Overview of language rights violations in Belarus during the second half of 2023

The association “International Union of Belarusian Writers” continues to monitor the state of the Belarusian language in Belarus and to collect cases of discrimination of the Belarusian language and its speakers.

Unfortunately, Belarus continues to have a tendency of deteriorating the status of the Belarusian language. The state does not take any measures to improve the situation, but continues the policy of discrimination of the language and its speakers, which – in its turn – leads to the fact that the society itself does not consider it necessary to support and expand its use.

Thus, according to the results of the poll of the “Political Sphere” institute, 70% of respondents do not consider it necessary to change the language of teaching school subjects from Russian to Belarusian. Only 16% of respondents supported the increase of Belarusan-language programs at the expense of the reduction of Russian-language programs. And this despite the fact that, according to the results of the general census of 2019, in Belarus the share of those for whom Belarusian is their native language has grown to 54%, including among Belarusans to 61.2%. One of the authors of the study, sociologist Alaksiei Lastouski, believes that expanding the teaching of school subjects in Belarusian may cause a negative reaction in society, so the social status of the language should be raised so that it is perceived “as a factor of professional success, career.”

Simultaneously, the Belarusian authorities call to fight for the rights of the Russian language in the world, which condition has worsened in connection with Russia’s war against Ukraine. Thus, Alexander Lukashenko, in his speech at the summit of CIS leaders in Bishkek (October 13th, 2023), called the initiative of the President of Kazakhstan to establish an international organization on the Russian language very timely and in demand, because “knowing the Russian language is the greatest asset.” Lukashenko’s position was also supported by the Chairperson of the Council of the Republic Natalia Kochanova in the same Bishkek (November 17th, 2023). She quoted Lukashenko’s words that to lose the Russian language is to lose one’s history, present and future, and expressed concern about the negative trend of using the Russian language as a “target for political, cultural and moral-spiritual suppression of the Russian-speaking population.”

During the second half of 2023, we managed to discover the following cases of discrimination against the Belarusian language from open sources:

The well-known human rights defender Ihar Sluchak published in his social networks the negative answers of some producers of products in Belarus in response to the proposal to label their products in Belarusan. Thus, the STAA “KONTE” refused to use the Belarusian language on the labels of their products in connection with the fact that the meeting of managers and employees of the enterprise decided so. Another argument was that other manufacturers of similar products do not use the Belarusian language either. The authors of the letter also referred to the Constitution, which defines the status of the Belarusian and Russian languages as equal. The “Klub Farm-Eco” LLC refused to label its products in Belarusian because it is counterproductive to the company’s commercial success, distracts workers from work and discriminates against the part of the population that only fully speaks Russian. The response to the appeal, written in Belarusan, was given by the enterprise in Russian, which is a violation of the law. (The information is taken from the Facebook page of Ihar Sluchak).

On July 15th, 2023, the Telegram channel “Mova TUT” published an excerpt from the story of the artist Ales Pushkin (the artist convicted under article 370 of the Criminal Code – mocking of state symbols, article 130 of the Criminal Code – inciting enmity – up to 5 years of imprisonment in prison under strict regime conditions, recognized as a political prisoner on April 6th, 2021, died in prison on July 11th, 2023) about his treatment in the Okrestino detention center. Thus, Ales said that at the time of his detention at one of the peaceful marches in Minsk, he had written a declaration in Belarusian about his motives for protesting. During the search, the riot police found this declaration. They stripped Ales naked in front of other prisoners and beat him badly. The reason was the Belarusian language of the text.

On July 19th, 2023, in the newspaper “Belarus Segodnya (SB)”, the state propagandist Andrei Mukovozchik sharply criticized the interview given by the writer and translator Natalka Charytaniuk to the editors of the “Let’s Be Belarusans!” portal. In his article, Mukovozchik questions the normality of the writer due to the fact that she decided to raise her child entirely in Belarusian.

