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The Belarusian Language on Trial

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Note: Also deserving mention is the fact that the court proceedings (referred to in the following), begun on August 12, 1998, were conducted in Russian, rather than either of the two forms of Belarusian that were the subject of the trial!     (This certainly brings a "transparency" to such proceedings. . . .)

Article: The Belarusian Language on Trial

by Jan Maksymiuk

In 1997, the Belarusian National Assembly passed a law "On the Press and Other Media," which allowed the government in May 1998 to issue a warning against the biweekly Nasha Niva. An independent newspaper published entirely in Belarusian and with a circulation of some 5,000, Nasha Niva was launched by its chief editor, Syarhey Dubavets, in Vilnius in 1991. The newspaper is printed in Minsk and distributed by the state network of kiosks and, to a lesser extent, by the editorial staff. It uses the traditional Belarusian orthography, which was changed by decree under Joseph Stalin's regime in 1933. The media law, passed by the National Assembly in 1997 and amended in January 1998, explicitly prohibits the press from "distorting the generally accepted norms" of the language in which it publishes.

In a bid to forestall what seemed like preparations to close down his newspaper, Dubavets filed a lawsuit against the State Press Committee in June, demanding the warning be revoked as "groundless." He argued that the term "generally accepted norms" is void since there is no legally binding standards for spelling in Belarus. The case is to be heard at the Higher Economic Court on 12 August. If the newspaper loses the case and persists in using the pre-1933 spelling, it can be banned after receiving another two warnings, according to the amended media law.

The Nasha Niva case, which in most countries would doubtless be regarded as a bizarre example of overregulation by the state, strikes a very tragic note in today's Belarus. Belarusians are gradually losing their language and cultural identity. The number of Belarusian-language books and periodicals has plummeted to a very low level since the May 1995 referendum, which granted Russian the status of an official language, along with Belarusian. The state, which from 1991 to 1994 did a great deal to promote both the formerly neglected Belarusian culture and education in the Belarusian language, has practically ceased to support either under Lukashenka.

For example, in 1994 there were 220 schools in Minsk whose language of instruction was Belarusian. Two years later, their number had shrunk to fewer than 20. Those students who want to receive a higher education in Belarusian will be hard put to achieve that aim, since Russian is the language of instruction in virtually all university departments in Belarus.

Lukashenka has made a point of ostentatiously promoting Russian-language and Soviet culture in Belarus. In a widely quoted statement, he once asserted that "one cannot express anything deep in Belarusian."

Non-Sovietized Belarusian culture and the Belarusian language are developed and supported mainly by non-governmental organizations and an ever dwindling number of intellectuals. Nasha Niva is one of the champions of that movement.

Speaking Belarusian in Belarus is not only a means of communication but also a political declaration of loyalty to the country's indigenous cultural and historical heritage in defiance of the ruling regime. The fundamental dividing line in Belarus is not between "democrats in general" and the Lukashenka regime as it is between democracy-supporting "Belarusian nationalists" and the Sovietized and Russianized segment of society led by the president and his allies.

"Having forced the national symbols -- the coat of arms (knight-in-pursuit) and the (white-red-white) flag -- to go underground, the government of the Republic of Belarus has now declared war against the non-Soviet Belarusian orthography," Dubavets wrote last month in Nasha Niva. He also criticized those Belarusian intellectuals who "have voluntarily remained in the Belarusian SSR (Soviet Socialist Republic) in terms of spelling." The pre-1933 orthography was used at schools among some 2 million Belarusians in pre-war Poland and has never been abandoned by the Belarusian Diaspora.

Dubavets is not the only one to oppose the 1933 orthography reform. The Belarusian Language Encyclopedia, published in Minsk in 1994, states that the 1933 reform focused "not so much on reflecting the specifically national character of the Belarusian language as on bringing its orthography in line with the Russian orthographic tradition." In a wider sense, the 1933 ban on the traditional Belarusian spelling reflected Stalin's idea of merging the separate cultures into one with a single language. That culture was to be Soviet and the language Russian. In this way, the Belarusian language became just another of Stalin's many victims.

Some of the best-known Belarusian linguists have come out in support of the spelling used by Nasha Niva. International human right organizations have also protested, pointing that the State Press Committee's warning violates international law -- in particular, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Belarus is a signatory.

But such protests are unlikely to carry much weight with the court. Most Nasha Niva supporters fear that, as one columnist put it, "no linguistic or even legal arguments are of any importance" in this case. It is the language that is on trial, not the spelling.

Source: RFE/RL Newsline, Vol. 2, No. 152, Part II, 10 August 1998.

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