National Identity: State policy and public opinion

Piotr Rudkoŭski

Summary

2018 marked the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of the independence of the Belarusian People's Republic. In the same year the first volume of the History of Belarusian Statehood was published, a number of events dedicated to the problems of national identity were held. Both at the level of state policy and at the level of public opinion, however, there is uncertainty about the role of the BPR. The commitment to the Soviet heritage, coupled with attempts to revise some of its elements, remains, and the consensus on the identification function of the Belarusian language is consolidated.

Trends:

Public opinion in Belarus is relatively rarely studied for its attitude to certain elements of national identity. But in 2018, as many as two sociological services – the Belarusian analytical workshop (BAW) and MIA Research – in the framework of national surveys asked respondents a number of questions on identity, in particular about the historical narrative, national symbols and the Belarusian language. As a result, we obtained enough data to be able to update our knowledge about the formation of consensus among the Belarusians on their national identity.1

The article first presents the background events of 2018, which could have an impact on public opinion and would allow getting an idea of the state policy in the field of identity. Then the results of sociological surveys on three aspects of national identity will be discussed: the BPR, the Soviet heritage and the Belarusian language. Finally, conclusions will be made about current trends and forecasts for the future.

Background events: the 100th anniversary of the BPR and the renewal of the ideological narrative

2018 marked the centennial anniversary of the BPR, so it was held under the sign of a number of events timed to this anniversary. The most famous events were a mass rally of thousands and a concert at the Opera and Ballet Theatre on 25 March, which, were not officially supported by the authorities, but were held with the secret assistance of the establishment.

On March 15 and 16, the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus organized a conference The Belarusian People's Republic in the History of the Belarusian National Statehood. During the conference, the key speakers agreed that the Declaration of the BPR was clearly a positive step towards the formation of the Belarusian statehood. The Academy of Sciences has also created a mobile application on the route Following Traces of the BPR in Minsk. Public activists, however, failed to establish signs in honor of the BPR in Hrodna and Minsk. The position of the authorities froze in the form a fence-sitter: they neither forbade it categorically, nor allowed it.

Another important event last year was the release of a large, almost 600-page volume of the History of Belarusian Statehood2, which can be considered the beginning of a new sub-stage of a state identity policy. In turn, the Public Association Belaya Rus’ together with the Institute of History of the NAS launched the project Belarusian Statehood: History and Modernity. The project participants agree that the BPR is one of the “national forms of the Belarusian statehood.”3

Let us turn to the data on public opinion: how the Belarusians perceive the BPR and other factors of identity. Where it is possible, I will compare the data with those of 2009.

BPR: not “against”, but not yet “in favour”

During the survey, which took place shortly after the 100th anniversary of the BPR, the question about the attitude to the date “March 25” was mostly replied as “I have no opinion”. Among those who had a certain opinion, the share of opponents of the proclamation of March 25 a holiday date clearly exceeded the share of supporters (32.8% and 21.1%, respectively). In response to a less categorical question: “What is your attitude to this date” – the share of supporters and opponents was approximately the same: 18.5% were in favor of honoring this date, 17.5% – against (see below Tables 1 and 2).

2018 (BAW-1)
This is an important date in the history of our country. It should be celebrated 18.50%
This date is associated with a controversial event. It should not be celebrated 17.50%
I know too little about it to judge 61.10%
No answer/hard to say 2.80%
Table 1. “Some Belarusians celebrate March 25 (Freedom Day), the day when the Belarusian People's Republic was proclaimed in 1918. Some Belarusians consider it an important day for Belarus, others do not. What is your attitude to this date?”
2018 (BAW-1)
Yes 21.10%
No 32.80%
I have no opinion on this matter 44.30%
Refused to answer 1.80%
Table 2. “Should the Day of Foundation of the BPR (March 25) be a national holiday and celebrated annually?”

