Belarus in Search of Identity

October 17, 2002 // 3:30am5:30pm

In a recent seminar at the Kennan Institute, Grigory Ioffe, Professor of Geography from Radford University noted that Belarusians' search for identity can be diagnosed as, "cultural confusion both exacerbated and relieved by vestigial conservatism." According to Ioffe, factors such as language, national identity, mythology, and socio-economic conditions have affected Belarusian identity.

Ioffe noted that there is no clear national language in Belarus as most ethnic Belarusians continue to speak "some form of Russian." In Minsk, where nearly 80 percent of the population is Belarusian, Russian is spoken in nearly 86 percent of the homes. Other figures show that nearly 20 percent of the population, including President Lukashenka, speaks a mixed form of Belarusian and Russian. The origins of Belarusian are widely disputed, with some claiming that it stems from Polish, while others assert that it is "merely a dialect of Russian." Ioffe discussed past efforts to create a national language and identity, but noted that the since 1917 the country has been split over which heritage it should claim. Under President Lukashenka, Russian has been officially introduced as the second national language, there has been a reduction in the level of Belarusian-language schooling and publishing, and speaking Belarusian has now become a political statement that is usually associated with the Belarusian elite.

Ioffe explained that the debate over national identity could be found in the varying accounts about Belarus' national mythology. According to some, Belarusians' ancestry dates back to the Great Duchy of Lithuania, tying the country closer to Poles and Lithuanians. Others feel that Belarus' heritage is linked with Russia, and point to the similarities in language and culture as evidence. Ioffe noted that this debate is correlated with the two dominant religions, Catholicism (leaning toward Poles) and Russian Orthodoxy (leaning toward Russians), in his opinion, the Belarusian national identity is "Janus-faced," or looks to both countries for cultural ties.

Ioffe discussed the implications that Belarus' economic and political situation has on the nation's identity. Borrowing a term from medicine, he called the Belarusian political scene "bi-polar," and noted that, "one's political physiognomy is best discernible if one is either fervently pro-Russian and anti-Western or vice versa." The greatest hope for Belarus lies somewhere in the middle of these two extremes with people who are not swayed by the pro-Russian or pro-Western camps. Ioffe stated that the "technical intelligentsia and professionals" could form a democratic constituency for change because they, "speak Russian and lean toward Russian culturally, yet remain friendly to the West and are not willing to sacrifice Belarus' sovereignty."

According to Ioffe's conclusions, the Belarusian search for identity continues to evolve. Major external influences from both the West and the East have not been perceived as hostile to the "fabric of society," and therefore Belarusians continue to look to both sides for cultural links. He noted that the conflicting histories of Belarusian national mythology continue to frustrate Western understanding of Belarus. Ioffe stated that in order for democratization to develop in Belarus, Western leaders must, "use Belarus' realities as a guideline so that potentially electable groups are cultivated and achievable goals that resonate with most Belarusians are pursued."

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