Is there nationalism in Belarus?
Appointing three new rectors of universities on 28 February, Aliaksandr Lukashenka once again stated that there exists no problem with Belarusian language at universities.
Meanwhile, only 0,2% of university students study in the Belarusian language, according to a recent survey. The lack of pride in national values presents a well-known feature of Belarusians, and this situation has a historical explanation.
Perestroika and collapse of the USSR in early 1990s gave rise to mass nationalist organisations in Belarus. Taking compromises with the Soviet bureaucracy could prevent the establishment of authoritarian regime, but nationalists took uncompromising position and lost the game.
Because of Lukashenka’s pro-Russian politics, they became chief enemies of the first president and saw decline through 2000s. Today, nationalist organisations are few and they do not impact Belarusian politics.
The majority of Belarusians do not support nationalist ideas. On the one hand that seems quite a positive fact, which prevents conflicts between Belarusians and other nations and minorities. On the other hand, nationalism could be an important factor of national consolidation at many moments of history and present time, but it fails to do so constantly.
Revival of National Movement during Perestroika
In 1980s Belarus remained perhaps the most denationalised country of former USSR. However, Perestroika with its liberalisation and massive amount of formerly secret information awaked national feelings among some of Belarusians.
In 1988, a group of nationally oriented intellectuals established civil movement Belarusian Popular Front "Adradžennie" ("the BPF"), which appeared in Baltic states some time before and inspired Belarusians. At first, the BPF advocated national revival and democratisation, but soon radicalised and demanded independence of Belarus from USSR.
Belarusian nomenklatura (communist party and administrative bureaucracy), who occupied all major decision making positions, remained strongly sovietised and reluctant to pursue radical reforms. But they needed some compromise with democrats and the BPF party as its major force.
Independence came unexpectedly, although the majority of Belarusians supported the preservation of Soviet Union at the Referendum of 1989. Until 1994, Belarus remained parliamentary republic, but in 1994 the government took fatal decision to introduce presidential post. 1994 presidential elections resulted in election of unexpected young Member of Parliament A. Lukashenka, who changed the subsequent course of Belarusian history.
Anti-Nationalist Strategy of the First President
Strategic alliance with Russia, supported by cheap hydrocarbons and wider markets made Lukashenka prime anti-nationalist in Belarus. As the strongest among opposition forces and nationalist by ideology, the BPF party became enemy ¹1 for newly elected president.
Lukashenka started his first term in office with notorious anti-national steps: he replaced national symbols with slightly modified Soviet ones, initiated introduction of the Russian language as second official, stopped and reversed support of the Belarusian language in education, media, government and virtually everywhere. This policy led to the continuation of the denationalisation policy started by communists.
During his speeches, Lukashenka liked to remind Belarusians about 1990s, the time when "wild nationalists" raged. His favourite tale sounds like "back in 1990s Russians were sitting on their suitcases in Belarus" - meaning that nationalists were about to evict them from the country. In reality this is a complete myth to increase his importance in the eyes of the Russians.
Propaganda likes to show all opposition as nationalist, although most parties, particularly oppositional social-democrats and communists are far from that. Nationalism seems a better target for the authorities, as it reminds of fascism and World War II, which provokes a kind of trauma in mass consciousness.
This rhetoric was strongest in the 1990s and beginning of 2000s, when nationalist organisations and ideas remained more widespread and strong. With consolidation of the regime and decline of organised opposition, this anti-nationalist pressure somewhat calmed down.
Today, the issue of nationalism lost its former significance in Lukashenka’s speeches. Referring to opposition, he speaks about western dirty money, external enemies, anti-state plots and so on, but usually does not touch national matters any more.
Among the ruling elite, there remained no people with clear sympathies towards the Belarusian language, as the regime carefully purged the system. The former Minister of Culture Paval Latuška presented the only exception. He usually spoke Belarusian almost everywhere, visited many cultural events and was familiar with many figures of Belarusian art and culture. But he seemed an odd ball among denationalised Belarusian elite and soon left the country to work at the Belarusian embassy in Paris.
Mistakes of Nationalists
Some experts believe that Lukashenka is not the only person guilty. Nationalists themselves also contributed to emergence of authoritarianism by their uncompromising position. The politics of Zianon Paźniak, a once prominent politician who has been in exile since 1990s serves tas he best example.
Many consider Paźniak to be authoritarian, nationalist fanatic and russophobic person. His radicalism served one of the main reasons of defeat of opposition in politics in 1990s, when people waited for social and economic improvement, but opposition led by the BPF party highlighted national values as foundation of further development. Paźniak never compromised with nomenklatura, although such alliance could put Belarus on another path.
In 1999, the BPF split in two separate parties because of different views of Paźniak and other leaders of the party on further strategy. Since then, nationalist opposition, as virtually all other parties, declined and could hardly impact domestic politics.
Today two direct BPF descendants operate in Belarus: the Belarusian Popular Front party and the Conservative Christian Party BPF. Although both of them hardly have any popular support, the BPF party remains more dynamic – over the decade it saw change of several leaders and often allies with other oppositional forces, even communists in some political projects.
The Conservative Christian Party received a nickname "sect", because its unchallenged leader, Zianon Paźniak, directs the party from abroad since 1999. It has rather dogmatic ideology and does not ally with anybody at all.
The Belarusian Christian Democracy and the Right Alliance present two other major right and conservative organisations in Belarus. Both of them remain unregistered officially and therefore can not legally participate in politics.
All present nationalist organisations in Belarus employ peaceful methods of politics. Power confrontation became impossible since mid-1990s, as the regime has consolidated significantly and nobody inside the country can resist it.
Importantly, Belarusians never supported Nazi ideas and no significant radical right organisations appeared here. A few of them emerged back in 1990s and tried to use violence against the regime, mostly in mass actions, but no major conflict that involved death ever occurred in Belarus on that ground. Such ideas seem to be unpopular within Belarusian mentality and way of life.
Even moderate nationalism remains not common for majority of Belarusians today. Some manifestations of everyday nationalism occur in special cases, for instance when Russians come to Belarus and behave particularly ugly. But usually, people express no hate towards the former "occupants".
On the one hand that is quite positive fact which prevents conflicts between nations, something has never been a serious problem in Belarus. On the other hand, a degree of healthy positive nationalism could be an important factor of national consolidation and building a civil society in Belarus.