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June 23, 2018             home page



 Political science



Belarusian language promotion is impossible without the government’s support

Curt Woolhiser

Strengthening of the Belarusian language status in Belarus is not an easy issue, since a whole array of political, legal, economic, socio-cultural and socio-psychological factors come into play whenever attempts are made, whether by governments, non-governmental organizations, social movements or other actors, to change established patterns of language use. Language policy doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and any efforts at “status planning” are highly dependent not only on objective factors such as the level of commitment and competence of government agencies and/or non-governmental actors and the material and legal resources at their disposal, but also on culture-specific systems of beliefs, assumptions, and attitudes regarding language, that is, what the American sociolinguist Harold Schiffman calls “linguistic culture.” Language regime change is not simply a matter of adopting new language legislation and government regulations, or funding certain language promotion initiatives; in a context where there is no general consensus on the very need for change, it also involves a lengthy process of changing a society’s linguistic culture - influencing public perceptions, predispositions and attitudes, which in turn may only gradually lead to widespread changes in actual linguistic behavior.

Until there is a fundamental change in the way the country is governed, or there is a groundswell of public support for a change in language policy, it seems unlikely that we will see any major new initiatives from the Belarusian authorities. It is thus largely up to Belarusian civil society to try to self-organize and, to the extent possible, to exert pressure on government agencies at all levels, as well as to take the lead in  “marketing” the Belarusian language to the public at large. Fortunately, Belarus has many qualified and highly committed language advocates who understand that urgent action is needed to keep the language question on the agenda and to defend the rights of Belarusian speakers. Indeed, language advocacy organizations such as the Francišak Skaryna Belarusian Language Society and the Society for Belarusian Schools have, in spite of the authorities’ generally indifferent and at times even hostile attitude toward their activities, helped to bring about positive changes in certain areas.

As regards specific measures that could be taken to improve the situation, I should note that there is little that I would add to the proposals laid out in the Belarusian Language Society’s programmatic document, “Strategy for the Development of the Belarusian Language in the 21st Century”, which provides a fairly detailed blueprint for a language policy that would be more effective in expanding the role of the language in Belarusian society. Developed with the participation of leading Belarusian linguists and language policy experts, and taking into account the experience of other endangered and minoritized language communities in Europe and beyond, the BLS’s “Strategy” is of course still very much a work in progress, and will no doubt undergo further revisions as the socio-political situation in Belarus evolves.

Probably the single most important language policy measure that would at least provide a legal framework for increasing the public use of Belarusian would be to change the wording of the 1998 language law, replacing “Belarusian and/or Russian” with “Belarusian and Russian.” This change, which could help ensure actual legal equality for the two state languages, is among the amendments to the language law proposed by the BLS. The BLS has also drawn up a new bill on “State Support for the Belarusian Language” that stipulates the functions and obligations of government agencies in the area of language provision.

A minor victory has already been achieved with the passage of an amendment to the “Law on Private and Legal Persons’ Appeals” which requires that government agencies reply to citizens’ petitions and inquiries in the language in which they were received. The passage of this amendment appears to be, at least in part, the result of effective lobbying by the BLS and other civil society initiatives, such as Ihar Sluchak’s “Official Documentation in Belarusian” (Spravavodstva pa-belarusku) letter-writing campaign.

But simply having laws on the books is insufficient for actually increasing the use of Belarusian; there have to be specific guidelines for language use in various domains of public life, in particular government, education, the media and the service sector, and penalties imposed on those who violate the right of Belarusian-speaking citizens to receive services in their language. These issues are addressed at length in the BLS’s draft bill on “State Support for the Belarusian Language.”  However, there are three obstacles to the adoption and implementation of such a program of state language support: first, there is little evidence that the Belarusian authorities at present are sincerely committed to ensuring true parity between Belarusian and Russian; second, the absence of any genuine rule of law in Belarus under the current political regime renders the use of legal mechanisms to ensure the equality of Belarusian and Russian highly problematic; third, as recent independent opinion polls have shown, the level of public support for expanded use of Belarusian in the public sphere, while significant, is not yet at the point where one could say that there is a broad consensus on language policy issues.

Another thing to bear in mind when discussing language policy options in Belarus is the very real problem of language attrition among members of the “titular” nationality. In this regard, the Belarusian situation is fundamentally different from the Baltic Republics of the USSR in the late 1980s, where although Russian had a dominant position in certain social domains and there was a significant influx of Russian-speaking immigrants, the indigenous populations remained overwhelmingly loyal to their ancestral languages, and Estonian and Lithuanian, and to a somewhat lesser extent, Latvian, were still widely used in education, the media, publishing and other prestigious social domains. The situation in Belarus is also different from that in places such as Catalonia and Galicia in Spain or the province of Québec in Canada, where, despite a recent history of overt discrimination against the indigenous languages (indeed, under the Franco regime, Catalan and Galician were virtually banned from all public use), the speakers of these languages likewise did not shift to the dominant national languages. When language policies in Spain and Canada began to change in the 1960s and 1970s, the main focus of language “normalization” was simply expanding the use of these languages in the high prestige domains of government, education, the media and business – in most cases, one didn’t have to worry about Catalans or Galicians or Québecois not being able to speak their own language, since it was still dominant in the family and in other informal communication networks. The primary challenge in places like Catalonia or Québec was to ensure that immigrants, whether from other parts of the country, or from overseas, acquired and used the indigenous language rather than the nationally dominant Spanish (Castilian) or English. In contrast, in Belarus, as in central, eastern and southern Ukraine, as well as in Ireland and Scotland, a large segment of the indigenous population doesn’t have active speaking, reading and writing proficiency in the national languages; language policy in these countries must thus simultaneously grapple with the problem of revitalizing the languages in families and communities and “status planning” issues relating to their use in the public sphere.

