Sunday, 21 August 2005

Belarus: German Broadcaster Makes Waves With Russian-Language Plans

By Jan Maksymiuk

In June, Germany's international broadcaster Deutsche Welle announced its plans to launch a Russian-language information program for Belarus called the "Belarusian Chronicle." Official Minsk has so far remained silent about plans for the daily show, which is scheduled to begin in October. But many of Belarus's opposition and pro-democracy circles -- who in theory could only benefit from such an endeavor -- have reacted with alarm, indignation, and even hostility. They want Deutsche Welle to speak Belarusian to Belarusians.

Media have since reported that Deutsche Welle won a European Commission tender to organize radio broadcasts to Belarus. Bidders reportedly included international broadcasters Euronews and BBC World Service. Brussels will spend 138,000 euros ($169,000) annually to support Deutsche Welle's Belarus project, which is to continue for three years. It was initially reported that Deutsche Welle would broadcast 15 minutes a day to Belarus, but Deutsche Welle's Russian Service Director Cornelia Rabitz later signaled that her team might in September come up with a 30-minute daily program in which 15 minutes would be devoted to European developments and another 15 minutes to Belarusian domestic news.

Aleh Trusau -- chairman of the Belarusian Language Society, a nongovernmental group working to support the mother tongue of most Belarusians -- was the first to urge Deutsche Welle to launch its Belarus broadcasts in Belarusian. "[Deutsche Welle broadcasts in Russian] would plunge Belarusian listeners deeper into the Russian information space and increase their isolation from Europe," Trusau argued in an open letter to Deutsche Welle in June. And in an interview with RFE/RL's Belarusian Service later in the month, he clarified his position further by saying, "There are a lot of Russian-language sections in international broadcasters -- Voice of America, BBC, Deutsche Welle -- that employ emigrants from Russia with an imperial point of view. For them, Ukraine and Belarus are not full-fledged nations."

'Better Than Nothing'

Belarusian opposition leaders seeking the role of a joint democratic candidate to face President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in the 2006 presidential ballot were cautious after news emerged of Deutsche Welle's plans. United Civic Party leader Anatol Lyabedzka said Deutsche Welle's broadcasts in Belarusian would be a more appropriate option but immediately added, "If we cannot influence the development of events, Russian-language broadcasts are better than nothing at all." However, most opposition leaders with any chance of securing the democratic parties' presidential nomination have chosen not to comment on the issue in any way.

As for anti-Lukashenka intellectual circles in Belarus, Deutsche Welle's project has sparked a heated debate over the fate of the Belarusian language in particular, and the country's political and civilizational choices in general. Belarusian political scientist Vital Silitski, in an emotional letter published in the Minsk-based "Nasha Niva" weekly earlier this month, appealed to Belarusians to boycott Deutsche Welle's Russian-language broadcasts. Silitski argued that the choice of Russian for broadcasting to Belarus is the result of a "complete misunderstanding" of the Belarusian situation by "European bureaucrats" who, according to Silitski, are following Lukashenka in his attempts "to instill the notion in public opinion that the Belarusian language has no prospects or real demand among Belarus's citizens."

Silitski claimed that the EU decision to sponsor broadcasts to Belarus by Deutsche Welle's Russian Service is "absurd," since the service employs people "for whom Belarus is just an extra job and from whom one cannot expect a deep knowledge or understanding of processes under way in Belarus." Silitski stressed that "the revival of national consciousness is a necessary condition for democratization of any nation" and again scolded "European bureaucrats" for what he perceives as their support of "the tendencies than consolidate the dictatorship in Belarus." "Nasha Niva" called on its readers to become signatories to Silitski's appeal.

Will Brussels Think Twice?

German diplomat Hans-Georg Wieck, former head of the OSCE Advisory and Monitoring Group in Minsk and a staunch advocate of EU-sponsored broadcasting to Belarus, responded to this wave of protests in Belarus through RFE/RL's Belarusian Service earlier this month. Wieck said that neither Brussels nor Deutsche Welle is against Belarusian-language broadcasting. According to Wieck, there is currently no money to organize Belarusian-language broadcasts. "This is a problem of means. Now in Russian, later in Belarusian," Wieck said. "The [Deutsche Welle] new project is only the beginning." Wieck stressed that reaction to the Deutsche Welle project in Belarus is quite understandable.

