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15 Dec

Alyaksandr Yanusik (Belarus)
Transitions Online, 28.11.2014

Say it Loud, I am Belarusian and Proud

MINSK | About 200 people sit in a room in downtown Minsk, their heads bent over a Belarusian language test in front of a large projector screen showing questions. Afterward, they break into a lively discussion of linguistic theory and crack jokes about embarrassing usage mistakes. Later they will watch a video shot at a picturesque ruined church, talk about the country’s historic heritage, and listen to a set by a Belarusian punk band.


Standing in a hallway during this unlikely language class, Karyna, a 19-year-old student, pronounced it “cool.” She said she enjoys being in the company of like-minded people who have come to improve their Belarusian and learn more about the country’s history.


“Nationalism and the Belarusian language are in with young people now,” Karyna said. “It’s fashionable to speak Belarusian, wear badges and clothes with Belarusian symbols.”


Launched in January, Mova Nanova (Language Anew) is more like a show featuring guest stars and two smart hosts than a classic language lesson. It also provides a place where people in this authoritarian society – where the national language and symbols have been associated with political dissent – can freely express themselves without fear of persecution.




“We don’t expect all those attending courses or all Belarusians to start speaking Belarusian tomorrow,” said Hleb Labadzenka, a co-founder of the program. “Most important is to encourage people to take the first step.”


Various groups have offered free Belarusian language courses for years, but attendance has been spotty. But Mova Nanova, with its embrace of entertainment, has expanded its franchise to seven cities and registered more than 900 students, two-thirds of whom attend classes every week. Similar courses have cropped up elsewhere, and older programs have seen their attendance rise.


It might not be just fun classes that draw the crowds. Russia’s moves into Ukraine have helped spark something of a national revival in Belarus.


Although Mova Nanova distances itself from both politics and the establishment, an overwhelming majority of its attendees appear to be young people advocating change and skeptical of the government’s effort to “integrate” their country with Russia. At a mid-November session, a guest performer’s passing comment, “No war in Ukraine!” drew spontaneous applause. In Belarus, sympathy with Ukraine rests largely with pro-democracy and pro-Western people.


Opposition street protests, closely monitored by the authorities and often ending in arrests, have dwindled since the last presidential election in 2010. But so far it’s not illegal to attend language courses.


“People want to see a new country and some change, but they realize they can’t bring about change through politics because there’s no political process,” said Alyaksey Shein, a politician in Minsk who has been teaching Belarusian to small groups since 2006. “So more people are looking for opportunities for change through education, culture, and language learning.”


Ironically, the idea of learning Belarusian in a relaxed environment and in the company of prominent people originated in Moscow. Katsyaryna Kibalchych, a Belarusian journalist, arranged an informal meeting at a Moscow Starbucks in January 2013, calling it Mova ci Kava – Language or Coffee, a play on words in Belarusian that also can be translated as Language Interesting. Later she opened a course in Minsk.


“I would like to speak fluent Belarusian but I don’t know where and how I can learn it,” she told Charter97.org, an opposition website, in January 2013. “The problem is not that I’m based in Moscow. In Minsk, there’s also not a single place where someone can come in off the street and find themselves in a Belarusian environment, where others will not frown at them [for speaking Belarusian].”


Kibalchych’s course took off, giving rise to several offshoots and inspiring others to copy her idea.




Belarusians do have an opportunity to learn their language at school. Secondary school students have two or three mandatory lessons a week in Belarusian as a second language. But students usually forget a second language upon graduation unless they practice it every day or make it part of their career. Second-language teaching methods and programs have been improved over the years, but the results remain the same.


One thing often missing at school is inspiration.


“When I attended Belarusian literature lessons at school, I had the impression that all Belarusian writers died a long time ago,” Labadzenka said. “The Belarusian teacher wasn’t a role model for me. I could see she was just doing her job. As soon as the bell rang for a recess, she stopped speaking Belarusian and switched to Russian.”


About 80 percent of those attending Mova Nanova are Russian speakers, and many are university students, Labadzenka said. He invites Belarusian writers, artists, musicians, business people, and prominent figures to speak, inspire his students, and offer them a second chance to learn Belarusian.


“We’re trying to overcome the stereotypes that Belarusian has been politicized, that it is a language of peasants or philologists and historians,” he said. “For every class we select a topic and invite guests, experts in specific fields, to show that Belarusian is an everyday language that one can use to talk about anything – computers, math, medicine, and arts.”


