Belarus: Self-Identification and Statehood

By Shushkevich, Stanislav | Demokratizatsiya, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Belarus: Self-Identification and Statehood


Shushkevich, Stanislav, Demokratizatsiya


After the collapse of the USSR, Belarus attempted to achieve national statehood, non-nuclear status, neutrality, an open society, and a liberal economy. Today it is a zone of communist revenge. To what extent is the situation special, and what are the country's prospects for becoming a democratic and sovereign nation?

Way to Independence

Belarus is one of the oldest Slavic nations in Europe. Belarusian statehood began at the beginning of the second millennium, and Belarusian Christianity is more than a thousand years old. For a long time, Belarus was an influential part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, where Belarusian was a state language. In the sixteenth century, the Statute of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, one of the first constitutions in Europe, was written in Belarusian.

Powerful neighbors always intended to conquer Belarus. Some two hundred years ago the territory of Belarus was incorporated into the Russian empire. The Belarusian language was forbidden, and rebellions of Belarusians against Russians were brutally suppressed. Anti-Belarusian pressure weakened for a short period at the beginning of the twentieth century, when the revolutionary movement in Russia began to endanger the monarchy. On 25 March 1918, Belarusians declared themselves an independent state: the Belarusian People's Republic. However, it was soon destroyed by Bolsheviks, who in 1919 formed their own Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, which became in 1922 one of the founding republics of the USSR.

In the 1930s, Bolsheviks started a planned destruction of the Belarusian intelligentsia. In 1937-39, tens of thousands of the most educated Belarusians were killed or deported. Documents prove that more than 370 poets, writers, journalists, philologists, and historians who wrote in Belarusian were shot. The same number of intellectuals were killed in both Ukraine and Russia; however, their populations were respectively five and fifteen times larger than Belarus's at that time.

But even this wasn't the climax of Belarus's trials: During World War II, Belarus lost a quarter of its citizens. Belarus lost more lives per capita in the Afghan war than any other Soviet republic. After the Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion, more than 70 percent of radioactive materials fell on Belarus.

For many years Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, Germans, Tatars, and Jews have lived on Belarusian land, and Belarusians have never blamed them for their own difficulties and problems. However, this tolerance has been purposely abused. Russians in prewar Belarus equaled 3 percent of the population, but this number grew to almost 20 percent by 1990. At the same time, Belarusian youths have been permanently moved to "build communism" in Kazakh virgin lands, Siberia, the Far East, and the Far North.

A new attempt to revive Belarusian statehood was made on 27 July 1990, when the Supreme Council (parliament) adopted the Declaration on State Sovereignty. Independence de jure was established in December 1991 when the country was formally recognized by Russia, which ratified the Belovezh agreement. Belarusians returned to sovereignty with an emasculated national intelligentsia and a population that to a large extent has lost a feeling of national self-identification, mainly because of compulsory Russification.

Russian Pretensions

Russia's interest in Belarus is formulated directly in the theses of the Council on Foreign and Defense Politics of the Russian Federation. A union with Belarus would help Russia "to oppose the NATO expansion to the East"; "remove the potential threat of creating the so-called Black-and-Baltic Sea Belt which would isolate Russia"; "improve our military potential by integrating with the Belarusian army"; "remove Kaliningrad's special defense region from military and strategic isolation"; "ensure the integration of the two armies into a single system with a single command and control structure"; and "develop a unified, powerful military industrial complex". …

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