Given the specifics of the language situation in Belarus, it seems to me that, at least initially, it would be preferable to employ incentives rather than penalties to promote the use of Belarusian. In the sphere of education, obviously one of the main priorities should be to expand the network of Belarusian-medium schools and truly bilingual Belarusian-Russian schools, as well as bilingual Belarusian-Polish, Belarusian-English, Belarusian-German, and Belarusian-French schools. This means not only making such schools more accessible to all parents who want their children to receive a Belarusian-medium or bilingual education, but also to make them attractive to parents who might otherwise be inclined to send their children to Russian-medium schools. Rather than simply denying access to Russian-medium schools, there should be a focus on promoting the image of Belarusian-medium and bilingual schools as educational leaders through targeted funding from both public and private sources, ensuring that they have state-of-the art facilities and innovative curricula and teaching methods, as well as recruiting the best and brightest teachers by offering higher than average salaries. Such “flagship” schools could be made even more attractive by establishing partnerships and educational exchanges with leading schools in EU countries, which would also help teachers at these schools keep abreast of best practices in European public education. It is also important for Belarusian language advocates to publicize the cognitive and academic advantages associated with a genuinely bilingual education, as shown in the results of numerous studies  of bilingual educational institutions in EU countries.

Even in schools where most instruction is in Russian, it seems to me that new, more innovative approaches to teaching Belarusian language and literature could have a positive impact on the younger generation’s language attitudes. For all the stories I have heard of passionate and dedicated teachers of Belarusian language and literature who instilled in their pupils a genuine and lasting love for the language, there are, unfortunately, just as many cases of young people who developed an aversion to Belarusian in school due to bad experiences with poorly-trained, uninspiring teachers, who in many cases do not themselves even speak Belarusian outside the classroom.

In this respect, the Irish experience in the sphere of education is quite instructive. Observers of the Irish language revival movement have argued that one of the main reasons the government’s Irish language policy for many decades failed to achieve any significant results was not only because it placed the main responsibility for revitalizing the language on the schools, but also because the dominant approach to Irish language instruction was based on formal grammar drills and an excessive focus on the written language rather than on oral communication. Such pedagogical practice results from a misguided notion that teaching language is equivalent to teaching subjects such as mathematics, geography and history, when in fact language learning is a far more complex cognitive process requiring gradual maturation, constant and diverse input, meaningful social interaction and reinforcement.

Part of the problem, of course, is that Belarusian in Russian-medium schools in Belarus is often taught as a first language, when in fact it is essentially a foreign language for many urban pupils. If the goal of Belarusian language instruction in these schools is to produce fluent speakers, there needs to be more of an emphasis on actually using the language in a variety of both formal and informal contexts. While it is of course important for students to have a grasp of grammatical and linguistic concepts and have a knowledge of both classic and contemporary Belarusian literature, this should not be the exclusive focus of Belarusian language lessons in Russian-medium schools. A great deal more thought also has to go into the image that is associated with Belarusian in the language classroom; it seems to me that all too often, whether consciously or unconsciously, the message is conveyed that while Belarusian is an important part of the nation’s cultural heritage, akin to folk costume, traditional village crafts and folk songs, it is, like them, ultimately of little relevance to modern urban life.

While Belarusian-language immersion in the schools can contribute to the acquisition of active speaking skills by children from Russian-speaking families, the question remains: what language will children in such schools speak outside the classroom? Just as important is what happens after students in Belarusian-medium schools graduate, whether they continue their studies at a university or technical school or enter the working world. Unless Belarusian language provision in higher education is more widely available, any potential gains from an expanded role for Belarusian in primary and secondary education will be jeopardized. The establishment of a new, entirely Belarusian-medium university is of course something that Belarusian language advocates have long demanded, but given the authorities’ opposition to this idea, it seems unlikely that such an initiative, even if it were to be largely privately funded, would be feasible. Still, when political conditions are more favorable (most likely, in the post-Lukašenka era), it would probably be more effective in the short term to create a new Minsk-based institution (for example, along the lines of the Ukrainian-language Kyiv-Mohyla Academy) rather than attempting to completely “Belarusianize” existing universities. Ultimately, branch campuses of such a university could be established in other cities, including some that currently have no accredited higher educational institutions. As in the case of new Belarusian-medium schools, an entirely new Belarusian-medium university would be better positioned than the established institutions to introduce innovative new programs and experiment with new teaching methods (including, perhaps, distance learning). To promote the process of “Belarusianization” of government and business, graduate-level programs in public policy, law and business administration could be made the centerpiece of such an institution.

Given current realities in Belarus, perhaps the only alternative at this stage would, with support from EU sources and private donors, be to establish a private Belarusian-language university, or bilingual Belarusian-English institution (akin to universities in the Netherlands and Scandinavia, where English is used alongside the national languages in certain degree programs) outside the country, either in Lithuania or Poland. Some had hopes that the European Humanities University might evolve into such an institution, but one gets the impression that the internal language policy of the EHU has tended for the most part to reproduce that of higher education in Belarus, giving priority to Russian (although there are currently plans to increase course offerings in English). Moreover, given the humanities focus of the EHU, there is still an urgent need for an independent, Belarusian-language institution with professional programs in such areas as public policy, law, and business administration.

Outside the sphere of education, there are a number of areas where creative and committed Belarusian language advocates could have a significant impact. As I’ve already noted, one of the key problems in language revitalization is making the language of the school also the language of the home and the community. There have been some interesting initiatives to create networks of Belarusian-speaking young parents and their children, such as the website  Našyja dzieci, but such efforts are still quite limited in their reach. There is still an urgent need not only to increase the availability of Belarusian-language preschool education, but also to offer a greater variety of Belarusian-language activities for small children and their families (summer day camps, fine arts instruction, etc.). As in the case of Belarusian-language schooling, if such programs were perceived to be superior in content to their Russian-language counterparts, it would be possible to “recruit” a greater number of children from Russian-speaking households.