Mova Nanova relies heavily on assistance from sympathetic businesses and language-advocacy groups. The Ў gallery, a Belarusian arts and recreation center, offers its hall for free, though it is not big enough to accommodate all the attendees. Mobile operator Velcom, A-100, a gas station chain, and Viapol, a tour operator, offer equipment and supplies. In return, Mova Nanova advertises these companies’ services on its website and on clipboards handed out to students.


However popular informal language courses may be, Labadzenka said they remain a drop in the ocean compared with the Russification that has been going on for more than two centuries.


Belarus emerged from the breakup of the Soviet Union as the most Russified former republic, and the trend has continued. The share of people speaking Belarusian at home fell from 36.7 percent to 23.4 percent from 1999 to 2009, according to national censuses. The 2009 census found that 72 percent of Belarusians speak Russian at home.


Fewer parents want their children to study in Belarusian, and many schools close Belarusian-language classes for lack of enrollment. Only 15 percent of secondary school students have been receiving instruction in all subjects in Belarusian this academic year, a decrease from nearly 25 percent 10 years ago, according to Nasha Niva, an independent, online weekly that posts in Belarusian. Only one in 670 university students is taught in Belarusian.


Likely with an eye on Russian revanchism, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka recently reversed his public position on the Belarusian language. In the mid-1990s he said it was unsuitable for conveying profound thoughts, but he recently declared Belarusian learning a matter of national security and suggested adding one more Belarusian language lesson a week to the secondary school curriculum.


Still, Lukashenka’s government has taken fire from language-advocacy groups for not doing enough.


“Although officials changed their rhetoric, the government continues a Russification policy,” said Andrey Dynko, editor of Nasha Niva. “The head of state doesn’t speak Belarusian. Generals don’t speak Belarusian. People attend Belarusian-language courses because they love it. But if you want to eat – secondary education is preparation for real life – only a small proportion of parents, only the most faithful ones, choose Belarusian for their children.”


Belarus does not have a single Belarusian-language TV channel, and books in Belarusian occupy tiny sections at bookstores. Belarusian publishers face not only strong competition from Russian rivals but also harassment by the authorities.


Last year, the Information Ministry annulled the license of the Lohvinaw Publishing House, one of few publishers in the country printing books in Belarusian, over the 2011 release of a volume of photojournalism found to be “extremist.” The charge was widely ridiculed, as the photos had already been published in the press in 2010, but officials claimed they “debased the national honor and dignity of the citizens of the Republic of Belarus.”




After Belarus gained independence in 1991, Belarusian was the only official state language. It lost that exclusive status with a 1995 referendum making Russian an official language. Belarusian then became the language of resistance to Lukashenka’s authoritarian rule. Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March, more Belarusians came to see it as a tool of resistance to Russian expansion.


“Historically, the nation has been divided between pro-Belarusian, pro-European on one side and pro-Russian on the other. The Russophiles do not consider the language important,” Dynko said. “The Ukrainian crisis once again exposed how vulnerable Central European nations are. They have to fight every day to preserve their existence.”


Pro-Belarusian Belarusians might have instinctively sensed the need to close ranks in response to rising pro-Russian sentiment. Surveys by the Independent Institute of Social, Economic, and Political Studies registered a 10 percent rise in support for unification with Russia between December 2013 and September 2014.


Given a choice in the September poll between joining the EU or Russia, 47.2 percent of respondents said they would opt for unification with Russia – a 10-point increase from December. In June and September surveys, around 60 percent of Belarusians approved of the annexation of Crimea, while 27 percent denounced it.


Observers link the language’s new fashionability to the galvanizing effect of Russia’s moves in Ukraine. Karyna, the Mova Nanova student, said the developments have given rise to a “Belarusian virus,” a condition she associated with safeguarding the country’s independence.


“People see that the language was a key factor in the Ukrainian situation,” Labadzenka said. “[Russian President Vladimir] Putin said that all the places where people speak Russian are the Russian world and he will defend it with tanks and missiles, so many are thinking, ‘Well, I speak Russian in Belarus, do I really want Putin to come here and free me?’ ”


Alyaksandr Yanusik is a journalist with the BelaPAN news agency in Minsk.

Originally published: http://www.tol.org/client/article/24583-say-it-loud-im-belarusian-and-proud.html