The Republic of Belarus, which used to be part of the Soviet Union, became an independent state in 1991. It was expected that Belarus would follow the same path in the way of its independent nation-building as the other former Soviet republics, i.e., it would promote its national identity and the use of the national language in the public and private spheres of life. The tentative attempt to introduce a new language policy that stipulated for a gradual switch to Belarusian as the sole state language first seemed quite successful. The referendum of 1995, however, reintroduced the Russian language as the second state language, which in practice meant squeezing Belarusian out of the public sphere, and going back to Belarus being a predominantly Russian-speaking country.
The events of August 2020 (presidential election in Belarus and its aftermath) gave rise to a new interest in the Belarusian language. The use of Belarusian in public spaces, together with the white-red-white flag, became a symbol of the fight of the people against the dictatorial regime of President Lukashenko. Since the authorities in Belarus perceived the use of Belarusian and demonstration of the opposition flag as ideological threats to the regime, speaking the language and displaying the flag became the reason for severe repercussions against Belarusian citizens.
It could be argued that that the new language policy of the 1990s failed because the national identity of Belarusians was still in its infancy by the time the Soviet Union collapsed. With the Russian language remaining the medium of urban dwellers’ communication and a means of upward social mobility since the times of the tsarist empire, the value of being fluent in Belarusian continued to be questionable for most of the Belarusian population.
However, the egregious rigging of the voting results, the brutal crackdown on protesters, as well as on civil society and independent mass media after the election of 2020, created a new vision of the Belarusian nation: the one united by history, memory, traditions, ancient symbols, and the Belarusian language in its struggle for freedom and democracy.
Yuliya Brel-Fournier is an assistant policy scientist at the Center for Applied Demography and Survey Research at the University of Delaware. She holds master’s and PhD degrees in Urban Affairs and Public Policy from the Biden School of Public Policy and Administration at the University of Delaware, and a master’s degree in linguistics from Minsk State Linguistic University in Belarus. Her research interests concentrate on the problems of transition from authoritarianism to democracy in Central and Eastern European countries and the former Soviet republics, modern dictatorships, democratic governance, and the role of civil society in the process of transition to democracy and its subsequent consolidation. Additionally, her research focuses on social policies, for example, language, education, and health policies, and the reasons for their advance or ill success in the former Soviet republics and the USA.