In addition, a great deal more has to be done to help build and sustain networks of “new speakers,” that is, adult learners of Belarusian, not only in Minsk, but in other cities as well. In order to encourage adult learners to join the community of Belarusian speakers, there have to be adequate opportunities not only for adult language learning (for those with only passive knowledge of the language) but also active language use. One encouraging recent initiative is the creation of an informal Belarusian language group for adults, Mova ci kava, in Minsk (interestingly enough, the first Mova ci kava group was founded in Moscow for Belarusian expats). Judging from the public response to this initiative, informal, free courses of this type might be a very effective way of expanding Belarusian-speaking networks in the cities.

In addition to free language courses, another way to encourage the development of Belarusian-speaking social networks would be to organize free or reduced-rate courses and seminars taught in Belarusian on topics of current interest such as starting a business, social entrepreneurship, environmental advocacy, web design, and so on. A social infrastructure for the use of Belarusian could also be created from the bottom up through various clubs, associations, amateur sports leagues and other special interest groups (and not only those dealing with Belarusian heritage and culture) for which Belarusian would be their working language.

It is also important to have public spaces where the Belarusian language can be freely used in informal communication. A few such Belarusian-language “islands” have already been created, for example the U karotkaje gallery and Lohvina?  bookstore, and the youth-oriented community arts center Art Siadziba, although their appeal, it would appear, is limited to a fairly narrow stratum of the literarily and artistically inclined. I’ve also heard that a new café, Alba kava, has recently opened in Minsk, where not only the menus are in Belarusian, but the management insists that employees use the language with customers. This is unquestionably a step in the right direction, but it has to be borne in mind that this is only a single café in a city of 1.8 million people!

If there were sufficient support from municipal authorities in Belarus, it might even be possible to emulate recent initiatives in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, where entire Irish-speaking neighborhoods have been created in the cities of Dublin and Belfast in order to create a foothold for the Irish language in urban areas. The development of such districts in Belarusian cities, centered on housing cooperatives or newly-constructed condominium-type housing, would guarantee a critical mass of parents in at least certain parts of the city supporting Belarusian-medium education for their children and would potentially facilitate the development of a neighborhood service infrastructure in which Belarusian would be the dominant working language. In the universities, it might likewise be advantageous to create student housing reserved for Belarusian speakers, following the model of University College Dublin, which has set aside a student residence for Irish-speaking graduates of the gaelscoileanna (Irish language immersion schools). However, I anticipate that some Belarusian language advocates would strongly object to the creation of what might be perceived as linguistic “ghettoes” or “reservations,” even if they helped foster Belarusian-dominant spheres of communication in at least some urban enclaves, while no doubt the authorities would be strongly opposed to any measures promoting any sort of Belarusian “linguistic separatism.”

As far as use of Belarusian in government agencies is concerned, ideally one would expect all government employees, particularly those whose duties involve any type of interaction with the public, to be able to demonstrate sufficient proficiency in Belarusian “to the degree necessary to fulfill their duties,” as stated in the current language law. Of course, this would involve some sort of state language proficiency testing, which would no doubt prove extremely unpopular with the majority of current government employees. A more realistic policy, at least in the transitional period, would be to require government agencies to recruit at least some Belarusian-speaking personnel, as well as to offer bonuses to newly-hired Belarusian speakers and current employees willing to attend free Belarusian language classes and to commit to use of the language in their official capacity.

Similar incentives could also help encourage the use of Belarusian in the service sector, for example, the government could offer employees of service sector enterprises (both private and state-owned) a bonus if they attend free Belarusian language classes geared specifically toward customer service and make a commitment to use Belarusian in their work. Since the bonuses would be funded by the government, such employees would be subject to monitoring of their language use by state language inspectors. Service sector enterprises with a certain number of employees with the necessary language skills might also be offered tax rebates under the condition that they prominently display signs stating something along the lines of “We can serve you in Belarusian” and agree to periodic monitoring of their language practices. Since these would be voluntary programs involving incentives (bonuses or tax rebates for use of the language) rather than penalties (fines for non-use of the language, as for example in the Baltic States), it would potentially generate more positive attitudes toward use of Belarusian and would be less likely to lead to language-based conflicts.

Without the support of the government, however, even such modest Belarusian language promotion initiatives would be impossible. In the absence of such support, Belarusian language advocates could still undertake other projects to promote the use of the language in the service sector, for example by instituting a privately-funded prize to companies that use Belarusian to the fullest extent possible in their operations (including advertising, customer service, and internal communication and documentation). In recent years, Irish language promotion NGOs in a number of cities and towns in the Republic of Ireland have started competitions of this type, designed to reward and give public recognition to companies that have made the transition to using Irish as their working language.

As far as the use of Belarusian in what sociolinguists refer to as the “linguistic landscape” (public and commercial signage), as I’ve already noted, the situation in Belarus is in fact better than that of some other minoritized languages in Europe. Still, language legislation should stipulate clearly that signage should always include a Belarusian-language version, while permitting the optional use of parallel signage in other languages, including Russian, Polish and English (and even Yiddish and/or Hebrew for Belarusian-Jewish historical sites, which will be very important for Belarus tourism in the future). As far as advertising is concerned, perhaps it would be too cumbersome to require that all billboards and similar commercial texts be either exclusively in Belarusian or provide parallel Belarusian-language text; rather, it might be more effective to offer partial advertising subsidies to companies that choose to advertise their goods and services in Belarusian. Certainly, there is no shortage of advertising agencies ready and willing to produce Belarusian-language materials, as indicated by the quality and quantity of entries to the annual Adnak! festival of Belarusian-language advertising. Moreover, some well-known foreign companies, such as Samsung, Ford, Apple and Bosch, have already discovered that Belarusian-language advertising is an excellent way of drawing attention to their products (of course, if most advertising were in Belarusian, they might lose the advantage of novelty).  Still, since surveys have shown that a significant percentage of Belarusians would like to see more advertising in the language, the national government and municipal authorities throughout Belarus should clearly be doing more to encourage both domestic and foreign companies to use Belarusian in their advertising campaigns.

