By Alexandre Billette and Jean-Arnault Derens
The headquarters of Nasha Niva newspaper, in the centre of Minsk, is a hive of activity for Belarussian nationalists. The movement to defend Belarussian identity seems to converge on these offices. Students attend evening classes run by the banned Popular University while volunteers stuff copies of the paper into envelopes. Like all independent media, Nasha Niva has been excluded from the main distribution system.
"Sixteen publications have been banned," explained Andrey Dynko, the young editor, "and almost all were in Belarussian."
After the fall of the Soviet Union, newly independent Belarus immediately promoted the national language and emphasised Belarussian identity. But when Alexander Lukashenko came to power in 1994, he abandoned the policy and restored Russian to the status of second official language, alongside Belarussian. Official parity is illusory: a few signs may be in Belarussian, but the main language of urban society and public life is Russian. The state media and public administration use Russian. Almost everyone can speak the language, though according to 1999 census figures, only 11.4% of the population is of Russian origin.
Lukashenko speaks a mongrel language, peppered with Belarussian words and expressions. But he deems Russian to be one of only two languages capable of adapting to the modern world: the other is English.
The story of the Yakub Kolas National Humanities Lyceum illustrates the situation. Founded in November 1990, this alternative Belarussian high school grew out of an underground network of weekend classes developed in the 1980s. It aimed to allow everyone to learn or improve their knowledge of Belarussian. The parallel system, headed by Uladzimir Kolas, was far better known than attended, but its reputation was such that the state enlisted its teachers to produce textbooks in Belarussian. Two months after election, Lukashenko issued his first education directive: all textbooks published after 1991 were banned, without explanation. The government soon had to withdraw the edict as there were not enough Soviet-era books.
Despite regular demonstrations by teachers, parents and students, the lyceum, which enjoyed wide support among the intelligentsia, was officially shut down in June 2003. "Today we risk six months to two years in prison for participating in a non-registered association," says a school governor, "but we've decided to keep going." The past two academic years have been tough: the school had to give lessons in private flats, discreetly transformed into improvised classrooms. This year it rented a house in an outer suburb of Minsk. It takes two hours to get there from the city centre, but the students feel it is worth spending that time on public transport to be able "to study in our language".
Fifteen years after independence, Belarus is still struggling to establish a national identity. More powerful neighbours dominated its territory for most of its history. In the Middle Ages, it belonged to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Later it came under the Polish-Lithuanian Commonweath, the republic of nobles formed in the 16th century. The tsars took it over under the three partitions of Poland (1772, 1792 and 1795) and worked to make it intensely Russian.
A cultural Belarussian nationalist movement emerged in the late 19th century, on the model of Europe's Romantic nationalisms. But Belarus was soon a battlefield for other countries' conflicts: the first world war and the Russian civil war. Despite the short-lived, independent Belarussian Popular Republic of 1918-19, it never managed to assert itself as a player. In 1922 the treaty of Riga divided the country, half to Poland and half to the Soviet Union. The Russians regained western Belarus with the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact, only to lose it again when the Germans invaded Poland in 1941.
By the end of the second world war the Soviet Socialist Republic of Belarus was wrecked, its cities and infrastructure ruined. It had lost its Jews, a key element of Belarussian society; because Belarus had been part of the pale of settlement in which Jews were tolerated under the tsars, they had been a majority in big cities such as Minsk, Grodno and Vitebsk (where the painter Marc Chagall was born). With their destruction, Belarus lost an important part of its history and culture.
There was intense industrialisation and rapid economic development between 1945 and 1990. The policy of Russification continued, without resistance from local communist leaders. The homogenising Soviet system took over cities and towns, destroying what was left of the traditional landscape. Though the regime pretended to protect Belarussian language and culture, it relegated them to the status of folklore.
Dissident movements emerged during the 1980s, especially after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster (1) which affected Belarus worst. They were quick to adopt Belarussian nationalist references, if only to distinguish the country from Russia and to insist on its central European identity. This reawakening intensified during the early years of independence, though not everyone welcomed it. Many could not see the point of the nationalist project.
The election of Lukashenko confounded the national identity movements. He is not an outright Russophile; he is more interested in cultivating nostalgia for the Soviet era than in any sense of underlying Russianness.
Lyolik Ushkin, a journalist at Nasha Niva, said: "Lukashenko wants to present himself as an alternative to Vladimir Putin. That's how you have to see the plans for union with Russia. His dream is to lead a new state encompassing both countries. He doesn't want to see Belarus reduced to a mere province of Russia."
The likelihood of political union with Russia has faded lately and the Belarussian regime has altered its line, placing more value on Belarus's status as an independent country and on its position at the crossroads of East and West.
Soviet nostalgia is still the regime's key ideological tool. It highlights the second world war, when Belarussian partisans led the resistance against German occupation. This theme resonates strongly with the Belarussian people, partly because many veterans survive, but also for want of alternative references. There is not even an independent Belarussian Orthodox Church. The metropolitan bishop of Minsk, who is a former member of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, pledges allegiance to the Moscow patriarchs - and to Lukashenko.
Dynko is still hopeful. He is impressed by the example of neighbouring Ukraine. "Ten years ago, you wouldn't hear people in the streets of Kiev speaking Ukrainian," he said. "Now the city is mainly Ukrainian-speaking, thanks to a determined policy of promoting national identity." He sees Ukraine and Belarus as unfinished nations and believes that the development of national identity can only come with democratisation.
"The orange revolution of autumn 2004 was a national revolution that allowed Ukraine to re-establish its identity," said Dynko. "Lukashenko's regime could turn out to be a historic opportunity for Belarus finally to come together as a nation, in opposition to this regime built on lies and on hollow state ideology."