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Belarus: Language Goes On Trial

Prague, 11 August 1998 (RFE/RL) - Last year the Belarusian National Assembly passed a law paving the way for the government to issue in May 1998 a warning against the biweekly Nasha Niva to stop using traditional Belarusian orthography. The law explicitly prohibits the press from "distorting the generally accepted norms" of the language in which it publishes.

An independent newspaper published entirely in Belarusian with a circulation of some 5,000, Nasha Niva was launched by its chief editor Syarhey Dubavets in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius in 1991. It uses the traditional Belarusian orthography, which was changed by Joseph Stalin's decree in 1933. The newspaper is printed in Minsk and distributed by the state network of kiosks and, to a lesser extent, by the editorial staff.

The government warning seemed to herald preparations to close down his newspaper. To forestall this, Dubavets filed in June a lawsuit against the State Press Committee, demanding the warning be revoked as "groundless." He argued that the term "generally accepted norms" is void since there is no legally binding standards for spelling in Belarus.

The case is to be heard tomorrow at the Higher Economic Court in Minsk. If the newspaper loses the case and persists in using the pre-1933 spelling, it can be banned after receiving another two warnings, according to the law.

The "Nasha Niva" case strikes an ominous note. Belarusians are gradually losing their language and cultural identity. The number of Belarusian-language books and periodicals has plummeted to a very low level since the May 1995 referendum, which granted Russian the status of an official language, along with Belarusian. While during the first years of independence, from 1991 to 1994, a great deal was done to promote both the formerly neglected Belarusian culture and education and language, the government under President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has practically ceased to support anything Belarusian.

For example, in 1994 there were 220 schools in Minsk whose language of instruction was Belarusian. Two years later, their number shrunk to fewer than 20. Russian is the language of instruction in virtually all university departments in Belarus.

Lukashenka has made a point of ostentatiously promoting Russian-language and Soviet culture in Belarus. In a widely quoted statement, he once said that "one cannot express anything deep in Belarusian."

Non-Sovietized Belarusian culture and the Belarusian language are developed and supported mainly by non-governmental organizations and an ever dwindling number of intellectuals. Nasha Niva is one of the champions of that movement.

Speaking Belarusian in Belarus is not only a means of communication but also a political declaration of loyalty to the country's indigenous cultural and historical heritage in defiance of the ruling regime. The fundamental dividing line in Belarus is not between "democrats in general" and the Lukashenka regime as it is between democracy-supporting "Belarusian nationalists" and the Sovietized and Russianized segment of society led by the president and his allies.

"Having forced the national symbols -- the coat of arms (knight-in-pursuit) and the (white-red-white) flag --to go underground, the government of the Republic of Belarus has now declared war against the non-Soviet Belarusian orthography," Dubavets wrote last month in Nasha Niva. He also criticized those Belarusian intellectuals who "have voluntarily remained in the Belarusian SSR (Soviet Socialist Republic) in terms of spelling." The pre-1993 orthography was used at schools among some 2 million Belarusians in pre-war Poland and has never been abandoned by the Belarusian Diaspora.

Dubavets is not the only one to oppose the 1933 orthography reform. The Belarusian Language Encyclopedia, published in Minsk in 1994, states that the 1933 reform focused "not so much on reflecting the specifically national character of the Belarusian language as on bringing its orthography in line with the Russian orthographic tradition." In a wider sense, the 1933 ban on the traditional Belarusian spelling reflected Stalin's idea of merging the separate cultures into one with a single language. That culture was to be Soviet and the language Russian. In this way, the Belarusian language became just another of Stalin's many victims.

Some of the best-known Belarusian linguists have come out in support of the spelling used by Nasha Niva. International human right organizations have also protested, pointing that the State Press Committee's warning violates international law -- in particular, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Belarus is a signatory.

But such protests are unlikely to carry much weight with the court. Most Nasha Niva supporters fear that, as one columnist put it, "no linguistic or even legal arguments are of any importance" in this case. It is the language that is on trial, not the spelling.