14 May – 10 years has passed since the Belarusian language lost its status as the only state language, and the white-red-white flag with the Pahonia coat of arms ceased to be symbols of the state
14 May – 10 years has passed since the Belarusian language lost its status as the only state language, and the white-red-white flag with the Pahonia coat of arms ceased to be symbols of the state. Another two issues put to the then referendum concerned the presidential right to dissolve the parliament and the economic integration with Russia, they however were not as far-reaching and only underlined the tendencies of the early years of Aliaxandr Lukashenka as the president. Establishing bilingualism and canceling the official status of national symbols should not be viewed as something irreversible.
That referendum ran against serious opposition, including the members of the Supreme Soviet. As a sign of protest, the BPF deputies even went on hunger-strike in the parliament, however, this action was brutally stopped by the security service. In an interview with the Belorusskiye novosti, Siarhei Navumchyk, a hunger-striker at that time, recalls the then atmosphere and some significant details.
- Several months after he was elected president, in September Lukashenka told me (which is, by the way, is recorded on a tape): "Siarhei, you say I am against the Belarusian language. Do you know that my children went to a Belarusian-language school? Kids… My mother-in-law taught Belarusian!".
When I heart the mother-in-law part of the story, I immediately understood why Lukashenka had such an attitude to the language. By the way, that was the only time Lukashenka officially met with the leaders of the Parliamentary opposition. Later on he chose the tactics of fighting his political opponents. Back in spring 1995 he used the cancellation of the national symbols and the official status of the Belarusian language as the only official language as a technique of ousting the opposition from the political arena.
Now, 15-10 years later, the early 1990s are sometimes idealized, and ironically referred to as "the rampaging years of Kebich-Shushkievich democracy". In fact, things were not just as bright. Of course, the official symbols of the country were the white-red-white flag, and the Pahonia as the state coat of arms, which was a great achievement. But, the scope of the Belarusization allegedly conducted in the early 1990s is greatly exaggerated. There were still fewer Belarusian schools than Russian-language ones. Virtually all of the officials, all of the army, KGB and Foreign Ministry spoke Russian. Out of three hundred deputies of the Supreme Court, only thirty spoke Belarusian (even those representing the Belarusian People's Front did not always speak Belarusian).
I do not know a single case of a person losing his job because he did not know Belarusian, but I know dozens of cases of people losing their jobs because they spoke Belarusian. Remember the "purging" of the army: many of the officers who were members of the Belarusian Association of Servicemen were dismissed.
Yet another myth – BPF was allegedly forcing introduction of the de-Sovietized Belarusian language. Of course, Pazniak, Viachorka and a couple of other famous politicians did know how to speak the language correctly. For example, I only started learning the de-Sovietized Belarusian in the my jobs as a journalist on the Liberty radio, Prof. Ala Orsa-Ramana, of New York University, kept correcting my language mistakes. Though the fact that the Svaboda newspaper published in the old-style Belarusian language had a circulation of 100 000 copies is largely thanks to Ihar Hiermianchuk.
- What do you think would be the status of the Belarusian language now but for the discriminatory bilingualism?
- Vasil Bykau rightly wrote in the early 1990s that the Law on the Languages was given too much time for implementation: he came out in favor of more energetic moves. Nonetheless, the Belarusian language was finding more and more new applications, new educational establishments opened up (including the Kolas lyceum). If the situation had been developing naturally, the Belarusian language would have been used in the spheres typical of the state language and would have basically the same status as Ukrainian has in Ukraine, where even under Kuchma, ministers gave interviews even to Moscow-based TV channels in Ukrainian.
I do not think the situation will change for the better in the near future, in five-seven years to come. However, Belarus survived through worse times: during a war led by Moscow czar Ivan IV, every second Belarusian was murdered. Under Alexander II, people uttering a word of Belarusian were sent to Siberia. But the language and the Pahonia persisted. I do not doubt it that in thirty years there will be a white-red-white flag over the House of Government, and Lukashenka's grandchildren will be speaking Belarusian.