I have to admit that I am somewhat perplexed, however, by such “language promotion” initiatives as the series of billboards by Samsung that have appeared in Minsk over the last two years, Smak bielaruskaj movy (The Flavor of Belarusian), and its sequel Pryha?os?/Bahaccie bielaruskaj movy (The Beauty/Richness of Belarusian), which highlight various unique and distinctive Belarusian words, along with their Russian equivalents and illustrative pictures or photographs. It seems to me that placing a billboard out on the street showing a picture of a watermelon with the word kavun with its Russian counterpart arbuz is not particularly effective as a language promotion strategy; the impact would be far greater if there were more Belarusian-language labels and signs in stores and markets. Moreover, I am not entirely sure that advertising the language itself as a “commodity,” rather than using the language to advertise commodities and services that are in demand, is necessarily the best strategy. As sociolinguistic studies have demonstrated in a wide variety of contexts, language attitudes are rarely based solely on the intrinsic linguistic characteristics of a language or dialect (its “mellifluousness” or “uniqueness”); rather, it is the characteristics associated with their speakers that make the biggest difference. Still, if language promoters feel that advertising the language itself can have an effect on its use in public spaces, or at least on language attitudes, to my mind it would be more effective, psychologically, to have large, prominently displayed billboards in the center of Minsk and other cities, showing attractive, fashionably dressed young people with slogans such as “Наша мова – беларуская” or “Мы гаворым па–беларуску.” Another billboard might show a salesperson serving a customer in a high-end store with the text: “Мы абслугоўваем па–беларуску” or “Чаму б не па–беларуску?

For the development and consistent implementation of a strategy for promoting the Belarusian language, it would probably be most efficient to have a single government body responsible for language policy, similar to the language boards in Wales, the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland. This language board would not be a “language police” along the lines of what was put in place in the Baltic States in the 1990s  (i.e. it would not have the authority to levy fines), but would conduct public opinion research on language policy, would collect data on implementation of language legislation, and could offer advice and assistance to individuals or organizations wishing to pursue legal remedies for violations of their linguistic rights. It is curious that the monitoring of implementation of language legislation, as well as survey research on public attitudes in the sphere of language policy in Belarus, is currently done primarily by NGOs such as the Belarusian Language Society, the “Bud?ma” campaign, BISS and IISEPS. The absence of any state body responsible for coordinating and monitoring different aspects of language policy in Belarus once again reflects the government’s lack of interest in ensuring actual equality of the country’s two state languages.

This article appeared in Belarusian Review, Vol. 26, No. 3.
© 2014 The_Point Journal/Belarusian Review

Keywords: Bilingualism in Belarus, Belarusian language, Russian language in Belarus, Russian language in the post-Soviet space, Russian world, Russkiy mir




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Belarus' Unbalanced Bilingualism

In this text I look at bilingualism in Belarus in the sense of the social distribution of language proficiency and language use. In most officially bilingual or multilingual polities, the population is characterized by significant ethnolinguistic diversity, usually with a significant territorial-administrative dimension. What is striking about Belarus, particularly in the context of the other post-Soviet states, is that the population is quite homogeneous in terms of ethno-national identity. If “Belarusian” is understood as primarily an ethnic, rather than civic identity, this would in fact make Belarus one of the most ethnically homogeneous countries in the post-Soviet region.

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Belarus and the Russian-Ukrainian Conflict

There has been some discussion of late of impact on Belarus of the Russian annexation of Crimea. Some observers were encouraged by what they saw as the independent stance of Belarus and its refusal to come forth with immediate recognition of the new status of the peninsula and the city of Sevastopol. Such hopes have now been dashed by the Belarusian president.

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Love Enforcement or Why Eastern Partnership Initiative Needs an Update

Neither the EU, nor Russia are prepared to deal with a strong, independent, and powerful Ukraine. Their efforts are different, but one element which they have  in common, is that  both sides try to enforce their stance by all possible means. Such a policy looks like love enforcement; unnatural and destructive.

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The Eastern Partnership after Vilnius

The recent issue of the journal “New Eastern Europe” (No. 1, 2014) opens with an article entitled “Lessons from Vilnius” (pp. 8-13) by two Lithuanian political analysts – Laurynas Kasčiūnas and Vytautas Keršanskas. The authors focus on the outcomes of the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius and argue that this event “must be seen as an opportunity to review the goals of Europe’s policy in the region.” The article’s content, which indeed deserves attention, need not be reproduced here but there are some statements made by the authors that require closer attention.

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Official bilingualism in Belarus falls far short of functional equality for Belarusian and Russian

The term “bilingualism” has two quite distinct meanings, and I think it’s important to bear this in mind when discussing the language situation in Belarus. First, there is what is  called “official bilingualism” or “state bilingualism,” which refers to a specific type of state language management policy regulating the use of two languages in the public sphere, whether at the national or regional level. In addition, the term bilingualism can refer simply to the use of two languages in the linguistic repertoires of individuals or social groups, which may in fact be largely independent of the language policies pursued by the state.

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Belarus: a second-tier partner of the EU?

With regard to the region Belarus belongs to, the last months of  2013 were dominated by the third Eastern Partnership summit that took place on November 28-29 in Vilnius. This event was thought to become a determining to confirm “progress in political association and economic integration with Eastern Partnership countries by finalizing association agreements including the establishment of Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area”. Indeed, it was initially expected that the highlight of the summit would be signing of the association agreement with Ukraine. In case of  Armenia, Georgia and Moldova it was expected that these countries would initiate such agreements. So, the planned or actual existence of the association agreements were seen as a sort of pale that marks progress in the EU relations with the countries of the Eastern Partnership initiative. Accordingly, Belarus and Azerbaijan were located beyond this pale.

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Belarus and visa liberalization with the EU

The Third Eastern Partnership summit was held in Vilnius on November 28-29, 2013. In the context of relations between Belarus and the European Union as the main result of the summit one may consider the declaration of Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makei on the country's readiness to begin negotiations on simplifying the visa regime with countries of the European Union. Belarusian Review asked the well-known Belarusian political analyst Pavel Usov to comment on these declarations of the Belarusian authorities.

