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Газета Nezavisimaya Gazeta Печатная версия

01.10.1999 00:00:00

Belarus: country with a history-sized hole in its imagination


Aleksandr Lukashenka - the nation's father. Visiting women's prison after a referendum of 1996.
An ITAR-TASS Photo
"Belarusians," Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev memorably said after visiting Minsk, the country's capital, in 1962, "will be the first to attain communism." When asked why, Khrushchev replied: "No one I met in Minsk could speak Belarusian."

The Communist Party program, adopted a few years before Khrushchev's visit to Minsk, promised that "the next generation of the Soviet people will live under communism" and that "all peoples and languages will merge into a single 'Soviet' nation."

Communism, in a word, was seen as a sort of cultural melting pot, where the Russian language were to serve as the lowest common denominator.

Belarusians, Khrushchev was pleased to discover, were people ahead of their time. And since then, apparently, they have made some progress.

"Those who speak Belarusian can only speak Belarusian," the country's president Alexander Lukashenka (who does not speak Belarusian) said in his famous dictum in 1995. "There are only two great languages in which one can say something meaningful: Russian and English."

A former collective-farm manager, Lukashenka won office in a free presidential election in 1994 (with a massive 80 percent of the vote) by the simple promise that a speedy return to the Russian orbit would solve all of the country's political and economic problems. Since then he has pressed forward with his plans for economic and political reunion with Russia.

In May 1995, 75 percent of Belarusian voters agreed in a referendum organized by Lukashenka to ditch the national flag and crest in use since 1991 and restore the state symbols of the Soviet era.

In the same vote, 83 percent supported the proposition that Russian should become an official state language and that Belarus should seek to form at least an economic union with Russia (turnout was 65 per cent).

In 1996, Russia and Belarus signed a union agreement intended to promote close political and economic cooperation, but stopped short of creating a single state. Now they seem prepared to do just that.

On December 25, 1998, Lukashenka and Russian President Boris Yeltsin announced plans for common policy on economic, foreign and military matters.

On April 28, 1999, Yeltsin and Lukashenka had agreed to create a mutual border. On July 7, Belarus agreed to adopt the Russian ruble as the union's future currency. And on the same day Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin said that a draft treaty for a full Russia-Belarus merger would be ready "within a month" and could be signed in the fall.

Belarusian authoritarianism is by no means unique in post-communist Europe, points out Alexander Lukashuk, former deputy of the Supreme Soviet of Belarus and now deputy director of the Belarus section of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague. What makes Belarus truly different from other authoritarian states is its non-nationalist character.

Why does Belarus seem to place so little value on the independence it won in 1991? Unlike other post-Soviet states such as Moldova or Georgia which have been plagued by violent ethnic strife since 1991, the problem does not seem to lie with ethnicity. A healthy majority of 78 per cent of the population of Belarus were ethnic Belarusians according to the last Soviet census in 1989, and there are no 'autonomous republics' or non-Belarusian territorial enclaves that might want to break away from Minsk. Only 13 percent of the population is actually Russian.

The problem rather seems to lie with Belarusian history. Belarus's peculiar predicament was well caught in a paper written by Andrew Wilson of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Belarus: nation in search of a history).

Belarusians, Wilson argued, are aware that they are neither Russian nor Polish, but lack a plausible myth of national descent around which to build a more positive sense of national identity.

The biggest problem is the lack of any real statehood in the past, a 'Golden Age' which contemporary Belarus could be presented as reincarnating. Ukrainians, for example, can claim the early medieval principality of Kievan Rus as their own, Georgians the kingdom of Kartli-Kakhetia that survived until 1801, Uzbeks the empire of Tamerlane.

The best that nationalist Belarusian historians can do is to play up Belarusian autonomy within given polities or to reinvent periods and places previously ascribed to other national mythologies as in fact ersatz Belarusian states.

Therefore Belarusian historians (such as Vatslav Lastouski before the 1917 revolution and Usevalad Ihnatouski in the 1920s) deny that Kievan Rus was ever a monolithic kingdom, and assert that the north-eastern Marches (the 'city states' of Polatsk and Novahradok), were in fact embryonic Belarusian states in more or less constant warfare with Kiev.

The Lithuanian kingdom of 1238 to 1569 is now described as the 'Lithuanian-Belarusian' kingdom, founded by Novahradok, whose court language and culture was essentially Belarusian. In a particularly fascinating twist, it is claimed that the 'Litviny' after whom the state was named were in fact Belarusians (the Lithuanians were then known as 'Ahamoity', or 'Zmudziny' after the Polish).

The defeat of the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Grunwald in 1410 was therefore a Belarusian rather than a Lithuanian victory. Even the Polish Commonwealth established via merger with Lithuania (or Lithuania-Belarus) at the 1569 Union of Lublin is depicted as a decentralized 'dual kingdom' in which Belarusian lands enjoyed almost complete autonomy.

Supposedly therefore the remnants of Belarusian 'statehood' were only finally extinguished in 1793-5, when the final Partitions of 'Poland' brought nearly all Belarusian territory forcibly under Russian control.

Moreover, nationalist historians play up the significance of events such as the 1863 uprising (often interpreted in the West as purely a Polish revolt) and the attempt to establish a 'Belarusian People's Republic' in 1918 in order to refute the myth of Belarus' voluntary incorporation into, and ultimate dissolution in, the Russian cultural and political space.

National independence in 1991 did not therefore arrive out of the blue, but was only the culmination of a long period of heroic struggle against foreign rule.

Soviet historiography, however, has even denied the very possibility of a separate Belarusian history by asserting that Belarusians and Russians (and Ukrainians) were descended from a single 'old Rus nation', that is the Orthodox population of Rus.

The Russian annexation of Belarusian lands in 1793-5 was therefore 'reunion' rather than (re)conquest. While the history of, say, Estonia or Georgia was subject to mere misrepresentation and distortion, the Belarusian past was simply wished away.

That, of late, strikes a melodious chord in Russian ruling circles. The crash of the Russian ruble in August last year has added considerably to Russia's frequent urge to stitch its empire back together. According to Valery Karbalevich, a political analyst in Minsk, "Since August 1998, the main driver of integration has changed from Belarus to Russia."

The Russian elite at the beginning of the 1990s made a social contract, that it would sacrifice its empire for the sake of higher living standards and economic development. The August crash put an end to this bargain. Quite simply, since Petronian luxury failed to materialize, Moscow elites are now saying they want their empire back.

How ironic it would be if this last spasm of imperial thinking precipitated the disintegration of the Russian Federation itself. Mintimer Shaimiyev, president of Tatarstan, a Russian autonomous republic with a predominantly Muslim population, said, upon learning of a prospective Slavic Union, that Tatarstan, too, might one day like to join-on equal terms.


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