It is becoming more and more obvious that Belarus is being involved in the interests of the so-called “Russian world”. The visits of Vladimir Putin to Mahiliou and the patriarch of Moscow and all Russia Kirill to Minsk eloquently testify to the attention Russia gives to Belarus in its foreign policy. The point here is not the development of allied relations or the transition to a new level of cooperation between the two countries. Apparently, adherents and ideologists of the “Russian world” frankly consider Belarus as a possible venue for revenge of their ideas and goals. Such sentiments, among other things, are being warmed up by the rash statements of Aliaksandr Lukashenka, who dared to assure Vladimir Putin that Mahiliou is more Russian than Belarusian city. What if the Russian President, having heard such revelations, in response would have asked why he increasingly hears insistent calls to protect Russians in Belarus?
Russian in Belarus live “almost like in the ghetto”
Back in 2003, Russian political analyst Andrei Suzdaltsev, in an interview with Belarusskaya Gazeta, expressed the position of Russians in Belarus in an extreme way. He said that “the Russian community here feels almost like in the ghetto”. According to him, “this community is constantly experiencing various pressures”. Firstly, “pressure from the authorities, who believe that there are no Russians in Belarus. Neither the Russian diaspora, nor the community. There are Tatars, there are Poles, there are no Russians”. Opponents of the authorities do not stand aside, “there is pressure from the national-democratic opposition”. According to Suzdaltsev: “Imagine what a Russian person is reading in the opposition media! This is a scary thing. All these letters from the field, anti-Russian articles in some newspapers”.
The fact that Russians living in Belarus need to protect their rights has been being stated already some year in a row. Periodically, these statements subside, but then resume again, fuelled by one or another information occasion. Basically, it all comes down to the fact that the Russians are forced to exist in a Belarusian national environment that is alien to them. For example, it is argued that they do not have opportunities for self-expression, as there are no media in Belarus defending the interests of the Russian community. Or, let’s say, quite seriously, it is stated that there is not a single Russian school here, but there are only schools with the Russian language of teaching. Also, the Belarusian authorities are often accused of allowing pro-Western, but not pro-Russian parties to operate in the country.
The supporters of these views got additional arguments after the 2009 census. According to published statistics, from 1999 to 2009 the number of Russians in Belarus decreased by 31%. Their share in the total population of the country decreased as well. The demographic scientists, of course, had the answer to this question, but public opinion was already distracted by the ominously tragic events in Ukraine. Rallies and petitions for the rights of ethnic Russians unexpectedly quickly turned into a newly appeared crusade in defence of Russian-speaking people in general. The offensive of the “Russian world” was accompanied by “Grads” and artillery volleys, leaving a bleeding wound of Donbass on Ukraine’s body.
It is worth recalling that in Belarus a number of public organizations also turned to Putin in this connection. Public associations “Russian House”, “Ruthenia”, “Young Ruthenia” and others asked him to protect the population of the south-east of Ukraine from the “Kiev Bandera-fascist junta”. “We ask you, as the head of the Russian state and the leader of the Russian world, not to leave the Russian people fighting for justice and human dignity in terrible misfortune and take the most drastic measures to protect them from the criminal encroachments of the fascist junta,” the message said.
If these public organizations are concerned about the situation of “Russian people” in Ukraine, then we can confidently assume that they may well make a similar request to Putin about the Russians in Belarus. In any case, the proposals for the institution of dual citizenship have already been voiced, that is, the possibility of having a Russian passport, while maintaining the Belarusian one. Alternatively, the introduction of a “the Russian’s card” in Belarus is proposed, by analogy with the “the Pole’s card”.
What may follow next? I don’t want once to find out from the Russian media that the Russian community, persecuted by Belarusian nationalists, is turning into a “Russian ghetto” and is in danger of disappearing. We are going to prove that this is complete nonsense. Moreover, in our opinion, Russians in Belarus are in a better position than Belarusians in Russia. And there are reasons for this.
The first reason is semantic
It is necessary to start with the definition, that is, with the semantic meaning of the word “ghetto”. In the generally accepted sense, a ghetto is a part of an urban area specifically designated for the forced settlement of people discriminated on the basis of national, racial or religious grounds. It seems that there is no need to explain that in this sense the term “ghetto” can in no way be used to describe the situation of the people of Russian nationality in Belarus. We can’t talk of their forced settlement or any other discrimination!