When respondents were asked about the origins of Belarusian statehood, the BPR was in the last place in the number of those who recognized it as such, and this situation was both in 2009 and in 2018 (Table 3). This does not mean, however, that everyone else views the role of the BPR negatively. It is very likely that a significant part of those who singled out the Principality of Polack and Turaŭ, or the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, perceives the BPR as positive; it may happen that they see the origin of the statehood in the earlier stages of history.

2009 (Nov) 2018 (BAW-2)
Polack and Turaŭ principalities 17.70% 15.90%
GDL (Grand Duchy of Lithuania) 38.10% 30.40%
BPR (Belarusian People’s Republic) 5.00% 7.00%
The BSSR (Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic) 12.40% 21.80%
RB (Republic of Belarus) 9.20% 9.30%
No answer/hard to say 17.70% 15.70%
Table 3. “In your opinion, what is the source of Belarusian statehood?”

Thus, regarding the BPR, the position “I do not know” dominates among Belarusian citizens, and this is not surprising, given that the formation of their own position on this issue requires time, historical knowledge and skills to process historical information. The quantitative amount of supporters and opponents of the BPR is approximately equal, with episodic superiority of opponents.

Soviet heritage: “in favour”, but not that definitely

It may seem curious that, as can be seen from Table 3, in 2018 there were almost twice as many supporters of the ‘Soviet-centric view’ on the Belarusian statehood as compared to 2009. This looks even more strange if to note that the number of supporters of the thesis that the origin of the statehood was Polack/Turaŭ Principalities and the GDL, decreased, albeit slightly. This turn to Sovietism is most likely a temporary product of solidarity with Russia against the background of its conflict with Ukraine and the West, as well as the fact that a generation which was raised in 1995–2010 (a period of marked hostility to the national Renaissance narrative in the educational and ideological policy of the state) grew up.

There is also an attachment to the memorable dates associated with the history of the BSSR. Compared to 2009, the number of enthusiasts of “July 3” (from 57 to 53%) slightly decreased, but the number of supporters of the anniversary of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Belarus increased – from 4.5 to 8.0% (which though could be explained by the association with the New Year Day, January 1) (Table 4).

2009 (Nov) 2018 (BAW-2)
1 January (New year and day of the SSRB) 4.50% 8.10%
March 25 (Freedom Day) 1.20% 10.40%
July 3 (Day of liberation of Minsk from German Nazis) 56.90% 52.60%
July 27 (Day of adoption of the Declaration of sovereignty of the BSSR) 21.80%
November 7 (October revolution Day) 1.20%
19 September (the day of the renaming of the BSSR in the Republic of Belarus) 7.30%
Other 1.40% 3.90%
There is no such holiday 0.30%
No answer/hard to say 11.60% 17.70%
Table 4. “What day, in your opinion, is the main holiday for Belarusians?”

The level of attachment to the official (since 1995) red-green flag and the coat of arms “with spikelets” – symbols originally from the BSSR also remains high. Nevertheless, compared with 2009, the number of supporters of the BPR symbols increased significantly – from 8 to 13%. It should be emphasized that in 2018, when respondents did not have the opportunity to take a ‘unified’ position (to choose “both to the same extent”), some of them “escaped” to the category “hard to answer”, but some most likely opted for the white-red-white flag and “Pahonia” (‘chasing’) coat of arms (Table 5).

2009 (Nov) 2018 (BAW-2)
The red-green flag and coat of arms of the Republic of Belarus 72.60% 69.40%
The white-red-white flag and Pahonia coat of arms 7.70% 13.20%
Both equally 11.20%
Another 0.40% 1.00%
No answer/hard to say 8.20% 16.50%
Table 5. “What national symbol do you consider yours?” (2009) and “If a referendum on national symbols of Belarus were to be held tomorrow, which option would you choose?”(2018)

The level of commitment to the Soviet heritage is evidenced by the broad support for the preservation of Soviet street names, squares and other objects (Table 6). It is noteworthy that a considerable percentage (16%) of supporters of the “Belarusian-centric” understanding of the Soviet heritage manifested themselves: Soviet names are possible but only those that are connected with the history of Belarus itself. This trend has its analogue in the official discourse, where there are also attempts of such understanding.4