Wieck, who was instrumental in uniting the cantankerous Belarusian opposition behind a single challenger to President Lukashenka in the 2001 presidential ballot, is doubtless among the most knowledgeable Western experts on Belarus. He is also one of the very few who seem to understand the important role of the Belarusian native linguistic and cultural heritage in the possible democratization of the country. In 2001, some forces in the anti-Lukashenka electoral coalition all but sabotaged the opposition campaign because of what they regarded as a disastrous choice of opposition candidates. Uladzimir Hancharyk, the single candidate "imposed" by Wieck on the Belarusian opposition in 2001, was a Soviet-era trade-union functionary who remained utterly indifferent to the revival of the Belarusian language and culture. This revival, which is being ardently advocated by a significant segment of the Belarusian opposition as a sine qua non for Belarus's "return to Europe" and no less stridently opposed by Lukashenka as a major obstacle to his "back-to-the-USSR" drive, has now been dealt a serious (even if indirect and/or unintended) blow by Brussels and Deutsche Welle.

Will Brussels, as Wieck expects, think twice and take a more favorable stance toward the Belarusian language (read: find money for Belarusian-language broadcasting) in the future? Judging by all appearances, not in the not-so-distant future. Because Brussels still faces the task of crafting a strategic policy toward Lukashenka's Belarus that would map out long-term priorities, not just "emergency measures" on the eve of major political campaigns in Belarus, to which Deutsche Welle's Belarus project appears to belong.

Belarusian Self-Awareness

It is difficult to imagine any "colored revolution" taking place in Belarus next year. And it has already become obvious beyond any doubt that Europe's assistance to pro-democracy activism in Belarus -- if it is to be efficient -- should not limit itself to training in election techniques but rather embrace a much wider program of activities intended to bolster Belarusians' awareness that they are not a "Russian" nation (as recently suggested by Russian President Vladimir Putin) and that they actually belong to Europe, not to Eurasia. The promotion of the Belarusian language, whether as a tool for imparting free and unbiased information or a means for attaining a stronger sense of national pride by Belarusians, arguably should be one of the key priorities in such a strategic program of European assistance to Belarus.

Deutsche Welle's Russian Service Director Rabitz told Belarusian journalists that her company should be praised rather than criticized for its Belarus broadcasting project. "It is stupid to say that Russian is bad and Belarusian is good," Belapan quoted her as saying on 8 August. Rabitz also noted that Deutsche Welle has been broadcasting in Russian to five post-Soviet countries in Central Asia, where she said these programs are valued, not criticized. Rabitz's irritation is perhaps to be expected. However, as far as opponents of Russian-language broadcasting from abroad to Belarus are concerned, both of those arguments miss the point.

Apples And Oranges

First, nobody in Belarus appears to be imposing such a "bad-good" evaluation on the two languages. The protests are directed primarily against what is perceived as Deutsche Welle's emblematic support for the policies and ideology of Russification promoted by Lukashenka in Belarus. Some might ask, not without reason, why Deutsche Welle found funding five years ago to sponsor Ukrainian-language broadcasting to Ukraine -- the country Russified to a level comparable to that of Belarus -- and was unable to repeat the act with regard to Belarus.

Rabitz's implicit comparison of Belarus with post-Soviet Central Asia, her opponents in Belarus say, does not hold water either, since none of those five post-Soviet republics has launched the kind of nationally traumatic linguistic and cultural policy that Lukashenka did 10 years ago in Belarus. In no former Soviet Union republic is the situation of the titular language so pitiable as in Belarus. Although the 1999 census suggested that 73.7 percent of Belarus's population declared Belarusian as its native language and 36.7 percent said it speaks Belarusian at home, Belarusian has been almost completely replaced by Russian in public life and state-run media.

On the other hand, while many Belarusians (including many with university diplomas) find it difficult to speak or write freely in Belarusian, the overwhelming majority has no problems whatsoever in understanding the language. Therefore, a Belarusian-language broadcaster could reach the same audiences in Belarus as a Russian-language one. This was amply demonstrated by the highly successful, private, Belarusian-language Radio 101.2 in Minsk, which was closed down by the Lukashenka administration in mid-1990s because, as one commentator put it, it broadcast in the language of freedom, not that of suppression.

One of the participants in the "Nasha Niva" discussion about Deutsche Welle's planned broadcasts to Belarus said the use of Russian language strips the project of any practical efficiency. He argued that tuning in to the Deutsche Welle Russian-language program on shortwave (over which Deutsche Welle will broadcast to Belarus) would be incomparably harder than tuning in to a Belarusian-language broadcast because of a multitude of other Russian-language stations on the shortwave spectrum. Thus the use of Belarusian by Deutsche Welle would arguably be a more pragmatic option. Some in Belarus believe that argument is even more appealing than any case based on Belarusian trauma resulting from its government's linguistic and cultural policies.