National Identity Dilemma: the “Who Are We?” Case of Belarus


The article deals with the phenomenon of the Belarusian national identity, with a particular focus on its specific characteristics and attributes, taking into consideration the overall context and trends of the national consciousness shaping. By and large, the current tide of interest in the issue has been determined by a wide range of major and deep-rooted causes as well as a variety of external and internal factors. Given the consequences of the obtained national sovereignty, coupled with the utterly underdeveloped and deficient self-reflection of the post-soviet Belarusians, the above mentioned imperative becomes an issue of far greater concern of the recent political and analytical discourse. The author claims that the nucleus of the Belarusian national identity could be interpreted mainly in the context of the collective sense of membership and constituting a solid political community, a nation defined in terms of political determinants.

Key words: National identity, Belarus, language policy, authoritarianism, nationalism, bilingualism

National Identity Dilemma: the “Who Are We?” Case of Belarus

1 comment

1 Hanna { 06.25.11 at 11:36 pm }

Reaction on the article on National Identity Dilemma: the “Who Are We?” case of Belarus by Liudmila Volakhava published in the Annual of language and Politics and Politics of Identity, Vol. IV, pp.31-44

The article written by Liudmila Volakhava is aimed to raise the question of Belarusian national identity – the issue which is recently attracting a lot of attention from both western and Belarusian researchers. While foreign researchers mainly see Belarusian identity as denationalized, divided, sudden or Sovietized (in the meaning denationalization or equal to Russification) (Marples, Ioffe, Sanford, Wilson), the recent interpretation of the Belarusian identity by the Belarus-born researchers (Pershai, Leshchenko, Bekus) treats Sovietization as an integral part of the Belarusian identity therefore considers Belarusian nation as mature enough which however is undergoing certain development on the basis of already existing characteristics. If previously the national identity had a strong Soviet influence, today Belarusians in significantly less extent regard themselves as Soviet, but more as Belarusian (older population is dying out and the undergoing Belarusian ideological education has in a wide extent already covered and raised a new generation, who were born in the late 1980s and do not remember the Soviet Union at all).
In the author’s view, Belarus is torn in between by different vision of the Belarusian identity. None of them however is clearly explained, but are mentioned only in the retrospective of the Belarusian reality just after the independence when the reassessment of the identity started.
While Liudmila writes about a complex approach to the notion of the national identity (including socio-economic aspect), she skips an important factor of the rigid economic crisis that the newly-created state faced just after the USSR collapse. This to a great extent led to the situation when the economic crisis but not the development of the new/adopted national idea became the central issue of the first presidential elections in 1994 (which was democratic, though the author certainly is not sure on that stating at the beginning that Lukasenka is “first democratically elected president” (p. 3), however, already at the page 8 those elections become “the first more or less democratic” resulted in Lukashenka’s “decisive victory”).
The article creates an impression that author has not decided herself whether the Belarusian national identity exists at all, calling it “inadequate national identity”, questioning why no considerable changes has occurred by now (the article was written in 2010, so I suppose that “by now” means “as of 2010”), ignoring the fact of the generation change, appearance of the state ideology and its affect toward younger generation, as well as deeper analysis of the data the author presented in her article. It is enough to have a look at the data presented by the IISEPS: as a result of the sociological polling the absolute majority (almost 70 per cent) believes that Belarus has become a truly independent state that benefits from being independent (50 per cent) and portraits themselves as those who belong to the Belarusian culture (64.2 per cent versus 13.6 per cent to Russian and further 13.3 per cent to Soviet). From the data presented by the author it is obvious that over 50 per cent of Belarusians consider themselves as an independent, Belarusian not a Soviet nation with a strong association with the territory. Thus, it is obvious that the change has occured. All those premises openly contradict with the author’s statement, mentioned without any reference or statistical data, that “the majority of the population doesn’t identify itself as a nation” (p. 9).
A closer look at the 2003 data evidences that for Belarusians speaking Belarusian language and knowledge of the national culture represent an essential factor of belonging to Belarusian nation (this number is as high as 25,6 per cent). At the same time the author states that only “insignificant minority of Belarusians speaks the titular language on a daily basis” (p. 9) marginalizing them to politically associated opposition and ignoring the official results of the 1999 census according to which 37 per cent of Belarusians used Belarusian as a primary language of their daily life.
Liudmila’s article contains lots of contradictions and inaccuracies; I will mention just several of them:
– On page 5, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL) is presented as “Belarus’s historic statehood experience” where “Belarusian lands were a constituent part of served as a solid local identity ground for a long period.” On the next page he presents somewhat contradictory view stating that “Absent consistent individual statehood experience, the Belarusian entity refers to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania period as the sole historically valid identity platform.” (p. 6).
- The author claims that the Belarusian People’s Republic (BNR) was established in 1918 “to last just a few weeks”, (p. 7) however, officially and also formally the BNR on the Belarusian territories existed for at least ten months and went to exile in January 1919.
- in the conclusion, the author presents her vision of how the nation should be developed: “In other words, an updated national idea is to focus on the political content, instead of rigidly emphasizing the cultural dimension”, (p. 13) ignoring the fact that already existing national idea promoted by the current government (i.e. president) is politically driven in the top-down dimension.
Finally, I have to address the inconsistencies in transliteration. The author uses two versions to name one person: Lukashenko (from Russian, pp. 3, 4, 6, 9, 11, 12, 14) and Lukashenka (from Belarusian, pp. 8, 13). Though for some it may seem not that important, it is significant to stay consistent to prevent creating a two people. As for the geographical places situated in Belarus there is an internationally recognized documentation that regulates the proper transliteration which should be from Belarusian language based on Belarusian Lacinka. So, there is no Mogilev and Orsha, (p. 5) but Mahilioŭ and Orša.
Generally article does not answer the question that the author put in its title: Who are we? This sounds somewhat strange if not provocative since it is not even a question as Belarusians are Belarusians. Additionally, the text does not clearly present the dilemma(s) existing in Belarusian society and instead creates blurry shapes of the discussion.

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