On July 24th, 2023, the Ministry of Information of Belarus blocked the Kamunikat.org website, the largest online library of Belarusian literature in the world. Now it can only be read from abroad, and in the country only with the help of VPN services.

On July 25th, 2023, the law amending the law “On languages in the Republic of Belarus” dated January 6th, 1990 No. 3094-XI was published (on July 26th it became effective). The changes in the law concern the processing of documents for Belarusans, court proceedings and the language of education. Court proceedings and administrative proceedings (Articles 14, 15) can now be conducted in Belarusian and (or) Russian. Previously, you could choose Russian or Belarusan. The right to receive education (Article 21) in Belarusian and (or) Russian was recorded for systems of science-oriented education and additional education of gifted children and youth. The title of the article has changed: “The right to upbringing and to receive education in the national language” to “The right to receive education in the official languages of the Republic of Belarus”. From now on, it is not possible to study in the languages of national minorities, only the studying of their native language and literature is allowed in separate groups and classes according to the decision of local authorities, coordinated with the Ministry of Education. The requirement for heads of the education system to speak Belarusian has also disappeared. Now this order applies only to teaching staff (Article 22). In the same article, the paragraph that regulates the mechanism for choosing the language of instruction in a certain educational institution has been removed: “The main language of instruction and education (Belarusian or Russian) is determined by the founder of the educational institution (an organization that, in accordance with the law, is given the right to carry out educational activities), an individual entrepreneur, who in accordance with the law is given the right to carry out educational activities, taking into account the wishes of students (legal representatives of minor students)”. We remind you that earlier in Belarus 2 Lithuanian and 2 Polish schools were liquidated.

In an interview with Viasna on July 25th, 2023, the former political prisoner Alaksandr Kazakievic told how he started speaking Russian in the pre-trial detention center because he heard how another boy was threatened with lowering his social status for speaking Belarusan. Alaksandr also said that the investigator in his case, Kristina Dubenevich, when examining the contents of his phone, asked him to change the language of the interface to Russian, because she could not understand the inscriptions in Belarusan.

On August 11th, 2023, at the Military Cemetery in Minsk, the old tombstone of the Belarusian poet and linguist Ales Hurlo (1892-1938) was changed to a modern one decorated in Russian. Here it is important to note the fact that Ales Hurlo was not only a Belarusan-language poet, but also did a lot for the development and strengthening of the Belarusian language: he worked as part of the terminological commission of the Inbielkult [Belarusian Culture Institute], the Language Institute of the Academy of Sciences of Belarus, compiled dictionaries of the Belarusian language. And his dictionary “Technical Terminology” marked the beginning of the systematic development and study of special vocabulary.

On August 14th, 2023, an electronic auction for the purchase of children’s literature was held for the Mahilou Regional Library on the goszakupki.by website. 50,000 rubles were spent on books, but the publishers whose books they wanted to buy were exclusively Russian. Such publications as “Arbat”, “VDNKh. Main exhibition of the country”, “Bulvarnoye koltso”, “Kremlin – the heart of Moscow”, “Why are the towers of the Kremlin silent?”, “Moscow high-rises”, “Unusual houses of Moscow”, “Sails of Russia”, “Parks of Moscow”, “Russian Izba”, “How they lived in Russia”, “Myths of the Volga Region”, “Kolomna. A small town with a big history”, “How Pushkin changed the Russian language”, “Great victories of General Ushakov”, “Irkutsk. The city itself” and others. Mahilou schoolchildren will be taught the history, geography and culture of Russia with funds from the regional budget.

On August 15th, 2023, the court of the Central District of Minsk recognized the following works of Belarusian poets as extremist materials: Book from the series “Belarusian Book Collection” Selected works / Lidzija Arabiei; Book from the series “Belarusian book collection” Hienijus L. Selected works; Book from the series “Belarusian book collection” Arsiennieva N. Selected works; Book from the series “Belarusian book collection” Niaklajeu U. Selected works / Uladzimir Niaklajeu.

