Belarusian authorities consider alternative to “Russian World”

April 22, 2016 19:00

The Kremlin’s aggressive international policy is prompting Belarus to reconsider her national project in order to neutralise the influence of “Russian World” ideas on Belarusian society. The Belarusian authorities seek to consolidate society around the idea of Belarus’ independence and nation-building by placing greater emphasis on Belarus’ national culture.

However, the authorities’ actions are inconsistent. This could be explained by the authorities’ passivity as well as by the conflicting nature of Belarus’ previous cultural and humanitarian policy. 

Throughout his rule, President Lukashenko has repeatedly asserted that Belarusians and Russians are one nation, and commented that "Belarusians are Russians with a quality mark". However, amid the Kremlin’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy towards Ukraine, President Lukashenko is starting to change his rhetoric in an attempt to distance himself from the so-called “Russian World".

During his last press conference with Russian regional media, Lukashenko said that the Belarusian authorities had failed to create a state ideology acceptable for all. “I am told that our national ideology is a profound patriotism and so on. But patriotism is understood without an ideology – we need something that would ignite and be acceptable for society as a whole, that would inspire. From my perspective, neither I, nor my assistants have come up with anything like that. Those involved in the ideology say that we have a state ideology. As the president, I tell them that it has not won my heart or my mind, so how would it conquer the heart of an average person?”

It is unlikely that the authorities’ recent initiatives to strengthen the Belarusian national consciousness have been exclusively prompted by the presidential campaign in 2015. According to IISEPS polls, the president’s approval rating has continued to grow throughout 2014 amid the crisis in Ukraine. 

Most likely, the Belarusian authorities have seriously thought about readjusting the current state ideology and reinforcing it with Belarusian national culture in order to consolidate Belarusian society. For example, for the first time in many years, President Lukashenko held a meeting not only with the Writers’ Union functionaries (pro-governmental union), but also with representatives of the Union of Belarusian Writers (an independent organisation promoting national culture). In addition, the authorities have become aware of the Belarusian language’s weak tenure in educational institutions, and the need to gently promote national cultural and historical values, which identify Belarusians as a nation and often conflict with the "Russian World" ideology. At a meeting with representatives of Belarus’ intelligentsia, President Lukashenko proposed establishing a national university where studies would be in Belarusian.

It is worth noting that, until recently, the Belarusian authorities have controlled protest activity in society by dividing their opponents. For instance, early in his presidency, Lukashenko managed to divide almost all the political parties and non-governmental organisations which were regarded as disloyal to the Belarusian leadership. As a result, there are several political parties in Belarus with the same programme and ideology, or even the same name: the ‘Belarusian Popular Front’ Conservative Christian Party and the Belarusian Popular Front; the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Gromada) and the Belarusian Social Democratic Gromada and the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Narodnaya Gromada). Having divided the political parties, the authorities caused a split in several major non-governmental organisations (e.g. the Belarusian Union of Writers), including ethnic minority organisations, such as the Union of Poles in Belarus.

Meanwhile, the authorities have neither attempted to divide Tavarystva Belaruskaj Movy (TBM) (the Belarusian Language Society), nor created a pro-governmental organisation which would support the Belarusian language. Interestingly, the TBM is one of the largest non-governmental organisations in Belarus today.

However, the Belarusian president is sending quite mixed signals to society and public officials. The public officials in the regions have not yet been properly updated about the president’s new ideas to strengthen the state ideology via national culture, and still use traditional coercive means against representatives of “alternative” culture. For example, while the president was meeting with writers, security agents in Grodno clamped down on the presentation of a new novel by Belarusian writer Viktar Martinovic - a bestseller with a symbolic name ‘Mova’ [’Language’ in Belarusian].

In the near future, the Belarusian authorities might take cautious steps to developing Belarusians’ national awareness. In doing so, their aim will be to strengthen society’s loyalty to the Belarusian state, narrow the split in society, and create an alternative to the "Russian World".

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The Belarusian authorities have launched a discussion on the moratorium or abolition of the death penalty under the pressure of Belarusian human rights activists and international community. Apparently, the authorities are interested in monitoring public sentiments and response to the possible abolition of the capital punishment. The introduction of a moratorium on the death penalty would depend on the dynamics in Belarusian-European relations, efforts of the civil society organisations and Western capitals.

In Grodno last week, the possibility of abolishing the death penalty in Belarus or introducing a moratorium was discussed.

The Belarusian authorities are likely to continue to support the death penalty in Belarus. During his rule, President Lukashenka pardoned only one person, and courts sentenced to death more than 400 people since the early 1990s. Over the past year, Belarusian courts sentenced to death several persons and one person was executed.

There are no recent independent polls about people’s attitude about the death penalty in Belarus. Apparently, this issue is not a priority for the population. In many ways, public opinion about the abolition of the death penalty would depend on the tone of the state-owned media reports.

That said, the Belarusian Orthodox Church and the Roman-Catholic Church stand for the abolition of the capital punishment, however their efforts in this regard only limit to public statements about their stance. Simultaneously, the authorities could have influenced public opinion about the death penalty through a focused media campaign in the state media. As they did, for example, with the nuclear power plant construction in Astravets. Initially unpopular project of the NPP construction was broadly promoted in the state media, and eventually, according to independent pollsters, was accepted by most population.