Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has stunned his nation by giving a speech...in Belarusian.
The speech, delivered to a packed audience ahead of the country's Independence Day, was a startling departure from his longstanding habit of belittling the language. It marks the first time in 20 years that the iron-fisted leader formally addresses his nation in Belarusian rather than Russian.
The move has sparked intense speculation in Belarus, with some commentators suggesting that Lukashenka is seeking to assert his autonomy from Russia -- a close trading and diplomatic ally -- in the wake of Moscow's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
The timing -- one day before Russian President Vladimir Putin landed in Belarus to take part in celebrations marking the 70th anniversary on the country's liberation from Nazi troops -- has certainly raised eyebrows.
But Alyaksandr Fiaduta, a former spokesperson for Lukashenka, says people shouldn't read too much into it.
"One shouldn't assume that he's turning his back on Russia," says Fiaduta, who parted ways with Lukashenka in 1995 and is now a respected political analyst. "He has his own course."
Fiaduta actually wrote Lukashenka's first -- and until now only -- speech in Belarusian, which the newly elected president delivered on Independence Day in 1994.
But according to Fiaduta, the intense media scrutiny that followed had the effect of deterring Lukashenka from using Belarusian.
"Unfortunately, after Alyaksandr Lukashenka's first speech in Belarusian, everyone started analyzing what it meant and how he performed," he says. "After reading all these comments, he refused to speak Belarusian again."
Since then, Lukashenka has done little to conceal his distaste for the language.
"People who speak in Belarusian cannot do anything other than speak it, because you can't express anything lofty in Belarusian," he said in 1994. He went on to describe Belarusian as a "poor language" and hail Russian and English as the two only "great languages."
The next year, in 1995, he elevated Russian to the status of a state language, alongside Belarusian, following a controversial referendum.
Critics accuse Lukashenka of overseeing a clampdown on Belarusian language over the past two decades, with the number of Belarusian-language schools and publications plummeting under his rule.
Belarusian has a long history of being frowned upon as a substandard language. In Soviet times, Belarusian was regarded as the language of peasants, and those who sought to climb the social ladder spoke only Russian, at least in public.
Nowadays, Belarusian is favored mostly by opposition sympathizers, nationalists, and intellectuals.
Most other Belarusians tend to use a hybrid of both languages called "trasianka."
Lukashenka's historical speech in Belarusian this week, although slightly accented, has disproved rumors that he can't actually speak the language.
It has nonetheless sparked a barrage of sarcastic comments online.
Political analyst Fiaduta, however, urges Belarusians to be more lenient with Lukashenka this time around.
"Stop joking about the president's Belarusian," Fiaduta wrote on Facebook. "Don't scare him, or else we'll have to wait another 20 years."