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Engagement with Belarus and the Lukashenka Factor

The Jamestown Foundation panel on engagement with Belarus, held in Washington, D.C., last October, raises a number of questions that focus on US and European attitudes to Belarusian president, Aliaksandr Lukashenka. Aside from one’s attitude to the policy of sanctions against the country’s leaders or the predatory attitude of the Russian leadership under Vladimir Putin, it is worthwhile to focus on more basic questions concerning Belarusian identity and historical past.

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It is no time for national interests: the Jamestown Foundation defends dictatorial Lukashenka

The Jamestown Foundation located in Washington, DC, held a panel on October 28, 2013, “Engaging Belarus: A Fresh Perspective”. It turned out to be a special event. This article briefly outlines remarks by the panelists and offers some observations regarding the course of the conversation. Names of Grigory Ioffe and Vladimir Socor in the panel indicated that the discussion will be critical rather of the Western approaches towards Belarus than of Lukashenka’s authoritarian practices.

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Eastern Partnership's Bilateral "Multilateralism"

Eastern Partnership initiative (EPI) is facing its first major revision. Amid crisis in relations with Ukraine, and Armenia’s turn to the Customs Union, the very core of the EPI, its multilateral dimension, fell victim of the EU’s policy of uncertainty.

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Ukraine: between "High Society" EU and "Elder Brother" Russia

Ukraine’s rapprochement with the EU is being interpreted as a geopolitical and civilizational choice. It is likely that such wording has somewhat promotional connotation produced by Ukrainian political elites and aimed both at gaining support among domestic and international audiences. The former is mobilized by the attractiveness of Europe. The latter is associated with a declared “ultimate choice” of development path by the biggest purely European country which thereby is said to get rid of its reputation of being a subject of potential “vulnerable” political fluctuations determined by the country’s location between the EU and Russia.

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West-Rus'ism and the politics of memory in today's Belarus

Does politics of memory exist in Belarus? On one hand, it is rather difficult to call the political activity exhibited by various government organs in the field of past memory an actual ”politics of memory” in the western sense. First of all, because the authority does not use this concept to actualize these or other actions. Yet, when we turn our attention to the practical side of actions, they do have all the features of active “politics of memory”.

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Curt Woolhiser: A common misconception among foreigners traveling to Belarus is they don’t even need to learn any Belarusian

Foreigners largely perceive Belarus as a part of the russophone world while Belarusian, the country’s indigenous language, as well as general linguistic situation in the country remain often unknown for them. Belarusian Review asked Curt Woolhiser, a famous expert in Slavic languages from the Brandeis University, how he as a foreigner explains to other foreigners the bilingual situation in Belarus?

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Tackling Obstacles of Eastern Partnership

In Prague in 2009, many substantial issues were related to the launch of the EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) program. How to initiate a flagship initiative that would consolidate EU’s presence in the post-Soviet space when all other major actors, including US, China, Russia, and leading regional actors had already developed their strategies vis-à-vis the region, without actually promising the EU membership for the aspiring states in the East. How to deal with the turn-democratic Georgia and Ukraine in the aftermath of the respective electoral revolutions. How to invite Belarus for participation in the new program but at the same time ward it off from the EU whose values are incompatible with the authoritarian practices of the Belarusian leadership. Five years later, EaP faces its first milestone when after the long-delayed progress the association package is about to be signed with Ukraine. It is important, thus, to examine the key program’s objectives to understand what it has transformed into and what comes next.

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Pavel Usov: Lukashenka is a rogue in political relations with the EU

Vilnius is to hold in November of 2013 the next, third summit of the Eastern Partnership. Probably throughout the existence of this project Belarus has been its outsider, and its relations with the European Union may be defined as ”cold peace,” —  notwithstanding the enormous potential. The quarterly Belarusian Review asked the well-known Belarusian political analyst Pavel Usov to comment on Belarus’ relations with the European Union in the context of the scheduled summit and on its possible results

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On the current “West-Russian” ideology in Belarus

Since the middle of 1990s the “Renewal” of the West-Russian historiography school and ideological trend in Belarus became a specific phenomenon in “our” part of Europe. Similar “hybrid” ideologies, typical for nations of Eastern and Central Europe in most cases ceased to exist or were fully transformed at the end of the 19th, or already in the 20th century.

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A nation can fulfill itself only as a nation state

My assignment to the post of Belarus’ representative to the UN in 1990 did not present for me a planned turn of fate. On the contrary, it was a complete surprise. At that time Soviet society began experiencing processes of democratization. Belarus witnessed the awakening of new intellectual forces, and the appearance of new civic organizations. As director of the State TV and Radio Company, I considered it my duty to provide information about these processes and discussions in our programs. All this activity elicited serious concerns from the ideological leaders. In their opinion, Zianon Paźniak should not have been allowed to speak; in general, we should not  have been talking about  events  that might protrude from the riverbed of Soviet everyday life.

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On the official bilingualism in Belarus

Official bilingualism (or multilingualism) is a phenomenon specific not only to Belarus. Its version in a regional sense - has been in use for some time in several countries, those with multi-ethnic populations. In the vast post-Soviet Eurasia, we tend to encounter a kind of official multilingualism, historically based on the inter-ethnic reality of the former Soviet Union. On the paper the Soviet Union proclaimed the equality of all nations and peoples. However, there was only one official state-wide language: Russian. Non-Russian languages were mostly treated as a tool to foster the Soviet ideology or in certain cases just as local folklore phenomena

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From political struggle to civil work: Belarusian democratic movement at the moment

It’s a snowy night in Minsk in mid-February and I am walking and talking with Ale? Krot, one of the activists of the non-governmental organization Student Council. The situation looks pretty bleak from abroad, but I want his opinion on the current situation in the Belarusian democratic movement – the local activist view from within. He doesn’t dissuade the obvious: “Not much is happening right now. It’s quiet. The peak of activity is around presidential election time.” And right now Belarus is in the middle of the election cycle.