The only assumption with a very big stretch is the fact that Russians in our country mostly live in cities. For example, in 1999, 85% of Russians living in Belarus lived in cities. It is indicative that at that time every fourth citizen-Russian was a resident of Minsk. According to the 2009 census, almost 85% of Russians still lived in cities. The highest proportion of Russians was recorded in Navapolack (15.5%), Polack (14.8%), Babrujsk (13.2%), Hrodna (12.2%), Minsk and Brest (10%). And in Mahiliou, which is more Russian than the Belarusian city according to Lukashenka there are only 7.1% of Russians (the population of the city is 358 thousand people, of which Russians are 25 thousand).
Noting the accusations of infringing the Russians, let’s mention another fact. Although the number of Russians in Belarus is steadily declining, this is still the largest ethnic minority in the country. In 2009, the share of Russians in the country was 8.26%, every 12th resident of Belarus. Despite the constant decline, the Russians for several decades continue to hold the second largest population in Belarus. For comparison, in 2002, according to the materials of the All-Russian Census, Belarusians were in 9th place among the nationalities living in Russia. The next census established that in 2010 Belarusians were on 16th position. So the situation of Russians in Belarus inspires less fear than one of Belarusians in Russia.
The second reason is historical
In the history of Belarus and the historical past of the Belarusian people, Russians naturally occupy a special place. But over the centuries and even 100-150 years ago there were relatively few of them in the Belarusian lands as inhabitants. The first All-Russian population census of the Russian Empire conducted in 1897 revealed that in five Belarusian provinces lived 492 thousand Russians, or 5.8% of the total population in this territory. And in the Mahiliou province, Russians counted only 58 thousand people, or 3.4%, which was the smallest indicator among all Belarusian provinces.
Even more strikingly, in the first decades of the Soviet regime, the number of Russians in Belarus did not grow, but decreased. According to the census of 1926, 334 thousand Russians (7.7%) lived within the borders of the then BSSR. In the period from 1926 to 1937 their number in the BSSR decreased by 1.5 times and amounted to 248 thousand people (4.8%). By 1939, the number of Russians increased (337 thousand people, or 6.6%), but in percentage terms did not exceed the level of the beginning of the 20s.
The situation has noticeably changed in the post-war time. The first post-war census of 1959 shows a significant increase in the Russian population (659 thousand people, or 8.2%). It was then that the Russians began to occupy second place in Belarus after the Belarusians. The restoration of the destroyed national economy of the BSSR, the creation of new industries was accompanied by the influx of Russians into the Republic.
From 1959 to 1989, the number of Russians in the BSSR doubled. In the national structure of the population of Belarus, their share in the total population of the country grew all the time — in 1959 — 8.2%, and in 1970 — 10.4%, in 1979 — 11.9%, in 1989. — 13.2%. According to the results of the last Soviet census of 1989, 1 million 342 thousand Russians lived in the BSSR (776 thousand of them were born outside Belarus). In fact, in the post-war period there was more artificial than the natural increase of Russians in Belarus, so it is not surprising that with the collapse of the USSR, their share in the total population began to decrease with each decade.
By the way, it is necessary to note that in Soviet times the share of Belarusians in the national structure of their republic had a steady tendency to decrease. In 1959, the Belarusians accounted for 81.1% of the total population of the BSSR, in 1970 — 81.0%, in 1979 — 79.4%, in 1989 — 77.9%. This trend changed only when the Belarusian people gained state sovereignty (in 1999 — 81.2%, in 2009 — 83.7%).
The third reason is demographic
The analysis of statistical data shows that in the independent Republic of Belarus the number of Russians began to decline steadily. In the period from 1989 to 1999. their numbers decreased by 15%, in 1999 there were 1 million 141 thousand Russians. From 1999 to 2009, the number of Russians in Belarus decreased by another 31%. In 2009, the number of Russians amounted to 785 thousand people, having decreased compared to 1999 by 356 thousand people. Their share in the total population has also decreased (from 11.4% in 1999 to 8.3% in 2009). There is no reason to think that these processes have stalled over the past decade.
How can one explain the intensive decrease in the number of Russians in Belarus? For example, this is due to migration processes, the departure of Russians from Belarus due to the Chernobyl disaster, their relocation back to Russia, and so on. To a large extent, the natural aging of the population, that is, demographic reasons, affects the reduction in the number of Russians in our country. Presenting the results of the 2009 census, the deputy head of the National Statistical Committee of the Republic of Belarus, Alena Kandratsenka, told BelTA: “The decrease in the number of representatives of Russian nationality, as well as the country’s population as a whole, is connected primarily with the aging of the population and, as a result, its natural decline.” From 1999 to 2009, the proportion of people over working age in the total number of Russians increased by 11.4% and approached 33%. At the same time, the proportion of children and adolescents under the age of 16 among the respondents who, during the census, identified themselves as Russians, significantly decreased — from 15.2% to 7.4%.
