Former ambassador Harri Tiido: Belarus as a national project

Harri Tiido.
Harri Tiido. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

The first episode of the Vikerraadio series "Harri Tiido taustajutud" (Harri Tiido's background stories) deals with why Belarus' national movement to get rid of Aleksandr Lukashenko and achieve fair elections is so restrained, why the nationalist element is not pronounced and why the movement is decidedly Russia-friendly in its statements and refrains from using EU symbols in its protests.

The national movement of Belarus is younger than many of its counterparts. It got its start somewhere toward the end of the 19th century or rather even after revolutionary events in Russia in 1905. For example, the national awakening of Ukraine took place some 50 years earlier, around the 1840s.

But once a nationalist movement arrives at the idea of independence, moreover achieves a momentary realization of that ambition, it will become much harder to sweep under the rug. A national history and pride are created along with its own symbols.

Birth of Belarusian nationalism

Belarusian poet Gleb Labadzenko recalls in an article in the New York Times from last year how an old chess piece was found during an archaeological dig in a Minsk suburb that was dated as at least a thousand years old. According to Labadzenko, it proves that people were playing chess in the territory of Belarus back when Moscow, Vilnius and Warsaw didn't even exist yet… He did not specify who might have been playing the game though.

But the message is clear – Belarus is no periphery, it has its own long and proud history. Even though ethnic histories are a bit problematic in the region in general.

Belarusian nationalism was created a little later mainly because in order for nationalism to come about, one needs intellectuals to pull that wagon. The latter usually inhabit cities and are part of the educated class, while what was at the time a province of Czarist Russia didn't even have a university at the turn of the century and most Belarusians who could be called that were country folk.

The ruling class consisted of Catholic Poles at the time. And if a Belarusian moved to the city, they effectively became a "Pole" or someone who uses Polish in everyday life, attends Catholic church and also dresses like a Pole. The Russian Empire started the "depolonization" or Russification of the area in 1861.

That is also when the theory of the larger Russian people having independent cultural formations inside it, such as Central-Russians, Western-Russians, Southern-Russians etc. surfaced. Even though the idea of a Western-Russian cultural sphere had its proponents, people still saw them as part of the greater Russian culture.

It is worth noting that looking back to the days of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, 80 percent of its residents used Old Ruthenian that can provisionally be called Old Belarusian in writing. Belarusians or Ruthenians could have laid claim to the entire duchy, while their Baltic neighbors were sharper and adopted the term "Lithuania" first.

Territories of the duchy that became part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth were referred to in Latin as Russia Alba or Ruthenia Alba. That is why the Belarusian foreign ministry emphasizes today that the country is called Respublika Belarus and not Belarusskaya Respublika. These differences are more difficult to grasp in Estonian, while historically there were several territories called "Rus" – Kievan Rus', White Rus', Red Rus' – all of them independent phenomena before being subjugated as parts of the Russian Empire.

White Rus' was created back in the 13th century, before Muscovite Rus declared itself Russia or Rossiya under Ivan the Terrible in 1547.

Ruthenians are still on the map today in Carpathian Ruthenia in Ukraine and considered a separate national minority. The Poles refer to Belarusian as Bielorusini or the "White Ruthenians."

Another chapter in this history concerns the "Litvins" that should not be confused with Lithuanians. Proponents of the term include those who want to call all Belarusians Litvins and those who prefer to apply the term to people inhabiting the western part of the country, while classifying those living in the east as pro-Russian Moscals.

Search engines suggest that Litvin was the term used to refer to all residents of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy in the 16-18 centuries. In 2000, representatives of the so-called Litvins wrote a declaration of acknowledgment in which it was decided to establish the Litvian language based on the Latin alphabet and demand recognition of the Litvian state. The idea was to move for recognition as the successor of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy.

The project did not get far and ended as a modest attempt by a minority to find its place in the greater patchwork of ethnicity. Those with greater interest in the topic can peruse Igor Litvin's book "Our lost world" published in Minsk in 2015.

As with many other European peoples, World War One plays a major role in the history of Belarusians. When the war started in 1914, there were virtually no Belarusian schools in the Russian Empire or anywhere for that matter. By December of 1917, there were 1,300 with 73,000 students between them. All of them were opened by order of German general Erich Luddendorff in territories that were under German control at the time.

However, this was not friendly aid for Belarusian nationalists or a campaign to counter Russification but rather at attempt to offset Polish influence. The reason is not important, what matters is the result and that the structural beginnings of national development had been created.