On August 17th, 2023, information products in the form of Jazep Januskievic’s preface to the book, as well as the texts of the works “Winds Blow”, “Old Grandfather’s Conversation”, attributed to V. Dunin-Marcinkievic and included in the final part under the name “DUBIA”, were recognized as extremist materials of the “Belarusian Book Collection” series” Selected works / Vincent Dunin-Marcinkievic. The statement of the prosecutor’s office of the city of Minsk became the basis for recognizing information products as extremist materials.

On November 8, 2023, a two-volume collection of works by the classic of Belarusian literature of 19th century Vincent Dunin-Marcinkievic was recognized as extremist material. The court of Zytkavicy District issued the corresponding decision.

Registration for the Minsk half-marathon, which took place on September 10, 2023 in Minsk, took place on a separate website through a Russian platform and exclusively in Russian. The site’s Russian-language system did not recognize Belarusian letters and Belarusian Latin script.

On August 29, 2023, the Telegram channel “Mova TUT” reported that the Russian history textbook (grade 9) mentions that after the suppression of Kastus Kalinouski’s uprising (1863 – 1864), Russian became the only language of education and books. But at the same time, it is claimed that thanks to Russification, “the interaction of Russian and national cultures became closer, it contributed to mutual enrichment.” How Russian culture enriched Belarusian culture is not specified in the textbook.

On August 29, 2023, Deputy Minister Alexander Kadlubai stated that he does not see “a bias towards Russian-speaking” in Belarusian schools. However, according to the latest Belstat data (2021), only about 10% of 1.058 million schoolchildren studied in Belarusan.

On September 2, 2023, during the “Question No. 1” program on the “Belarus 1” TV channel, Minister of Education Andrei Ivanets stated that 40% of schools in Belarus are Belarusan-speaking and about 10% of schoolchildren study in Belarusan. However, the majority of Belarusan-language schools are rural. The minister believes that this is a very good indicator that instills certain optimism. At the same time, “Nasha Niva” notes that during the Russification policy of the USSR, 22% of children in Belarus studied in Belarusan.

On September 2, 2023, a “monument to the Russian “Bukvar” [abecedarium] was erected in Haradok for the Day of Belarusian Writing. The Viciebsk state-run newspaper “Vitbichi” announced that it will be “an original art object in the form of letters of the Belarusian alphabet – with “W” and “I”. However, as a result, only the Russian word “Bukvar” was made, out of concrete letters. A sign was attached to the pedestal: “Bukvar. Didicated to the Day of Belarusian Writing”. There is a mistake in the inscription: it should be written “dedicated”.

On September 3, 2023, in her Telegram channel, the pro-government activist Olga Bondareva criticized the words of the Minister of Education Andrei Ivanets that, despite the fact that the number of schoolchildren studying Belarusian inspires optimism, this does not mean that we should not pay special attention to the study of our culture and our language. According to Bondoreva, with these words, where the minister called only the Belarusian language “our”, he discredited and intentionally belittled the importance of one of the state languages – Russian. Thereby, she accused Andrei Ivanets of spreading Nazism. Bondareva considers efforts to support the Belarusian language as an attempt to create a split in society.

On September 6, 2023, it became known that Uladzimir Karatkievic’s novel “Spikes under your sickle” was removed from the school curriculum. The novel was included in the program for 2022-2023, and five study hours were allocated to its study. In the program for the new academic year (2023 – 2024), the novel “Spikes under your sickle” was replaced by another work by Uladzimer Karatkievic – “The Black Castle of Alsany”. In addition, the work of Ales Razanau “Rahvalod reigns in the city” was removed from the section for additional reading. Director of the National Library Vadim Ghighin believes that the famous novel by Uladzimir Karatkievic does not contribute to the formation of historical memory in schoolchildren, which is needed by the authorities. He admitted that the work was removed from the program on his initiative.