So the decrease in the number of Russians in Belarus has objective reasons. It is worth noting that negative demographic processes affected the decrease in the number of representatives of all the most numerous nationalities of our country (Jews, Ukrainians, Poles, Gypsies, etc.), and not only Russians. For example, from 1989 to 2009. there was a decrease in the proportion of Poles — from 4.1% to 3.1% and Ukrainians — from 2.9% to 1.7%.
And, by the way, the number of Belarusians living in Russia is significantly reducing. According to the census results in 1989, Russia counted 1 million 206 thousand Belarusians, in 2002 already 807 thousand, and in 2010 — 521 thousand.
The fourth reason is internal policy
While some are trying to assure us that the Russian community is in Belarus in the position of a ghetto, Belarusians hear no less emotional judgments. It is hard to believe, but it was even proposed to create special reservations for the Belarusian-speaking population?! In the early 2000s, one of the active activists of the Belarusian National Revival (we do not indicate his name, so as not to dishonour them) proposed the following: «We can’t exclude that not just for the reliable preservation, but also for the sustainable development of Belarusian minority we have to solve the territorial issue in order to provide to the representatives of this part of the country’s indigenous population compact place of living, as it is, for example, is done through the creation of special reservations (colonies) for US natives”. He also mentioned, that this absurd idea can be supported by the population and even not one, but a number of such reservations would have to be created.
Such projects are not the result of ill imagination, but the result of the political course conducted in the country, which led to a split in the national consciousness of a significant number of Belarusians. They live in Belarus, consider themselves Belarusians, but they reject the Belarusian language, and they call Russian as their native language. The reason is that the generation of post-Soviet Belarusians has been living in conditions that prevent their national identity for more than twenty years.
At present, the Russian language has practically supplanted Belarusian in the main spheres of public life. It is absolutely impossible to get a full-fledged higher education in the Belarusian language, Belarusian language is almost inaudible in the parliament and courts, on the parade grounds and in the offices of the nomenclature. Of course, this can be explained by the fact that in the Soviet Union the BSSR was the most Russified republic, but we will be objective — during the period of Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s rule, the russification processes took a second wind and intensified. Therefore, the “Russian ghetto” feels much better here than the “Belarusian reservation”.
The fifth reason is foreign policy
One can talk a lot about the situation of Russians in Belarus and characterize it in one way or another, but in any case one thing is obvious. Compared with all other nationalities, the status of Russians in the Belarusian society is determined and reinforced by the special allied relations of the two states — Belarus and Russia. That is why any statements about belittling the rights and interests of Russians in our country, which are heard for quite a long time and regularly, are not perceived by either the Russian or Belarusian public.
For the same reason, oil and food wars periodically arising between Russia and Belarus have consequences only at the state level. The Kremlin is well aware that the personal characteristics of the head of Belarus make it possible to blame him in many ways, but not in a biased attitude towards the Russians, to whom he, as we see it, is more lenient than to the Belarusians.
It is noteworthy that back in 1997, at the very beginning of Lukashenka’s reign, the director of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies Yevgeny Kozhokin issued a verdict: “Lukashenka is beneficial for Russia.” According to his statement, published, by the way, in “Sovetskaya Belorussia” paper, “many Russian-Belarusian conflicts are in fact Russian-Lukashenka’s conflicts”. Since then, many Russian-Belarusian conflicts have occurred, but Russian-Belarusian interstate relations, and especially relations between the Russian and the Belarusians, have not changed significantly.
Moreover, Aliaksandr Lukashenka does not get tired of reminding that the Russians are the closest people for him. His speeches are full of such statements. As for Russia, there is no official opinion on this matter. In this regard, we refer to a good example. In 2010, the presentation of the book “Russians in Belarus” published in Minsk took place. The book was published with the direct participation and support of the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Belarus. The Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation Alexander Surikov notes in his address to the readers of the book: “The peculiarity of the Republic of Belarus is that the Russians living here, along with the Belarusians, are part of the state-forming nation. The Russian language, in accordance with the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus, is the second state language, which ensures that all our compatriots receive education and a profession, access to occupying government posts and information in their native language. The prestige of the Russian language and Russian culture in Belarus is quite high, and the attitude towards the Russian people is the warmest”.
So, someone assured that “part of the state-forming nation” feels in Belarus “almost like in the ghetto”? Come on.