1917 also saw the First All-Belarusian Assembly where the nationalists' vote yield was still modest which it remained a month later at the First All-Belarusian Congress elections. However, in March of 1918, the Central Rada declared itself the government of an independent state of Belarus even though actual means of governance were in short supply. No one recognized that state.

But it is often the case in history that what matters is the emergence of an idea and that technical details will follow later. The authority that had emerged in Belarus lacked attributes of power, while it had a flag – the same white, red and white flag –, a coat of arms borrowed from Lithuania's old coat of arms depicting a rider, a national anthem and its own history of the national character and nature of Belarusians.

Therefore, Germany was one of the midwives of the independent Belarusian nation state. Soviet Russia can be seen as the other as it too sought to weaken Polish influence after Germany's defeat and decided to establish the separate Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic after being defeated by Poland in the war.

Because Belarus was roughly the size of the Minsk Oblast after parts of it went to Poland, Vitebsk was added, along with the regions of Mogilev and Gomel, while the residents there were dubbed Russified Belarusians. The end justifies the means…

Some Belarusians remained under Polish rule as the territory was divided up where political logic also worked in favor of the Belarusian national project. By the way, right-wing Belarusians in Poland received strong support from Lithuania that counted on their help getting back Vilnius from Poland. The left was supported by the Soviet Union that hoped to incorporate them into Soviet Byelorussia and promote export of the revolution to elsewhere in Europe.

Unfortunately, the situation soon changed and Belarusians' national aspirations were quashed in Poland after Jozef Pilsudski's coup in 1926. It was around the same time that Belarusian nationalism also started rubbing Moscow the wrong way and most of the leaders of the nationalist movement were shot just in case in the early 1930s. However, once out there, you cannot put a nationalist movement and the ideas behind it back in the bottle.

Nationalist and Russia-friendly

Modern Belarusian nationalism has a peculiarity – it is very likely one of the most civil society-oriented as opposed to ethnic movements in Europe. It is still being wondered at how peaceful and non-radical the protests are in Belarus.

They've never been antisemitic because Belarusians usually lived outside major cities and did not have to compete with Jews; there is generally little xenophobia and socioeconomic topics have traditionally taken center stage, not language purity, faith or blood relations. Surveys also suggest Belarusians identify with their state rather than their place of birth, nationality or faith.

A good overview of the early days of Belarusian nationalism is provided by Lund University professor Per Anders Rudling's book "The Rise and Fall of Belarusian Nationalism, 1906-1931" published in 2014.

Belarus' post-war history is likely fresher on people's minds and we can say that the rebirth of nationalist ideas mostly happened during the year's of the Soviet Union's collapse. President Aleksandr Lukashenko, still clinging to power today, was initially against nationalism and favored Russification, while the annexation of Crimea made him change his tune, with his first speech delivered entirely in Belarusian allegedly following events in Crimea in 2014.

Looking at the current people's movement's heads and what they've said, while clearly nationalist on the one hand, they are also consistently Russia-friendly.

Therefore, Moscow has little reason to fear Belarus' detachment in the grander scheme of things. Putin's problem is rather that people in the streets succeeding in removing one president from power would set a bad example for Russians regarding another president. That said, Moscow is keeping a close eye on the mentality in Belarus, ready to take more decisive measures should corresponding signs manifest.

Its geographic position is Belarus' fortune and misfortune – smack in the middle of the East European Plain that has been crossed in addition to traders by armies, which movement has been going on for centuries. This axis has seen the deaths of millions of soldiers and civilians and therefore – he who controls the plain, has a buffer looking east or west.

In closing, I would like to say that it is my personal conviction that Belarusian nationalism will not disappear. While it may stay in a union with Russia, it will be as separate peoples. If you get put on the map as a nation state, that's usually where you'll stay. Or as put by a Belarusian colleague of mine a few years ago: "Should Russia visit us by force, the people will return to the woods as partisans. We have that experience."

Harri Tiido was the former Estonian ambassador to Finland. He stepped down earlier this summer citing a difference of worldview with the current administration in Estonia, as well as his age. Tiido highlighted the presence of the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) in government as influencing his decision.

Tiido has a background in radio and has worked at the foreign affairs ministry for 20 years, including stints as ambassador to NATO and to Poland.


Follow ERR News on Facebook and Twitter and never miss an update!

Editor: Marcus Turovski

Hea lugeja, näeme et kasutate vanemat brauseri versiooni või vähelevinud brauserit.

Parema ja terviklikuma kasutajakogemuse tagamiseks soovitame alla laadida uusim versioon mõnest meie toetatud brauserist: