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Struggle over Identity

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Nelly Bekus

Part IV. Arguments and Paradoxes of Weak Belarusian Identity

Chapter 12. Belarus as an Example of National and Democratic Failure

Texte intégral

  • 1 Korosteleva, “Party System Development in Post Communist Belarus,” 76.

1In the early 1990s, at the beginning of the system transformations, the main force of Belarusian nationalism was the Belarusian People’s Front (BPF). The BPF was one of the few truly active mass organizations in post-communist Belarus. Being a modified party organization it had “a relatively active regional network based on cells, clubs, and caucuses; flexible membership, associated not with fees, but commitment to promote the party’s name and ideology, and intensive ‘street canvassing’.”1 The party’s popularity is evident by the fact that in the early 1990s its membership reached 150,000. No other political party could boast of such numbers.

2However, the ideas of national revival preached by the BPF rapidly and unexpectedly ceased to attract favorable disposition of Belarusian society. As early as in 1994, there were no serious candidates for presidency from the nationalist movement. The main struggle for the office developed between the representative of the nomenclature, prime minister V. Kebich, and a non-party candidate A. Lukashenka. Different researchers call attention to different reasons that caused the loss of popularity by Belarusian nationalists.

  • 2 Motyl, “Totalitarian Collapse, Imperial Disintegration, and the Rise of the Soviet West,” 52–53.

3Motyl’s writings address general organizational immaturity of the popular fronts that arose in specific conditions of the totalitarian system. “Detotalization has suddenly cast republican popular fronts in roles—as political parties and state-builders—for which they are singularly unprepared. Social movements are excellent vehicles of popular mobilization or of single-issue politics. Everyday politics, on the other hand, requires professional organization and nonpartisan institutions that can act as channels for a variety of political forces.”2 The Belarusian People’s Front was successful in the political mobilization related to some painful issues of Soviet Belarusian history, like the after-effects of Chernobyl or Kuropaty. But it proved to be unable to draw mass support during the transition to an integral program of social transformations.

  • 3 Uadzimir Rouda, “Belorusskaia kontrelita: sostoianie i vozmozhnyie modeli povedenia,” Analitika In (...)
  • 4 “Demokratia i natsionalizm kak alfa i omega politicheskogo protsessa,” Adkrytaie gramadstva no. 2 (...)

4Rouda writes that the failure of Belarusian nationalist forces was a strategic one, since they emphasized the wrong priorities in the political struggle. Opposition leaders “failed to realize that any mass resocialization is doomed to failure if it is not implemented by the state; that, because of this, the political tasks are of more superior importance than cultural ones at a given historical stage.”3 Another author notes that “the democratic movement failed because its leaders were not able to find the right correlation between the national and the democratic components in the struggle for political power in the country.”4

  • 5 Uladzimir Konan, “Belarus’ na miazhy tysiachagoddziau: shtrykhi da gistarychnaga, palitychnaga i d (...)

5Many authors believe that the roots of the political failure of the national front are in the nation-definition they had chosen. The rhetoric of the Belarusian nation revival underlying the political program leaned on the fragment of the Belarusian population that was aware of its particular “Belarusianness” and manifested its devotion to the Belarusian language and and pre-Soviet past. Uladzimir Konan discloses the BPF’s idea of the nation: “actually just nationally conscious Belarusians belong to the Belarusian nation, as well as those representatives of ethnic minorities who live in the context of the Belarusian language and culture. While those ethnic Belarusians who are not Belarusian-conscious and objectively do not live in the context of the national language and culture, in effect, fall out of the nation, they belong to it only eventually, that is only possible in certain social and political conditions.”5

6Thus, in their definition of the nation, the nationalists laid down the principle of exclusiveness. The national idea built on this principle did not so much unite people as divided them. Nationalist forces were not able to formulate a political ideology of the majority, because from the start they based their presence in society on the opposition of the “nationally indifferent,” to those conscious of their Belarusianness and actively supporting the promotion of the Belarusian language and Belarusian ethnic and national identity in its anti-Russian mode.

  • 6 Valiantsin Akudovich, “Bez nas,” Nasha Niva, April 28, 2003.

7In a 2003 essay titled “Without Us,” Valiantsin Akudovich displays a critical reflection of the political and cultural ideology of the Belarusian nationalism in the early 1990s. “Using an overstatement we may say that the adradzhen’ne [resurgence] as we had formulated and tried to realize it was a kind of intellectual genocide of Belarusian society, as it rejected the right to evaluate their own lives not only to contemporaries, but also to prior generations who had lived for two hundred years without complaint under the yoke of the Eastern colonizer.”6 This symbolic genocide of the part of Belarusian people who did not immediately respond to the maximalist appeal of the national movement of the early 1990s became one of the causes of a political exodus among those who found themselves on the list of those not conscious of their Belarusianness. As a result, by the mid1990s the nationalist rhetoric in Belarusian society had a reverse effect. The part of society that did not support the hard anti-Russian rhetoric (but at the same time did not mind Belarusian national independence at all and could be democratically minded in principle) left the ranks of those mobilized by Belarusian nationalism, which often meant abandoning politics. These reflections emphasize the inability of the Belarusian nationalists to craft political changes in society and their miscalculations in grounding the political practices. But the top place on the list of the reasons for the failure of nationalist political forces is occupied by the national self-consciousness of the Belarusian people themselves, or, to be precise, by its absence. This failure is seen by many researchers as a direct symptom of the weakness of Belarusian national identity that comprises the basis of the Belarusian people’s cultural and historical legacy. The defeat of the political nationalism appears predetermined. A collection of quotations about the Belarusian identity from works by Western researchers gives the impression of nearly common agreement on this issue.