On September 5, 2023, the state media published an article that a tombstone was erected on the grave of the famous conductor M. Finberg (1947 – 2021). The text on the monument is written in Belarusan, but the name of the deceased is spelled incorrectly: the spelling of the name “Mikhail” contains the letter “и”, which does not exist in the Belarusian language at all: “Михаіл”.

On September 10, 2023, Nasha Niva reported that in the 104th season of the Kupala Theater, only one production based on the works of Belarusian authors will be shown from the Belarusian repertoire – “Paulinka”. Once will be shown such Belarusan-language performances based on the works of foreign authors as “The Last Attraction” by D. Lindsay-Eber, “Romeo and Juliet” by W. Shakespeare, Donna sola (“The Woman Alone)” by D. Foh and F. Romet, “Waiting Loudly and close to pain” by M. Panich, as well as based on the works of Russian writers – “Hot Heart” by A. Ostrovsky, “Marriage” by M. Gogol. All the rest of the time, the Russian language will dominate the walls of the National Theater. Kazan Academic Russian Grand Drama Theater named after V. I. Kachalov, which will open its 233rd season, has been invited to Minsk with a tour.

On September 8, 2023, there was a meeting of the expert group on the coordination of the draft statement of the heads of states – participants of the Commonwealth of Independent States on the support and promotion of the Russian language as a language of international communication. The draft statement notes the importance of preserving and popularizing the unique linguistic and historical and cultural heritage of the CIS member states, states the importance of the Russian language in strengthening the common cultural and humanitarian space of the Commonwealth, and confirms the commitment to the use of the Russian language in mutual contacts and at venues.

On September 15-16, 2023, the annual cultural and educational forum “Skaryna Days in Polatsk” was held in Polatsk. This forum was started in 2014 as a celebration of writing, during which all participants mention the first Belarusian printer Francysk Skaryna and his great work. Initially, the forum was called in Belarusan. In 2021, the project was granted international status and timed to September 17, the Day of National Unity. This year, the logo of the event was made in Russian. According to the program, the only guests from abroad were representatives of the Russian Federation.

On September 19, 2023, during a program on Radio-Minsk, the Chairman of the Minsk City Executive Committee, Vladimir Kukharev, said that the navigation signs with Belarusian Latin characters in the Minsk metro would be replaced. The transliteration will be performed according to the new rules approved by the resolution of the State Committee on Property. This is done within the framework of the state policy of Russification. “Concerned citizens” led by pro-government activist Olga Bondareva complained about Latin. Previously, on September 14, 2023, during the national scientific-practical conference “State policy in the sphere of history: problems and prospects of preservation of historical truth and memory”, the head of the Lukashenko administration Igor Sergeyenko said that “the head of the state told the government to exclude the practice of using Latin in the names of streets and topographic objects and to use only the state languages”.

On September 19, 2023, propagandist Yevgheny Pustovoi shared an example of “insincere patriotism” that he noticed in some Belarusans. The marker was the Belarusian language. In his opinion, people who in Belarus position themselves as its patriots think in Russian and switch to the Belarusian language only after seeing him or Grigory Azaryonok. Moreover, Pustovoi sees suffering in the eyes of these people, because they sincerely do not know the Belarusian language, because they think in Russian.

On September 20, 2023, it became known that a new biology textbook for sixth graders was published in Belarusan. Activist and mother of a schoolboy, Kaciaryna Varazun, drew the public’s attention to gross errors on almost every page and even on the cover of the textbook. In her opinion, the mistakes in the textbook were caused by the fact that the compilers ran the text through Google Translate and did not check the result for literacy. The author of the textbook is Mikalai Lisau, a biologist, candidate of biological sciences, head of the Department of Botany and Basics of Agriculture at the M. Tank University of Applied Sciences. The book was published in 2021 by the specialized publishing house Narodnaia Asvieta. The translation into Belarusian is the responsibility of the translator Tacciana Judcyc, as well as the proofreaders – A.P. Tchir and H.V. Aleska. Kaciaryna Varazun indicated that she is preparing a letter to the Ministry of Education – according to her, there are errors not only in the biology textbook, but also in computer science, the history of the ancient world, and the subject “People and the World”.

