Saturday, December 9, 2017

Future of Belarus Depends on Future of Belarusian Language, Activists Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 9 – The future of Belarus depends on the language its government will promote and its people will use, national activists say. If they allow or even promote Russian in place of Belarusian, Belarusians will almost certainly be absorbed at some point in the future into the Russian world to the east.

            But if they revive and develop their historical national language, then they have a good chance to become a modern European state integrated with the West; and the possibility of such linguistic and political development is very real as the experience of the Czechs and the Czech Republic show (

            At one point, supporters of the revival and flourishing of the Belarusian language say, the Czech elites were almost entirely German-speaking; but now they speak Czech – and that recovery of their national language has allowed them not only to develop their own country but also to integrate into a broader Europe. 

            As Tatyana Melnichuk of the BBC’s Russian Service notes, Belarusians who hope to revive their language have a steep climb ahead of them. While two-thirds of Belarusians say they speak it fluently, fewer than one in four even speak Belarusian at home let along in the school or workplace (

            Moreover, street signs and much of the educational system are in Russian, and the country’s leader, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, has said that “Russian is our native language, albeit perhaps a little less native than Belarusian. But in general, I put them on an equal level” and believe that the population should use both.

            According to Melnichuk, there are two things Lukashenka has done that Belarusian language supporters cannot forgive him: his statement that “it is impossible to express something great” in Belarusian, and his promotion of the 1995 referendum “as a result of which Russian received equal status with Belarusian as a state language.”

            In fact, of course, Belarusian had been under pressure from Russian “long before 1995,” the BBC journalist says.  It was the official written language of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania from the 14th to the 17th centuries, but it lost out to other languages over time. And by Soviet times, it had become one of four languages in Belarus – alongside Russian, Yiddish and Polish.

            After Belarus gained its independence, the government made Belarusian the single state language and promoted it; but after Lukashenka came to power, the share of pupils studying in Belarusian has dropped each year – and now only 13 percent of middle level students do so and only 300 students within the entire higher educational establishment.

            In this way, linguist Vintsuk Vyachorka says, the powers that be showed the population what it thought about “our language.”

            The share of schools in which Belarusian is the language of instruction is now 48 percent; but most of them are in rural areas and small, compared to the 51 percent of schools where Russian is the language of instruction. Those schools are typically in urban areas and have far more pupils.

            Oleg Trusov, a historian who leads the Belarusian Language Union, says that “questions of language are always political questions.” And he notes that “the rebirth of the Belarusian language doesn’t please all our neighbors, especially in the east. We have only two possibilities” -- either allow our language to die and be part of the Russian world or revive it and join Europe.

            The historian is now work on the establishment of a Belarusian National University in which instruction will be in Belarusian.  Officials were opposed earlier but are now more supportive; and together with 500 scholars from Russia, Poland and Lithuania, he hopes to have it up and running soon, not only in the humanities but in the hard sciences as well.

            “Language is not only a means of communication;” he says. “It is much more.” A Belarusian developed Esperanto so all people could communicate with one another. It is a beautiful language, but “the world doesn’t speak Esperanto” because language is about mentality as well as communication. And “without mentality, there cannot be a nation.”

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