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No Easy Way Forward: a personal note on Poland's Belarusian minority

According to the 2002 census in Poland, which inquired about ethnic afilliation and language spoken at home for the first time in post-war Poland, some 47,600 people declared their Belarusian ethnicity. The overwhelmingmajority of Poland’s Belarusians (97%) lived in 2002 in Podlachian Province, in the north-easternpart of the country. Another census, held in Poland in 2011, attested that there were 47,000 Belarusians in the country. The drop in their number over the past nine years was rather insignificant and amounted to 1.2% nationwide. However, the number of Belarusians in their ethnic area, i.e. Podlachian Province, decreased by 17.4% – from 46,400 in 2002 to 38,300 in 2011. The decline in the number of Belarusians in Podlachian Province is especially puzzling if we take into account that the number of Ukrainians in the same region increased by 57% – from 1,400 in 2002 to 2,200 in 2011. What were the reasons behind this dramatic Belarusian regression?

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Grigory Ioffe’s misunderstood Belarus

Recently Professor Grigory Ioffe along with the Jamestown Foundation president Glen E. Howard and two more influential US political scientists, Vladimir Socor and Janusz Bugajski, participated in a meeting with the Belarusian president Aliaksandr Lukashenka. The very fact of this event has focused attention on the state of analyses of Belarus’ political and social situation produced by western experts. Recalling that for Ioffe it was not the first meeting with Lukashenka, the question is whether his regular expertise at the EDM or elsewhere could really qualitatively influence the coverage and analysis of Belarus-related events in the West? In terms of Ioffe’s works it may be rephrased as whether Ioffe’s viewpoint would be able to contribute to understanding Belarus in the West?

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Uladzimir Baradach: Returning our people to historical values

Analyzing the activities of various oppositional political forces in Belarus  is not likely to produce much optimism concerning their ability to win over  the potential of protesting electorate. In his interview for the Belarusian Review Uladzimir Baradach,  chairman of the Organizing Committee of the "Council for National Revival," expresses his own view on the present situation in Belarus.

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Understanding Kalinoŭski

Today there are many disputes concerning the person of Kastuś Kalinoŭski. Intelectuals engaged in the national discourse  are disturbed by the fact that  some ”court historians” do not consider the leader  of the 1863 anti-tsarist uprising in Belarus  a  national hero. However, it is not sufficient to point out the absurd views on Belarusian history, held by persons strongly pro-Russian. It is important that Belarusians themselves understand Kalino?ski. And to understand him means to understand 19th century Belarus’ history, i.e. becoming a patriot of Belarus. Yet, in order to understand him and his era, one has to look at that distant past through our hero’s eyes.

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Minsk-Tbilisi: Reciprocal Diplomatic Assistance

Belarus’ foreign affairs chief Uladzimir Makei had taken part in the second foreign ministers’ meeting of the informal Eastern Partnership dialogue in Tbilisi. The meeting, which among others bade welcome to high-level EU officials Štefan Füle, Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy, and Deputy Secretary General of the European External Action Service Helga Schmid, was intended to serve as one of preparatory moves ahead of the Eastern Partnership summit scheduled to take place in Vilnius in November of this year.

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David Marples on political scientists’ meeting with Lukashenka: Analysts cannot be advocates

The recent meeting of Aliaksandr Lukashenka and a group of US political scientists has triggered controversial reactions both in Belarus and abroad.  David Marples, one of the best known Western experts on Belarus, offers his vision of the situation in an interview with Pavol Demeš, a Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund’s office in Bratislava.

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Belarusian Minority in Poland: what kind does official Minsk need?

The recent  refusals to issue entry visas to Belarus to active public figures of Poland’s Belarusian minority - Alena Hlahoŭskaja and Jaŭhien Vapa - are of a seemingly trivial significance, since every country has the right to independently decide, who may enter its territory. However, in the broader context of the policies of Belarusian authorities concerning  the compatriots abroad, and the situation of the Belarusian minority in Poland, these refusals are of essential importance.

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The vicious circle of radicalism: on persecution of historical publications in Belarus

Recent events about the historical publication ARCHE, and also about Hrodnazna?stva, actually reflect the fight between  two views - what kind of country should Belarus be? Intellectuals, clustered in non-governmental civic structures, present a European Belarus, while the head of state and his entourage see Belarus as a Eurasian country.

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Misha's Dream: Do Georgian Elections Really Change It All?

The newly elected Georgian parliament convened for its first session on 21 October. Thus, the majority in the parliament that was won by the Georgian Dream (GD) coalition, led by Bidzina Ivanishvili, has been legitimised into power. A transition period is now beginning, and it will last until 2013, when constitutional amendments that cede most of the presidential powers to the prime minister will enter into force. At that time, incumbent president Mikheil Saakashvili will step down, having served two terms in office. This transition promises to be complicated.

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Belarus: Beginnings of Renaissance

Prior to being nominated by President George H. W. Bush in early 1992 as the first U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Belarus, I had several times been in what by then was the former Soviet Union. My first exposure to the so-called Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic occurred in June, 1972, when my family and I drove to Moscow from our previous assignment in Germany. We passed through the breadth of Belarus from Brest in the west to Orsha in the east.  At that time the Brest-Minsk-Orsha-Moscow highway was one of the few roads from western Europe open to travel by foreigners.

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Armenia–Azerbaijan conflict: Autumn Aggravation

The unexpected August continuation of six years old events caused a genuine cyber war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Let us look at everything in proper sequence.

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Poles in Belarus: the story of an unnecessary conflict

The 4th Congress of Polish Diaspora held in Pultusk on August 24-26, 2012, adopted a resolution expressing its “strong protest against violation of human rights and discrimination of the Union of Poles in Belarus”. This statement implies that the rights of Belarusian Poles are being violated which results in discrimination of this group on ground of ethnicity. But is this statement mature enough to produce such apparently far-reaching conclusions?