On September 27, 2023, the Ministry of Culture in the Concept of the Development of the National Cultural Space in All Areas of Society Life for 2024-2026 provided information that in 2022, 12.43% of book titles were published in the Belarusian language, which is less than 1/8 from the total number. According to the Ministry of Culture, in 2022, 8,586 books and brochures with a total circulation of 20.13 million copies (2.2 books per inhabitant) were published in the country. The average circulation of one book is 2.35 thousand. In 2022, 1,067 titles of books and brochures with a circulation of 2.83 million copies were published in the Belarusian language. It is noted that during the replenishment of library collections, there are “acquisitions of foreign literature that influence the formation, propagation and dissemination of views that contradict the traditional spiritual values of Belarusans.” In Belarus, dozens of books are recognized as “extremist”. And a number of private Belarusian publishers were repressed and were forced to stop their activities.

On October 1, 2023, at the National University of Tajikistan in Dushanbe, the “Center of the Belarusian Language and Innovative Technologies” was solemnly opened on the basis of the joint faculty of the University of Tajikistan with the Belarusian State Technological University. Ambassador of Belarus to Tajikistan Victor Denisenko took part in the event. What is remarkable, the sign of the “Center of the Belarusian Language and Innovative Technologies” was made in Russian.

On October 3, 2023, in an article on zerkalo.io, several parents of second-graders said that Belarusian literature has not been taught in the schools where their children study since the beginning of the year, although it is included in the schedule in the diary. The father of one of the students was indignant that this subject could even be replaced by the Russian language or mathematics. In some schools, the Belarusian language and literature are taught together, in one lesson. And at the school in the Minsk region, there is an optional course called “Native language, be friends with me.” The curriculum for this option states that its goal is “to master the Russian language as a means of communication,” and one of the tasks is “to develop interest in studying the Russian language as part of the national culture of the people and as a cultural phenomenon.”

On October 7, 2023, in an interview on the YouTube channel “Zhizn Malina”, the youth activist Alana Hiebremaryjam (convicted under Article 342 of the Criminal Code – organization and preparation of actions that grossly violate public order, or active participation in them, up to 2 years and 6 months of deprivation of freedom in a colony under the conditions of the general regime, recognized as a political prisoner on 18 November 2020, released on November 30th, 2022) said that in Homel-based colony No. 4, when convicts speak Belarusan, the colony administration perceives it as a provocation. The convicted who dared to speak Belarusian were brought to justice for “violations” that were found specifically for this purpose or were invented.

In early October 2023, street signs with Belarusian Latin characters were dismantled in the city of Hrodna. Tourists who came to the city were greeted by empty pillars. Previously, there were signs with the names of streets and landmarks on them. Above, the information was written in the Belarusian language in Cyrillic, and below, the same was duplicated in Belarusian Latin. The active fight against the use of Latin in Belarus began in August 2022. The main initiators are the pro-Russian activist from Hrodna Olga Bondareva and her supporters. Olga explained that she “protects the country from collaborators” by fighting the Belarusian Latin script. The authorities have set the task of completely removing Belarusian Latin from road signs and indicators in Belarus by the end of 2023.

On October 10, 2023, a new cross appeared instead of a dismantled cross at the place of commemoration of the victims of Stalin repressions in Mahilou. The large oak commemorative cross, which was once erected here by the public, was replaced by a small new one with the inscription in Russian: “We worship your cross, Lord, and we glorify your resurrection.” The shape and decoration of the cross correspond to the Russian tradition.

On October 19, 2023, Maladziecna electric trains stopped announcing train stops in Belarusan. Only Russian is heard from the receivers in the carriages. The driver replied to the worried passengers that he was ordered to temporarily turn off the Belarusian language.

