Staunton, August 22 – The Belarusian white-red-white flag now carried by the Belarusian people as they march against Alyaksandr Lukashenka (who continues to use his slightly-revised Soviet-era Belarusian SSR one) like many symbols there has a complex and perhaps surprising history reflecting the even more complex ethnic and political past of the Belarusians.
Intriguingly, the white-red-white flag has its origins in a banner carried by Tatar warriors fighting for the Lithuania-Rus (later “Republic of the Three Peoples”) against Muscovite forces at Orsh in 1514 and was promoted as a national flag in the 19th century by Klavdiya Duzh-Dushevsky, who was a descendant of the Tatar nobility involved.
Kharun Sidorov, an ethnic Russian who converted to Islam, traces the complicated history of the region half a millennium ago so underscore the differences the flags highlight in perspectives between the peoples who are now Belarusians, Lithuanians and Poles, on the one hand, and the Moscow Russians, on the other (idelreal.org/a/30793424.html).
In telling the story of the white-red-white flag, he marshals evidence to underscore three aspects of the contrast between these two positions and to stress why the flag the Belarusian people choose to fly with its echoes of Lithuanian, Polish and Crimean Tatar nations is so significant now and going forward.
First, the ethno- and political genesis of Belarus in fact was linked to Europe from the beginning, fully integrated into the Lithuanian-Polish states. The only way to present the Belarusians as linked only to Moscow is to project ahistorically the situation they found themselves in after the partition of Poland in 1795 as subjects of the Russian state.
Second, the Polish, Lithuanian and proto-Belarusian communities welcomed some 40,000 Crimean Tatars into their ranks, allowed them to retain their religion and intermarry with local people, and occupy senior positions in their states and militaries. The Russian state insisted they give up their faith or remain ghettoized and apart.
And third, the Lithuanian-Polish-Belarusian state, the Union of Three Peoples as it called itself, drew on the forces of all its population to resist Russian imperial expansion. The Crimean Tatars played a key role in that, and consequently, it is entirely appropriate that a banner they used has become the flag under which the Belarusian people but not its current dictator march.
One must certainly respect the statements of the Belarusian popular movement that it is not directed against Russia. Saying that is smart politics; but by choosing to fly this flag and no other, the Belarusians are showing that they view themselves as much as part of Europe and as little a part of Eurasia as do NATO and EU members Poland and Lithuania.
As such, the white-red-white flag is no small thing. It underscores where Belarus has come from and where its people want to go in the future.