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Uladzimir Baradač: In Belarus there Exists Enormous Potential for Protest

The recent events in Belarus and its surrounding area result in many varied, often contradictory assessments.  In his interview with Belarusian Review, Uladzimir Baradač, chairman of the organizational committee of the ”Council for National Revival”, describes his view on the current situation in Belarus and further development of events in the country.

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Lukashenka needs a soldier not a diplomat

Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s decision to appoint Uladzimir Makei Minister of Foreign Affairs marks a change in Minsk’s general foreign policy strategy in the international arena, particularly regarding the West. Despite Makei’s diplomatic education and experience, he is first and foremost an administrator and a reliable executor of Lukashenka’s orders, a personality that triggered expansion of administrative and political control in Belarus. There is nothing special about it; otherwise he could not have survived in the “political Olympus” of Belarus.

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Belarus - Georgia: Unexpected Allies

Belarus and Georgia are scarcely ever placed into one basket for analysis. It is rather Belarus' neighbour Ukraine that has been consistently paired up with Georgia in post-Soviet space politics. First wave of colour revolutions that hit the region and swimmingly overthrown corrupt regimes; knife-edge relations with Russia; to name just a few domains where Kiev and Tbilisi were for the most times referred to cheek by jowl. To be sure, Belarus is no stranger when it comes to hurdle in relations with Russia, however, this is not the only resemblance in Belarus-Georgia nexus which steadily develops.

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Stefan Liebich: Opening Gates for Belarusians from the German Side Would Help Enormously

The Belarus-EU relations reached their lowest point ever by the end of February 2012, when the EU countries  have recalled their ambassadors from Minsk. The very development of this situation made it clear that the previous EU strategy towards Belarus has failed and requires serious reframing. The fact is that the EU has to deal with an authoritarian regime led by Lukašenka who despite considerable economic hardships in the country still enjoys a high degree of popularity among Belarus’ citizens. Expanding the black lists of Belarus’ officials and tycoons banned from entering the EU, targeted economic sanctions and future perspectives of the Belarus-EU dialogue elicited different opinions both within the Belarusian society and among foreign politicians and analysts. Belarusian Review asked Stefan Liebich who represents  the  Left Party (Die Linke) in the German Bundestag’s Committee on Foreign Affairs to provide his view on the current developments of Belarus-EU relations and Germany’s role in it.

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Church and Politics in Belarus

One of more widespread statements by representatives of both the Orthodox as well as the Catholic churches is the following: "church is beyond politics and is not engaged in politics.” Of course, this attitude is by far not always realized in practice.  Yet, even if the Church always and everywhere follows this given principle, it does not at all mean that the ruling elite will stop using the Church for political objectives; especially, if the Church happens to exist in conditions of an authoritarian regime, where any social institution may function only when it submits, or in the best case scenario, does not oppose the interests of the ruling power.   Essentially, even the Church’s silence concerning politically significant issues or events is politics. If there are political prisoners in a country,  human rights are violated, and the Church is protected by its silence —  that means that it, despite its own statements on non-intervention in politics, remains lenient toward these violations and is already involved in politics.

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Belarus in the Post-Soviet Collective Security System

The sudden demise of the Soviet Union presented a problem in terms of security provision for the the newly independent states. For decades, a closely integrated system of security had been constructed in the Union especially influenced by the developments of the Cold War and mostly targeted against the West. However, with the end of the confrontation in 1989 and the subsequent implosion of the Union in 1991 some important aspects of  security have changed. Thus, states like Belarus and the Central Asian states not to mention those in the Caucasus, where by the early 1990s violent conflicts were underway, found themselves dealing with the difficult task of providing for their own security without proper political and military structures in place.

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Alaksandr Łahviniec: the Kremlin needs a manageable and predictable client in Belarus

The results of the presidential elections in Russia were more than predictable. Vladimir Putin’s return to the president office after four years was rather a sort of bureaucratic formality. From now on, the most influential Russian politician during Dmitry Medvedev’s office term becomes the old-new president of Russia.

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Pavel Usov: if the EAU is established, Belarus for at least a few more years will be deprived of any opportunity to become a democratic European state

Russia’s presidential elections in any case affect Belarusian state and society. Close economic and political ties between two countries resemble a sort of misalliance. Recently we can observe the growing Russia’s influence in Belarus both politically (considering strained relations of Belarus with the West) and economically (ever increasing and direct expansion of the Russian business in Belarus). Even though the results of the Russian elections are quite predictable, within the contexts of the Vladimir Putin’s electoral rhetoric one can say that the Kremlin will adopt the course on further facilitation of the integration on the post-Soviet area. Implementation of such policies directly concerns Belarus and its interests.

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Eastern Partnership deadlock: is there a solution?

The second EaP summit was to take place in a situation in which, on one hand the EaP had never become a priority for the EU politics, and on the other hand, we could still hardly speak about a common EU Foreign policy. The EaP was fostered by those countries whose geopolitical interests lay with the EaP area whereas the EU countries with different strategic priorities were not willing to equally contribute to the EaP development.

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Czech-Belarusian relations: last 20 years

20 years after the Velvet Revolution and the collapse of the Soviet Union have been characterized by significant changes in the regions of Central and Eastern Europe. The Czech Republic separated from Slovakia, changing from the former Soviet ally Czechoslovakia into an independent country with its own interests. In 2004 it became a member of the European Union. As for Belarus, though it was one of the USSR’s most developed republics, in the beginning of its independence it underwent economic shock therapy, which negatively affected most of the country’s population. Thus, the beginning of the 1990s in Belarus was characterised by the transformation to democracy under harsh economic challenges. Along with these difficulties Belarus had to maintain its relations with the world.

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The Image of Belarus and the Belarusian People in Presidential Speeches

In Belarus, the beginning of the 2000s was a period in which the need to define national identity and to understand who we, the Belarusian people are, was acknowledged. The rather late date during which these issues were addressed can be explained by the fact that the period from 1994 was completely occupied with solving economic problems and developing, and even establishing, an independent (in its institutional sense) state.