On October 22, 2023, voice announcements in Belarusian disappeared at the Hrodna bus station. According to “Radio Racyja”, one of the residents of the city was told in the bus station administration that before such announcements were made by a person, but now a computer program came from Minsk. In addition, the country has two official languages. The questions of a citizen of the city of why the Belarusian language disappeared and whether the transporters are going to fully join Russia already “caused a small scandal.”

On October 9, 2023, the “Knihazbor” publishing house, which has been publishing Belarusian literature for more than 25 years, was officially excluded from the Unified State Register. In January 2023, after a long persecution of the publishing house, the process of its liquidation began. In December 2022, the Ministry of Information suspended its activities for a month.

On November 6, 2023, security forces detained a boy for protests (name and surname unknown). In the “repentance” video, he spoke in Belarusan. Security forces noted that this is allegedly the first “political” detainee in three years who managed to talk about himself in a “penitential” video in Belarusian without a hitch. Other willing ones, they say, gave themselves up after unsuccessful dubbing (although the authorities, as they claim, did not forbid anyone to record such videos in Belarusan).

On December 1, 2023, errors were noticed in the Belarusian version of the passenger plate at the Minsk bus station. The second point in the obligations is formulated as if the passengers owe something to the privileged citizens. Even the wish “A happy journey!” is written in Belarusian letters in the Russian manner: “Have a good road!”, which does not exist in the Belarusian language.

On December 2, 2023, the Secretary General of the Belarusian Red Cross Society, Dmitry Shevtsov, commented on the decision of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, according to which the membership of the Belarusian organization in the federation is suspended due to the refusal to replace the discredited head. His indignation at the fact that the decision of the International Federation of the Red Cross was published in both official languages of the Republic of Belarus was unexpected. He sees the existence of the Belarusian language version of the document as an ideological diversion. In general, the information on the suspension of membership in the international federation of the Belarusian organization was published in four languages – English, Russian, Belarusan, and Ukrainian. And Shevtsov sees politicization in this: “The official languages of the International Federation are English, French, Spanish, Arabic, and the technical language is Russian. Publication in the Ukrainian and Belarusian languages is to please the Ukrainian authorities, who called to summon Shevtsov to the International Court of Justice, and to please the Belarusian opposition, which also claimed that Shevtsov was involved in the deportation of children from Donbass.

On December 6, 2023, Svislac-based Gymnasium No. 1 was deprived of the name of the leader of the 1863-64 uprising Kastus Kalinouski. It was the only educational institution in Belarus that bore the name of the country’s national hero. It was in this gymnasium (then called the Svislac District School) where in 1847-52 Kastus Kalinouski studied. There was also a school museum on the territory of the gymnasium with an exposition dedicated to the life of Kalinouski and the uprising, there was also a bust of him, but now there are no museum exhibits there. The gymnasium was renamed in honor of the Komsomol underground worker Praskovia Vasilenko, and on the page of the school museum it is now said – “the museum of the gymnasium is under reconstruction”.

On December 8, 2023, 12 people received citizenship of the Republic of Belarus in the city of Biaroza. It was remarkable that they were accepted without checking their knowledge of the Belarusian language, culture and history of Belarus. It was enough to read the oath from a piece of paper to become a citizen.

On December 8, 2023, the student Kastus Tenc, who studies at the Belarusian State University of Transport, was detained and later sentenced to 15 days in Homiel. As Kastus’s fellow students told, he often organized various actions at the university to promote the Belarusian language – quizzes, discos with Belarusian songs, excursions to distinctive Belarusian places and the hometowns of prominent Belarusian figures. And in September, according to the story of fellow students, Kastus organized the Belarusian Language Week at the university.

In our opinion, it is very important to collect and publish cases of discrimination based on language because today, more than ever, the Belarusian language is under the threat of extinction. We shall continue to closely monitor the state of the Belarusian language and conduct similar surveys, at least once every six months. Therefore, if you have examples of language discrimination that are not included in this review, please send them to us: naszamova@gmail.com.

The survey has been prepared by the association “International Union of Belarusian Writers”