  • 7 David R. Marples, Belarus A Denationalized Nation (Amsterdam: Harwood, 1999).
  • 8 George Sanford, “Nation, State and Independence in Belarus,” Contemporary Politics 3, no. 3 (1997) (...)
  • 9 Ed Jocelyn, “Nationalism, Identity and the Belarusian State,” in National Identities and Ethnic Mi (...)
  • 10 Korosteleva, Lawsomn and Marsh, “Introduction. Paradoxes of Democratization in Contemporary Belaru (...)
  • 11 Michalisko, “Belarus: Retreat to Authoritarianism,” 224.
  • 12 Richard Crampton and Ben Crampton, Atlas of Eastern Europe in the Twentieth Century (London: Routl (...)
  • 13 K. Dawisha and B. Parrot, Russian and the New States of Eurasia: The Politics of Upheaval (Cambrid (...)

8In the book titled A Denationalized Nation David Marples shows that nationalism did not become a new ideology of Belarusians after the disintegration of the Soviet empire and was not able to take the role of a consolidating force of Belarusian society.7 Marples explains it by the alienation of Belarusians from their own national idea, which resulted from decades of the Soviet period that became an obstacle on the way to democratic society. George Sanford sees post-communist Belarus as a “combining weak or divided national consciousness with an insignificant experience of independent statehood.”8 Ed Jocelyn says that in Belarus “national consciousness is a highly problematic concept,” and that “Belarusian national identity is fragmented, and its roots lead in different directions.”9 Korosteleva, Lawson, and Marsh write about the “three key features of post-communist Belarus: the relative absence of nationalist sentiment; the failure of the opposition; and the popularity of President Lukashenka.”10 Kathleen Michalisko sees these factors as interconnected: it is “the absence of nationalism—in its primarily definition of devotion to the interests of a nation—that makes Lukashenka possible.”11 Richard and Ben Crampton believe that Belarus “has little sense of nationhood and little experience in practical politics,” stressing the fact that “there was no church with which Belarusians could associate” in their establishing of a distinct identity.12 Dawisha and Parrot insist: “Belarus has a shortage of ingredients critical to the construction of a durable nation-state: a vigorous sense of its distinctive national identity. […] The Belarusian case demonstrates the difficulty of basing a new state on a conception of the nation as a sovereign people when the core population’s sense of ethnic distinctiveness is comparatively undeveloped.”13

9From this perspective, existence of an independent Belarusian state seems an exceptional case. As Thomas Winderl writes, “True enough, Belarus still exists as a sovereign state. But Belarus is definitely an example where an attempt to establish a strong national identity failed within a short period of time.”14 This view on the existing Belarusian state as “not a national one” is shared by Polish sociologist Ryszard Radzik: “The Soviet state has created Belarusian society in its present form. However, it did not create the Belarusian nation, as well as the nation did not build the state (as the major part of the population was not ‘nationalized’).”15 About the existing Belarusian state R. Radzik writes, that it “is not a realization of the national meta-myth, [not] an idea of the national-liberation struggle, [and not a] tension of civil emotions.”16

  • 17 Snyder, The Reconstruction of Nations, 41–42.

10In his The Reconstruction of Nations. Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569–1999, Timothy Snyder uses Belarusians as an example of a “national failure.” “Here we have an ‘ethnic group’,” writes Snyder, “which is the largest by far in the area in question. According to the Russian imperial census of 1897, more people spoke Belarusian in Vilnius province that all other languages combined. In Vilnius, Minsk, Grodno, Mogilev, and Vitebsk provinces contiguous territories of historic Lituania, speakers of Belarusian were three-quarters of the population. In the twentieth century, this “ethnic group” did not become a modern nation.”17

  • 18 Anatol Astapenka, “Palitychnyia pratsesy na Belarusi u gistarychnai perspektyve i ikh uzaemasuviaz (...)

