History of Belarus

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LOCATED ON THE WESTERN BORDERLANDS of the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union, the regions that would one day become the republics of Belarus and Moldova had long been part of a buffer zone used to protect Russia from Western influences and military forces. The imperial and Soviet governments attempted to fully integrate the two regions' economies into their own and to Russify their people in order to bind them seamlessly into the their respective empires. For a long time, these efforts seemed to work, but in 1991 Belarus and Moldova declared their independence from the Soviet Union and began to go their separate, post-Soviet ways. Independence was not a totally new experience for the two countries, however, each of which had existed briefly as a sovereign entity during the previous hundred years, but this time they had much to undo from the previous regime.

The two countries, former republics of the now-defunct Soviet Union, are a study in contrasts. Belarus, mostly ethnic Belarusian (and overwhelmingly Slavic) in population, had long been part of the Russian Empire and subsequently the Soviet Union. The tsars, and later the commissars, sought to meld Belorussia with Russia and the Belorussians with the Russians. They succeeded to a remarkable extent: independent Belarus still identifies closely with Russia, and Belarusian nationalists are in the minority. Soviet-era political and economic structures, and even symbols, have been retained and even reintroduced, as was the case after the May 1995 referendum that brought back the Soviet-era flag and emblem (both slightly modified) and the Russian language.

Moldova, a country that had also been part of both empires since the 19th century, has a majority population of ethnic Romanians, who are not Slavs. Despite Russian and Soviet efforts to Slavicize them, most ethnic Romanians were able to maintain their identity and looked to Romania as the source of their culture. When the Soviet Union began to crumble, Moldova asserted first its sovereignty and then its independence, although the population was far from unanimous on either. But the nationalists eventually carried the day, and Moldova sought to distance itself from Russia, despite the wishes of the Transnistrians, who in 1990 proclaimed the "Dnestr Moldavian Republic," with a pro-Soviet extralegal government, on the east bank of the Nistru River. The Transnistrians want no part of independent Moldova, its ethnic- Romanian nationalists, or a possible reunification with Romania, where they would be a small minority instead of a powerful political force.

In both Belarus and Moldova, there are many who wish to return to the days of the Soviet Union for a variety of reasons, some economic, some nostalgic, and some fearful. In Belarus these conservatives (ethnic Belarusians as well as ethnic Russians) are in the majority and are to be found throughout the population and the government. Their domination is felt not only in the political arena but in the social sphere as well.

In Moldova the conservatives (mainly, but not exclusively, ethnic Slavs) are located throughout society and the government, but their influence is not as overwhelming as in Belarus. Many of the Moldovan conservatives (although not all) live in Transnistria. Here, they believe, they are the keepers of the Soviet ideal from which a reconstituted Soviet Union will one day rise up again. However, time and the course of events have made it clear that they are trying to protect not a way of life but rather their own political and--especially--economic interests, which are often illegal (including sales of arms and illegal drugs).

Both Belarus and Moldova have stated their wish to have free market economies, but they have proceeded in this direction at different paces. The economies of both countries had been firmly embedded in the Soviet economy, and each had specialized in a certain sector--Belarus in heavy agricultural equipment and goods for the military, and Moldova primarily in agricultural products and consumer goods--while relying on other republics for raw materials. Both republics had been especially dependent on Russia for inexpensive fuels, a fact that continued to haunt them after independence. Subsidized fuel, priced well below world prices, had made the goods produced by the two countries inexpensive and affordable by the other Soviet republics. With the loss of these cheap fuels, both countries were forced to either decrease their fuel consumption (and their output) or improve the efficiency of their industries. Belarus chose the former path, which coincided with the fact that it was selling fewer of its goods because of price and quality considerations, while Moldova tried, sometimes unsuccessfully, to take steps toward improved efficiency.

Both countries initiated privatization, or the sale of state- owned property, and both were having a difficult time reconfiguring their economies. The Moldovan government was changing its laws to make them more compatible with a free market and more friendly toward foreign investment and business in general. However, vested interests sought to maintain the system or, at least, to make large profits during the transition.

The Belarusian government decided that, despite its intention to sell state-owned property, it would leave the agricultural sector under state control. The government's reasoning was that Belarusian large-scale agriculture was best suited to the heavy agricultural equipment that the country continued to produce, despite the fact that fuel for this equipment was often scarce.

Both Belarus and Moldova stated their intention of having democratic political systems, as did many former Soviet republics. However, making the change from a communist government to a real democracy proved difficult, not the least because of officials who wished to maintain the status quo. They viewed democracy as too chaotic and unstable, unlike the predictability that had characterized their previous political lives. They also saw it as risky and feared to lose the perquisites to which they had been entitled and which they wanted to retain.

Belarus's attempts to become a western democracy often appeared likely to remain out of reach. Although the constitution added the office of the president and declared a separation of powers, government in Belarus often seemed no different from that of the Soviet era. Political apathy among the population remained so strong that a legislature could not be seated after two rounds of elections in 1995; corruption was still widespread despite the fact that the president had campaigned as an anticorruption candidate; and political leaders looked to Moscow for political, military, and financial support, with the president trying to lead the country back into some sort of union with Russia.

Moldova kept its basic Soviet-era governmental structure, while adding a presidency, universal suffrage, and popular elections, as did Belarus. However, the country's first attempt at a democratically elected parliament showed the need for further modification of the system. The unwieldy size of the body and a hardline nationalist majority made legislative compromises among the various ethnic groups in Moldova impossible, and the result was gridlock. A smaller parliament and a larger number of moderates after the 1994 elections have made legislative progress possible despite the disagreements and factions that are still to be found.

Despite the differences between the two countries, the focal point for those who wish to maintain each country's independence is the same--the national language, the same rallying point as in the revolutions of 1848, a series of republican revolts against Western and Central European monarchies. These revolts all failed in their immediate goals, but they eventually led to greater representation of ethnic groups in legislatures and to greater cultural autonomy, including the use of languages that, until then, had been dismissed by the authorities as peasant vernaculars. However, while nationalists in the last century sought to codify (and sometimes even form) a literary language, the task of the nationalists in 1991 was to revive that language and divest it of its Russian and Soviet accretions.

To those who have never undergone forced cultural assimilation, the issue may seem trivial. What difference does it make what language is spoken or what it is called? To those who have had their use of language restricted, however, the matter goes beyond mere defiance. Language is the medium of the culture on which their daily lives and identities are based. To define what language can be spoken is to define the identity of not only the individual but also of the country.

Moldovans kept Russian as a language of interethnic communication but subsequently entered a debate as to what their own language was to be called: was it Moldovan or Romanian? The president explained that the term "Moldovan" was used in the constitution for political reasons--to assuage the fears of those who feared imminent reunification with Romania (despite the fact that Germany and Austria, for example, which both use the German language, are separate countries). Again, politics, language, and emotions were thoroughly entangled.

Belarusians, the majority of whom prefer to use Russian in their daily lives, have dealt with the language issue differently. They returned Russian to its status of official language, alongside the Belarusian language, through their response to a May 1995 referendum question. Thus the Belarusian language policy reflected Belarus's pro-Russian policies in general.

SOURCE: Country Studies/Area Handbook by the US Library of Congress

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