and the ‘Pahania’ where previously it had been mainly associated with the active opposition of no more than 10% of the population.
Although mass protests that started to display the forbidden symbols, have now, to a large extent, been repressed, these symbols themselves are alive and well in people’s consciousness. One such is the increasing popularity of the Belarusian language as a symbol of ‘who we are’. Adults are flocking to learn or improve the Belarusian and encouraging their children to do so. In the words of one observer, ‘for a long time the Belarusian language was derided as a ‘peasant language’ it has now become ‘cool’.
Thus, it seems that if there was an intention to delegitimise the symbols which mark Belarus’ separatism, then it has the opposite effect. As in so many areas of change in Belarus, once the population start to the Belarusian language as key to their own identity, is difficult to see how this trend can be reversed, at least in the short term and at least without foreign intervention.
If so, for the first time in its history, political repression might actually encourage a renaissance of the language and once again create the opposite result of what the government – or its foreign allies – might wish for