Belarusians Increase Share of Republic's Population but Speak National Language Less

Paul Goble

Staunton, September 9 - Belarusians form a larger share of their country's declining population than they did a decade ago, new census results show, but fewer there claim Belarusian as their native language or say they speak it at home, trends that set that country apart from its neighbors and could lead to the extinction of the national language in a generation.

Minsk has now released the results of the national census Belarus conducted in 2009. The most dramatic figure is that Belarus has suffered a serious decline in its total population, with that statistic falling from10,045,000 in 1999 to 9,500,000, the kind of decline that has afflicted neighboring Slavic republics as well (

But as Belarusian demographers note, this overall decline is hardly the only "negative demographic tendency" the new census has shown. Over the last 10 years, the percentage of adult men and women who are married has declined, the result both of an increasing gender imbalance - 1150 women for every 1,000 men - and a growing number of divorces.

The first of these, largely the result of greater alcoholism among men, is preventing Belarus even more than the Russian Federation or Ukraine from overcoming the gender imbalance that was produced by the greater number of male deaths in World War II, while the second is part of a broader pattern.

In addition, Belarus has seen the share of pensioners increase and the number of children decrease by almost 30 percent, a figure that does not augur well for the future. And the census showed that 75 percent of Belarusians now live in cities, a figure certain to increase because the rural population is declining much more rapidly than the urban one.

The ethnic mix of the population has changed as well over the inter-censal period. Now, Belarusians form 84 percent of the population, up from 81 percent in1999, while the share of ethnic Russians has declined from 11 percent to 8 percent, and that of ethnic Ukrainians from 2.4 percent to 2 percent.

On the one hand, these changes reflect some outmigration, although the numbers reported for that in the past have been small. But on the other, at least part of the Russian and to a lesser extent the Ukrainian populations reflect the aging of these two groups and very likely the propensity of some of their members to re-identify as Belarusians.

The Belarusian census also found that the share of the republic's population who consider Belarusian to be their native language has declined from "almost 74 percent" in 1999 to only 53 percent now, a bare majority. And only 23 percent say they use that language at home on a regular basis, down from 37 percent a decade ago.

According to the report on, the Society for the Belarusian Language blames the decline on President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's russification policies and concludes that unless something is done soon, Belarusian may cease to be a vernacular language for the overwhelming majority of Belarusians within a generation.

Indeed, the independent Minsk newspaper "Nasha niva" said that while declines in the total population were unfortunate, they were typical of the region, with Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania, and Latvia all suffering analogous drops. But the paper said, "only the Belarusians are losing their native language." Elsewhere the language is "consolidating" the nation.

That pattern, of course, may change in Ukraine if Kyiv goes ahead with its current plans to elevate the status of Russian, something that will reduce the willingness of longtime Russian speakers there to learn Ukrainian and thus potentially put off the kind of national consolidation that had been taking place there and in Belarus.


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