By Paul Goble
It is the most obvious indication of the unique problems Belarus faces that it is a headline for an article by Yuiya Telpuk on the Belsat.eu portal that “Aleksandr Lukashenko has begun to speak Belarusian” (belsat.eu/ru/in-focus/aleksandr-lukashenko-zagovoril-po-belorusski/).
As she points out, this is how it should be. “Trump speaks English. Macron speaks French.” And now “Putin and Lukashenka are losing a common language” because Belarusian President Lukashenka has shifted from Russian to his own in order to stress that “we are proud of our history and land. We know our roots and honor our traditions.”
But what makes this newsworthy is that Lukashenka has rarely used Belarusian and has even slandered it by saying all too publicly that “One can’t express anything great in Belarus. The Belarusian language is a poor language. In the world, there exist only two great languages, Russian and English.”
After becoming president, he orchestrated a referendum which deprived Belarusian of its unique status as a national language and “adopted a course in the direction of Russia,” according to Sergey Naumchik, who was a deputy in the country’s Supreme Soviet between 1991 and 1996.
“In a situation when the Kremlin is beginning the swallowing up of Belarus or more precisely accelerating that process,” he says, “[Lukashenka] intuitively feels that he must do something to save himself … through national identity, the foundations of which are language, history, the coat of arms and the flag.”
But if Lukashenka is serious, he is going to have to give more than a three-minute speech in the national language, Naumchik continues. He must “return the status of Belarusian as the only state language, return the coat of arms and the white-red-white flag, open in Minsk and the oblasts Belarusian language schools” and monitor pro-Russian groups in all parts of the country.
“For a quarter of a century,” the former deputy says, “the language has been developing in the non-governmental sector and is widely sued in the media. It is fighting for users through special projects, literature and the Internet.” Ever more is being achieved, “but a quick result will be achieved only via Lukashenka.” And Belarus needs that.
Vitaly Tsygankov, a Belarusian commentator for Radio Svoboda, agrees. If Lukashenka does make these moves, “this would be a signal” that even more could be done to build up the unity of Belarus against foreign occupation. And importantly it would send a signal to the officials in the country that a new wind is blowing, one away from Moscow rather than toward it.