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The King's Speech: Can Just Anyone Talk Like Belarus's President?

Independent trade union activist Alyaksey Paulouski

Independent trade union activist Alyaksey Paulouski

Alyaksey Paulouski, a trade union activist in the Belarusian city of Mogilev, hangs on Alyaksandr Lukashenka's every word.

This is, after all, the president who, deliberately or otherwise, has uttered phrases like "I screw all my staff regularly" and "The Belarusians will live poorly, but not for long."

Lukashenka, notorious for his maladroit phrasing and a hit-or-miss commitment to grammar, has long enchanted the public with his official utterances. (As a Belarusian babushka watching a televised address once observed, "I don't know what he's talking about, but I could watch him for hours.")

So when the Belarusian president debuted a number of colorful phrases during a speech earlier his year, Paulouski very reasonably wanted to know: What do those words mean? Can I use them myself?

So he did what any resourceful and literal-minded person would do: He wrote to the Belarusian National Academy of Sciences for an academic ruling.

"In his April 26, 2011 address to the media, Belarusian President A. Lukashenka referred to the president of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso as a 'kazyol,'" Paulouski wrote, repeating a word that on a farm could ostensibly mean "goat" but which in every other context serves as a word that rhymes with "grassmole."

"Did he just say what I think he said?"

He also described the current Ukrainian leadership as "louse-like," and businessmen as "louse-like fleas." Members of the political opposition were referred to as "admarozki," which literally means "frozen brains" but which can also be alternately translated as "scoundrels," "dolts," "lamebrains," "goons," or "thugs."

Paulouski called on academy linguists to "define these words, and ascertain whether they are acceptable for regular citizens of the Republic of Belarus to use when addressing authorities."

The response from the academy's Jakub Kolas Institute of Language and Literature was thorough, if rather humorless. All of the words used by Lukashenka, it turns out, can be found in standard Russian-language dictionaries. The academics sent a list of three leading dictionaries, with corresponding page references for each of the words in question. "You'll find out not only the words' definitions, but also notations about their stylistic coloring and specifics about their use in a figurative sense," they wrote helpfully.

But on the dicier issue of seemliness, their brains seemed temporarily frozen. "The pertinence and appropriateness of the use of these and other stylistic examples depends on the genre of the language and the pragmatic goals of the stated thought."

By this measure, Lukashenka -- who believes that Belarusians like their presidential rhetoric coarse -- might say his remarks were perfectly appropriate.

But Paulouski is far from satisfied with what he sees as the academy's louse-like lack of urgency. "For three months, officials have been unable to explain what Lukashenka was trying to say," the BelaPAN news agency reported him as saying. "Moreover, they violated the law by taking more than a month to respond, and then not responding in a substantive way."

Paulouski plans to file a complaint with the public prosecutor's office regarding what he sees as the academy's violations. And the language may be spicy. The institute may not have been able to rule on whether Lukashenka's language was defamatory, but the activist has reached his own conclusions.

"If the president uses them," says Paulouski, "then they are acceptable in discourse between citizens."

Watch out, goats! You might be first.

-- Daisy Sindelar

About This Blog

Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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