2018 (BAW-2)
Yes, all the names that are associated with the CPSU should be changed 7.40%
No, never, because the Soviet names are our history 44.40%
They should, but selectively. The places named after Lenin, Marx, Engels and other persons who are not directly connected with Belarus should be changed, but the names that are connected with the Belarusian Soviet history should be kept 16.10%
The right to choose names should be given to the residents of the relevant areas and streeds 22.40%
There should be even more Soviet names. Those that are here at the moment, are not enough for the patriotic education of the younger generation 2.60%
I don't know 6.50%
Refuse to answer 0.50%
Table 6. “Should the Soviet names of cities, streets, squares and other objects in Belarus be changed?”

Thus, the Belarusian society treats the Soviet heritage either favorably or tolerantly, which is easily explained by the "accessibility effect": those symbols and narratives that are advertised everywhere are perceived as something normal and necessary (it is here, so it must be).

The Belarusian language as a national marker: almost a consensus

Language can perform at least two functions: communication and identification. In many countries, the two functions merge, but it may be that at least at some point they diverge. While few people in Belarus speak Belarusian actively and use it in daily communication, there is a strong consensus about its identification role: 86% consider this language to be “the most important part of our culture” (Table 7).

2018 (МІА)
the most important part of our culture and it should be preserved 86.10%
a dying language that should disappear 13.90%
No answer/hard to say 0.01%
Table 7. “The Belarusian language is...”

It is worth noting that there is also a potential to expand the communication functions of the Belarusian language in the future (most likely, distant). Although there are few people who are willing to invest time and energy in the development of this language for themselves, a fairly large percentage of adults – about 66% wants their children to speak Belarusian as well as Russian (Table 8).

2018 (МІА)
Yes 65.90%
No 34.10%
No answer/hard to say 0.01%
Table 8. “Would you like your children to speak Belarusian as well as Russian?”

Both trends of the public opinion coincide with the state policy which over the past six–seven years has consistently strengthened the identification function of the Belarusian language, and in 2018–2019 it begins to include in its agenda the expansion of its communication functions. The decision of the Security Council of the Republic of Belarus On the Concept of Information Security of the Republic of Belarus adopted in March 2019 postulates “expansion of social functions and communication capabilities of the Belarusian language“, and its development is interpreted as a “guarantor of humanitarian security of the state.”5

Conclusions and forecasts

In 2018, the state policy of identity as a whole fits into the paradigm of ‘soft Belarusization’, which was outlined approximately in 2011–20126. This trend will continue in 2019 and subsequent years, the question of its intensity remains open.

At the level of public opinion (as well as the lower echelons of bureaucracy) there is a force of inertia: ideologies and argumentation strategies, mastered in the Soviet era and/or in 1995–2010, are still strong, and they will be dominant for many years. The attachment to the Soviet legacy, lack of confidence about the role of the BPR and the development of “ancient history” (the Principality of Polack and the GDL) will prevail.

Consensus on the identification function of the Belarusian language will continue to be consolidated. As for its communication function, it is unlikely that it will expand in the coming years, and it is possible that it will narrow even more: in a situation of a weak incentive system, the force of inertia usually prevails. The possible expansion of the communication function of the Belarusian language is the prospect of a distant future.

Abbreviations

(Nov) – data from the National survey conducted by the Novak laboratory between 27 August and 11 September 2009. The sample size is 1011 respondents.

(BAM-1) – data from the National survey, which the Belarusian analytical workshop conducted in the period from April 24 to May 13, 2018. The sample size is 1071 respondents.

(BAM-2) – data from the National survey, which BAM conducted between June 15 and July 18, 2018. The sample size is 1051 respondents.

(MIA) – data from the National survey, which MIA Research commissioned by the October economic forum in May–June 2018. The sample size is 1016 respondents.