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18 Jan

Hanna Vasilevich (Belarus)
The Point Journal, March 29, 2013


Belarus' abnormal bilingualism

While unveiling the commemorative plaque for Janka Kupala (People’s Poet of Belarus) in the Latvian capital Riga on 14th of  March,  the Belarusian minister of culture, Barys Sviatlou, has underscored that Belarusian language does not face any problems in Belarus. He conceded that there might be some general issues concerning the language as the basis of national culture;  according to him,  however, no one is forbidden to publicly speak Belarusian in Minsk.

On one hand, such a statement is absolutely correct since the Constitution stipulates that the Belarusian language is one of the two official languages of the Republic of Belarus. The language is visible throughout the country through TV and radio broadcasts, public announcements and road signs, paper money and postal stamps, etc. The language is being taught in schools as a mandatory subject; candidates for any position in the public service are required by law to possess the appropriate knowledge of Belarusian language. The official statistics prove that  it is the mother tongue for the majority of country’s population and is the primary language of communication for approximately a quarter of Belarusian citizens.

On the other hand, in the third-largest Belarusian city of Mahilioŭ with population of over 350,000, just one child is attending a Belarusian-language class – not even a full-fledged Belarusian school. More or less similar situation concerning the school education may be observed in nearly all major Belarusian cities. Such a situation has its roots in the country’s legislation and practice - typical for major cities where the instruction in Russian language is the default option for school education. This implies that in order to send their child to a Belarusian-language kindergarten or school, parents have to submit a request to relevant education authorities. The procedure followed might be time-consuming and not always effective.

The recent example of the Belarusian sculptor Henik Lojka, who was sentenced for five days of imprisonment  for his action designed to protect the Belarusian language, once again showed another problem – the country lacks Belarusian-language administrative, criminal, civil, commercial and procedural legislation. Such a situation considerably limits the capacities for using the Belarusian language in the judicial sphere.

Thus, the country faces a significant dilemma that has its roots in the official bilingualism with equal status of Belarusian and Russian languages. There exist spheres where the state has not provided adequate language facilities for speakers of Belarusian. The two examples above show that the spheres with insufficient Belarusian language facilities belong to the very important areas of life of the Belarusian society.

While proclaiming the equality of Belarusian and Russian languages as official languages of Belarus, the Belarusian constitution guarantees everyone “the right to use his native language and to choose the language of communication.” At the same time nearly all specific laws concerning the usage of language refer to “Belarusian or Russian” or “one of official languages.” This “either-or” model does not exclude Belarusian, but neither does it provides measures necessary for promoting the language, particularly in areas with insufficient language facilities. In other words, the “either-or” model does not do anything to change the existing status quo. The reluctance to change the current formulations of the specific laws to “both Belarusian and Russian” is often justified by the considerable increase of costs in the situation when the country cannot afford any additional expenditure.

But are the Belarusian authorities unfriendly to the titular language? And are the Belarusians reluctant to use it? In both cases the answer would be negative.

The authorities declare their support for the Belarusian language. However, when it comes to possible legislation changes in order to promote it, Belarusian public servants are faced with   additional challenges. Since they belong to a conservative stratum, they would rather oppose radical changes that would require additional work for them and considerably change the long-established rules.

In its turn, the population largely respects the Belarusian language, but does not protest against the current language status quo. This may be due to the time-consuming and not always effective tools to change the situation. Moreover, the simple unwillingness to be involved into any kind of an apparent conflict seems to be the most convincing argument for the population’s passivity in defending its language rights.

In this situation the promotion of the Belarusian language might be performed with both top-down (particularly in areas where the state declares its support for the national language) and bottom-up approaches (through civic initiatives). It is possible to assume that in case of positive development and promotion of the Belarusian language facilities changes in the country’s linguistic situation might be expected in a mid-term perspective.

However, it seems that the most important step should be made by the state in changing its attitude concerning the language of instruction in primary and secondary schools, both in law and in practice.  The current time-consuming and ineffective mechanism, when parents who want their children to be instructed in Belarusian language,  need to make additional efforts to achieve their legitimate claims -  without even an ultimate guarantee that their child would be able to study in Belarusian - should be changed. This also requires a change of attitude of local authorities concerning the wider promotion of Belarusian-language education,  since  the decisions to open or close schools and classes are usually  made by local executive committees.

Originally published: http://thepointjournal.com/output/index.php?art_id=217&spr_change=eng