Since Aliaksandr Lukashenka, the authoritarian ruler of Belarus, claimed victory in the August 9 presidential election, the country has been swept by a popular uprising against his regime, which has lasted for a quarter of a century.
The national – as opposed to state – white-red-white flag, along with the white knight emblem, has been adopted by the protest movement. Its slogan ‘Long live Belarus’ dates back to the national liberation movement of the late 19th and early 20th century.
Yet Belarus’s popular revolution is not about national identity or the country’s geopolitical orientation. There has been no reference to its heroic past, nor have the European Union or Russian flags been flown. The Belarusian revolution is about freedom and democracy: the right to choose your own government and to express your opinion publicly without fear of violence and repression.
The soft power exemplified in women’s marches and non-violent actions has been predominant in this revolution. There are no hierarchical power structures among the protesters. The focus is instead on grassroots cooperation, inclusion and mutual aid. In this sense, it is a post-national revolution focused on civic identity, that is attaining a better and more dignified life inside one’s own country.
The white-red-white flag has been chosen to contrast with the state red and green Soviet replica, promulgated by Lukashenka. It dates back to the 15th century, when white and red elements were present on the flags of the troops of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a medieval forerunner of the present-day Belarus and Lithuania. The flag later became an official symbol of the Belarus People’s Republic, a short-lived state of 1918, and was revived again by the Belarusian intelligentsia during the Nazi occupation of 1941-1944. Finally, the flag became an official state symbol of an independent Belarus in 1991, following the demise of the Soviet Union.
Having come to power in 1994, Lukashenka launched a propaganda campaign to discredit the white-red-white flag and the knight emblem as those of Nazi collaborators. He then used the question of revoking the ostensibly Nazi symbols as a pretext to push through a controversial referendum that allowed him to subjugate the legislature and embark on integration with Russia.
Lukashenka continued his assault on the short-lived national revival of 1990-1994 by curtailing use of the Belarusian language in public life and rewriting history textbooks. Russian was made an official state language, and the new state ideology portrayed national identity as stemming from the Belarusian partisan guerrilla movement during the Second World War.
There was little opposition to the creation of this fake narrative for several reasons. Belarusians have always lacked a strong sense of national consciousness. As part of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth since the second half of the 17th century and the Russian Empire since the late 18th century until the revolution of 1917, Belarus was subject to strong Polish and Russian influences. Belarusians used to call themselves tuteyshyia – literally ‘from here’– as they did not identify themselves as Belarusian, Russian or Polish but as coming from ‘this land’.
Later, as the western frontier of the Soviet Union, Belarus was subject to further Russification. This process included the deployment of large numbers of Russian troops and their integration into Belarusian society, the appointment of Russian bureaucrats as heads of the Belarusian Communist Party and the wiping out of the local intelligentsia. More than 100,000 Belarusians, including teachers, doctors, writers and poets, were executed by the NKVD in 1937-1941 in the Kurapaty village on the outskirts of Minsk.
As a result, nationalism did not become a strong social force driving political change in Belarus as it did in the Baltic states. Unlike Ukraine, there was no nationalist sentiment among Belarusian communists either. The nationalist opposition, which managed to push through the white-red-white flag and the knight emblem as state symbols, lost its popularity in the late 90s having failed to act on economic reforms and was quickly crushed by Lukashenka.
The president’s geopolitical orientation towards Russia has not helped in building a sense of national identity either. In 1999, Lukashenka signed a treaty with the Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, to form a Union State between Belarus and Russia, much of which has yet to be implemented.
Belarus then joined the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States, the Collective Security Treaty Organization and finally the Eurasian Economic Union. In contrast, the West has kept limited ties to Belarus, following the crackdown on the Belarusian opposition after the referendums of 1995-96. It was only after the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014 that the West decided to expand contacts with the Belarusian government, helped by the release of political prisoners.
Western prosperity and its freedoms have always been attractive to Belarusians, whose country borders three EU members.
Sociologists say that Belarus is undergoing an identity crisis. People find themselves squeezed between two ‘civilizational choices’, unable to make up their minds. Polls show that public opinion has swung between supporting a western or a Russian orientation, with the latter often leading, although the gap has diminished in recent years. For example, those preferring full integration with Russia over joining the EU dropped from 60.3 per cent in January 2018 to 40.4 per cent in December 2019. At the same time the number preferring to join the EU has risen from 20.2 per cent in January 2018 to 32 per cent in December 2019.
Most of today’s protesters are in their 40s or younger – the two generations that have grown up in an independent Belarus. For them, their country’s sovereignty is inalienable. As Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the leader of the opposition, has said: ‘It is not a subject of debate or haggle.’
The polls since 2016 have shown more than 75 per cent of Belarusians wanting Belarus to remain independent from Russia, with 15 per cent preferring full integration.
As foreign travel has become easier, Belarusians are confronted with the question of who they are and what it means to be Belarusian. In recent years, several projects aimed at defining and (re)constructing Be- larus’ national identity have been launched. These include Belarusian language courses and singing classes, costume designs with national elements, translations of books into Belarusian and national history tours.
The election campaign and the post-election protests are speeding up this process. Public interest in national symbols and songs, as well as a history of Belarus, untainted by state propaganda, is growing.
The popular revolution in Belarus is helping to nurture a sense of civic identity. Having endured the hardships of the 1990s and the authoritarian oppression that followed, the country has matured over the past 30 years. Its people are ready to define how they want to live and will no longer tolerate more decades of repression.