A man who ordered a cup of tea in Minsk in Belarusian, rather than Russian, says he has faced death threats from social media users in Russia after a dispute with the server.
A Russian lawmaker claims the incident illustrates discrimination against the Russian language abroad and has urged Belarus to take action.
The university student at the center of the storm has expressed shock over the reaction, which he described as absurd.
Aramais Mirakian entered the Kommunarka eatery in the Belarusian capital on February 11 for a cup of tea. After he ordered in Belarusian, he says, the woman at the counter insisted on speaking to him in Russian. When Mirakian, a journalism student, noted that Belarus was an officially bilingual nation, the woman threatened to call security. The situation was calmed after the restaurant manager intervened, according to his account on Facebook.
"Someone who just wants to have a cup of tea in a café ends up feeling like he entered a world of absurdity," Mirakian told RFE/RL's Belarus Service on February 14.
Efforts to speak with the server were unsuccessful.
The incident comes amid strains in ties between Minsk and Moscow over energy prices and the prospect of deeper integration between the Slavic neighbors. Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has resisted a Russian push for closer ties under a 1997 union treaty, suggesting that Russia wants to take over Belarus, and Russia reduced energy supplies to its smaller neighbor at the beginning of the year.
Russian President Vladimir Putin routinely claims that Russian speakers abroad face threats and discrimination, and such claims were part of his justification for the seizure of Crimea in 2014 and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, where a war between the Russia-backed militants and Kyiv has killed more than 13,000 people.
Lukashenka Changes His Tune
As the Kremlin has pushed harder for closer integration, Lukashenka has fought back, in part by voicing support for Belarus's heritage, culture, and language -- a change for a former state-farm chief who long expressed nostalgia for the Soviet era.
Lukashenka, who once said "nothing significant can be expressed" in Belarusian, has switched to it from his normal Russian from time to time, especially after Moscow's takeover of Crimea from neighboring Ukraine, which made concerns over his own country's territorial integrity more acute.
Suppressed and derided as a language for common people for decades by those in power, Belarusian has gained ground in recent years but is still spoken by a minority of the populace in the nation of 9.5 million, and many Belarusians routinely conduct everyday communication in Russian. Belarusian is favored, among others, by many government opponents, nationalists, and intellectuals.
Mirakian, who speaks six languages and translates into Belarusian, said he was dumbfounded that a member of the Russian Federation Council had commented on the incident.
"What, they don't have anything to do in Russia? They are carrying out constitutional reform and all they can think about is how people are ordering tea in Belarus," said Mirakian, who suffers from cerebral palsy, referring to Putin's plan to change the constitution.
'We Will Kill You'
Mirakian said he was flooded with threats soon after the story was first posted on the Russian news website Lenta.ru.
"There were very, very many of them at first. About 80 messages per minute. I probably deleted about 500 comments," Mirakian said, explaining the social media harassment he faced.
"They also wrote me private messages: 'We will find you; we will kill you; we know where you live,'" he said, adding none of the threatening messages appeared to have originated inside Belarus.
"So, I'm not afraid to walk the streets. I'm not worried about my safety," he said.
As word of the incident at the Minsk café spread on social media, Igor Morozov, a member of the upper chamber of the Russian parliament, the Federation Council, took notice.
"Negative attitudes toward the Russian language, even at the everyday level, [are] a new phenomenon that the Belarusian leadership should not ignore," Morozov, deputy chairman of the council's committee on science, education, and culture, told the pro-Kremlin news site Vzglyad.
"This must be severely dealt with by the authorities [in Belarus], including at the legislative level," Morozov said.
For his part, Mirakian said he had no intention of reporting the threats to the authorities, stating that it would probably be pointless and that they have largely stopped.