11Belarusian authors also promote the thesis of a weak and unshaped character of the Belarusian nation. For them unrealized project of democratic Belarusian state is an unimplemented possibility of completing the construction of the Belarusian nation. A. Astapenka, deputy chairman of the BSDG (Belarusian Social Democratic Gramada) writes: “At the end of the twentieth century Belarusians have found themselves in the same situation as the French people at the end of the eighteenth century or the Czech people in the early twentieth century. Currently—at the time of developed national state—Belarusians are one of the few peoples in the world whose national identity has not formed yet. The basic features of a nation—a common language, territory, and national state—are not manifested in Belarus in the best possible way, and not without reason for a long time Belarusians were referred to as an ethnos, and not as a nation.”18

  • 19 Siargei Dubavets, “Padstavy ratsiianal’naga natsiianalismu,” in Antalogia suchasnaga belaruskaga m (...)
  • 20 Polesskii Ianov, “Bremia istoricheskogo tvorchestva,” Nashe mnienie, May 23, 2006, http://www.nmnb (...)

12S. Dubavets reiterates: “Belarusians do not exist as a developed cultural nation. There are no grounds for them to assume ‘an equal position among [other] nations.’ It is an illusion to see Belarusians in the same ranks as Germans, Russians or even Lithuanians—in the same context of culture and science-related issues.”19 Another Belarusian author, Ianov Polesskii, writes, “I believe, transformations in Belarus can actually take place if we manage to form a nation within a short period of time.”20

13Although the above quotations touch on different aspects of Belarusian political and cultural life, the common denominator remains diagnostics of the state of the national consciousness as something weak and backward. Practically all of the above quotations deal with the nation to which the Belarusian nationalists and the BPF appealed in the early 1990s, the nation comprising “conscious” Belarusians who are ready to oppose themselves to the Soviet experience of Belarusianness. The defeat of the political nationalism in the early 1990s made it logical to conclude about the underdeveloped condition of the Belarusian nation. A number of concomitant factors are seen as critically important symptoms of this deficiency, such as the prospect of building the Union State with Russia, linguistic Russification, and overall lack of anti-Russian sentiment in society. The lack of religious unity among Belarusians is considered as one more reason for Belarusian identity’s weakness. Nevertheless, further narration will show that all these factors are far from being simplistically interrelated.

Notes

1 Korosteleva, “Party System Development in Post Communist Belarus,” 76.

2 Motyl, “Totalitarian Collapse, Imperial Disintegration, and the Rise of the Soviet West,” 52–53.

3 Uadzimir Rouda, “Belorusskaia kontrelita: sostoianie i vozmozhnyie modeli povedenia,” Analitika Informatsionno-analiticheskii tsentr NGO, 2001, http://iac.unibel.by/anl_el0010.htm.

4 “Demokratia i natsionalizm kak alfa i omega politicheskogo protsessa,” Adkrytaie gramadstva no. 2 (11) (2001), http://data.minsk.by/opensociety/2.01/5.html.

5 Uladzimir Konan, “Belarus’ na miazhy tysiachagoddziau: shtrykhi da gistarychnaga, palitychnaga i dukhounaga partretu natsii,” Acta Albaruthenica, 2 (2001): 156.

6 Valiantsin Akudovich, “Bez nas,” Nasha Niva, April 28, 2003.

7 David R. Marples, Belarus A Denationalized Nation (Amsterdam: Harwood, 1999).

8 George Sanford, “Nation, State and Independence in Belarus,” Contemporary Politics 3, no. 3 (1997): 227.

9 Ed Jocelyn, “Nationalism, Identity and the Belarusian State,” in National Identities and Ethnic Minorities in Eastern Europe, ed. Ray Taras (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1998), 73–83.

10 Korosteleva, Lawsomn and Marsh, “Introduction. Paradoxes of Democratization in Contemporary Belarus,” 9.

11 Michalisko, “Belarus: Retreat to Authoritarianism,” 224.

12 Richard Crampton and Ben Crampton, Atlas of Eastern Europe in the Twentieth Century (London: Routledge, 1996), 223.

13 K. Dawisha and B. Parrot, Russian and the New States of Eurasia: The Politics of Upheaval (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 75.

14 Winderl, Nationalism, Nation and State, 94.

15 Radzik, “Belarus’ i Siarednie-Uskhodniaia Europa,” http://kamunikat.org/k_pieraklady.html?pub_start=90&pubid=2352.

16 Radzik, “ Belarus’ i Siarednie-Uskhodniaia Europa.”

17 Snyder, The Reconstruction of Nations, 41–42.

18 Anatol Astapenka, “Palitychnyia pratsesy na Belarusi u gistarychnai perspektyve i ikh uzaemasuviaz z natsiianal’nai ideai i natsiianalizmam,” Adkrytaie gramadstva, no. 2 (11) (2001), http://data.minsk.by/opensociety/2.01/10.html.

19 Siargei Dubavets, “Padstavy ratsiianal’naga natsiianalismu,” in Antalogia suchasnaga belaruskaga mys’lennia, ed. V. Akudovich (Sankt-Petersburg: Nevskii Prostor 2003), 122–123.

20 Polesskii Ianov, “Bremia istoricheskogo tvorchestva,” Nashe mnienie, May 23, 2006, http://www.nmnby.org/pub/060306/23-m1.html

© Central European University Press, 2010

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