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No Money – No Dictator? Experts predict the “last battle” of “the last dictator in Europe”

This slogan wasn’t mentioned at the presentation of results for the “Democratic Change in Belarus: A Framework for Action” project, but it is the leading idea articulated by think tank experts in the recent publication. Damon Wilson (Executive Vice President of the Atlantic Council), Anders Aslund (Senior Fellow at the Peterson Institute), Peter Doran (Center for European Policy Analysis), David J. Kramer (Executive Director of Freedom House) and other experts formed a working group united by the thought that at the moment Lukashenka is as weak as he has ever been. They believe that the Western world can`t miss the chance to help him be gone away from the stage.

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Zachar Šybieka: The Present Neglected State of the Belarusian Language — a Strong Danger Signal for the Belarusian Nation

Recently the issue of national identity has been increasingly discussed in the Belarusian society, while Belarus’ authorities speak a lot about the the need to increase the number of foreign tourists in Belarus.  These two issues are interconnected, because precisely what is being shown to foreigners from our country’s historical legacy, and how it is  being shown,  forms their perception of Belarus. What should the  role of  language be for Belarusians’  self-identification and  for the external presentation of  Belarus, and how generally  should  Belarus be  introduced to foreign tourists? Professor Zachar Šybieka, a well-known historian and expert urbanist expresses his ideas in this interview.

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David Marples: I believe there is significant support within the EU for regarding Belarus as part of the Russian “sphere of interest.”

Belarusian studies in the West have always remained in the shadow of Russian, Polish or Ukrainian studies. That is why the number of Belarus-related books and articles lags far behind those on the neighbouring countries. Non-surprisingly, many western scholars and analysts have somewhat stereotypical view on Belarus’ past and often consider the present Belarusian state as being within the Russian sphere of interest. We asked a prominent Canadian historian David R. Marples, the author of Belarus: a Denationalized Nation, to make a historical overview and analyse the contemporary situation with the Belarusian studies in the North America as well as to express his opinion on the role that Belarusian language should play in the Belarus-related studies.

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Anatol Taras: I am a Belarusian and Feel It with My Heart

The biography of Anatol Taras, the well-known Belarusian writer and publisher of many books dealing with Belarusians’ historical roots and their  current national consciousness is  many-sided. However, he has arrived at his present occupation gradually. What caused Anatol Taras to start spreading historical knowledge about Belarus and why books published by him appear mostly in Russian?

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Belarus-Kazakhstan Cooperation Perspectives

Both Kazakhstan and Belarus recently went through the period of presidential elections. In both countries, the incumbent presidents Lukashenka and Nazarbayev predictably won the elections with high turnovers and voting results according to official statistics; in both countries opposition and international observers expressed concerns about election results and documented numerous violations. The two countries preserve rather good relations between each other, both on bilateral level and within the international organizations, such as Collective Security Treaty Organization and Customs Union.

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Does Poland really know Belarus?

Jarosław Kaczyński’s critique of current Polish policy toward Belarus reveals how outmoded thinking is damaging Belarusian civil society.

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Diplomacy of the Cold War Era: the Fate of One Man

Josef Orel is a man with the heavy fate who had an occasion to be a Czechoslovak diplomat in Africa during the Cold War times. In fact, he was one of the pioneers who established relations between Central European and African countries. Unfortunately, the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia at those times did not give him a possibility to throw himself into the maintenance of the relations between two continents. He as well as his family became victims of the system which brutally oppressed them and their children. However, despite all the ordeals, Josef Orel is full of vitality and self-reliance. In spite of his age of 74, he continuous to work as translator and feels constant support from his wife which who is standing right beside him for more than 50 years.

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Georgian nationalism and prejudices

Ethnocentrism is quite obvious among Georgians. Moreover, Georgian ethnocentrism has a rather individual, although not a very unique form. A Georgian may calmly accept the fact that other nations are richer, more hardworking and even smarter. However, a Georgian will always think that all these successful nations lack something very important, the so-called ‘zest’ or the essential understanding of life.

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Library: recent


2017-02-15 23:57:45

Belarusian Review, Special Jewish Issue, 2016

format: .pdf

2015-01-20 18:10:50

Крывія, №34-35, сьнежань 2014

format: .pdf





2017-01-16 | The Photograph

2016-05-08 | The attitude toward Holocaust in the former Soviet Union and in modern Belarus

2016-04-25 | Chernobyl: A Personal Memoir

2015-12-10 | Chernobyl and Belarus



2015-12-06 | Predictable election in the shadow of the Nobel Prize

2015-05-15 | Censorship as a research subject and as a means of understanding postwar Soviet Belarus

2015-02-02 | Aleś Kraŭcevič: we should be friends with Russia through the border fence

2015-01-11 | Jewish Soldiers in World War II



2015-03-02 | Alexander Osipov: Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine still benefit from the Soviet system of diversity governance

2013-06-11 | Alena Makoŭskaja: Belarusians living abroad are strongest advocates of Belarus and its culture

2013-05-31 | Belarusian language banned in the Kontinental Hockey League

2013-05-26 | The 1995 Referendum on national symbols and official languages was not legitimate



2015-11-30 | Belarus’ Economic Slump

2014-09-21 | Georgian Agriculture: Effects of Association with the EU

2014-06-05 | Belarus: impact of the conflict in Ukraine

2013-08-24 | David Marples: Belarus needs to distinguish itself from Russia and Russian policies

Political science


2015-10-02 | Eastern Partnership initiative: five year results and future perspectives

2015-05-25 | Prolonging the Victory

2015-03-19 | Sergey Dolgopolov: Belarus and the EU close on in the economic sphere

2015-01-19 | Ivonka Survilla: mythologized history is the basis for Putin’s neo-Soviet rhetoric

Other domains


2015-11-23 | Searching for Belarusianness in the southern Pskov region

2015-11-12 | The Space: Between Silesia and Podlasie

2015-09-14 | The Cookbook as Political Statement: A Note on Two Belarusian Examples

2015-06-06 | Again about Skaryna in Padua: Attendees

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