Why is Belarus important for diversity studies?

Why is Belarus important for diversity studies?

It turns out that most people, even those who professionally deal with national minority issues, perceive the topic of cultural and ethnic diversity in contemporary Belarus with scepticism. Our expert Dr. Alexander Osipov provides his arguments why Belarus is important for diversity studies.

For many, these issues are of a meagre interest for the outside world because Belarus is viewed either as a homogeneous society or a place where almost every meaningful public activity including the one involving minorities is brutally suppressed by the state.[1] Moreover, among those few who refer to Belarus in course of comparative analysis, it is not uncommon to disregard even easily accessible sources or to demonstrate a blatant ignorance, for example, by referring to Belarus as a ‘denial state’ [2], or a country lacking any minority-related legal framework and policies. In Belarus proper, the reactions of public officials, academics, civil society activists quite often look surprisingly similar. For most, diversity issues are either irrelevant as they do not cause conflicts or public controversies or confined merely to a still uncertain ethno-linguistic profile of the country (in other words – lax national narratives and a weak position of the Belarusian language).[3]

My point is that these attitudes are not correct: Belarus builds its own ethnocultural policy; this policy is pursued within an established legal framework; the latter can tell much from the perspective of comparative studies; lastly, the current developments in the areas of nation-building, the use of languages, the treatment of the kin diaspora and internal minorities provide food for thought concerning the future or possible evolutions of ethnic policies in Europe in general.

One needs one important reservation. The term ‘minority’ is not fully adequate for comprehending the full range of issues; one should rather talk about diversity and its governance.

The Belarusian ethnopolitics

In formal sense and in fact, diversity issues are not less salient in Belarus than in the other countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Belarus is a country with a clearly defined ethnic majority – Belarusians, and numerous ethnic minorities such as Ukrainians, Poles, Roma, the Azeri and others. The share of ethnic Belarusians is 84 percent; the largest minority – Russians – constitute about 8 percent according to the 2009 Census.[4] There are around 200 ethnicity-based NGOs countrywide, and ethnic diversity is present in public institutions. Belarus is legally bilingual; however, one of the two state languages – Russian – dominates the public and even private spheres at the expense of Belarusian. There are occasional manifestations of hate speech and xenophobia against migrants and foreign students; there were tensions and controversies around certain minority organizations, primarily of the Polish minority. To wrap up, formally and substantively, basic features of ethnopolitics in Belarus are comparable with those of the neighbouring countries. The dominance of the Russian language in public life in general or some of its segments is still a feature of several post-Soviet countries, and Belarus is not unique in this regard.

The diversity-related normative and institutional framework

Belarus is party to major universal conventions pertinent to the elimination of racial and ethnic discrimination and the protection of minorities including International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education, the ILO Convention No.111 concerning Discrimination in Respect of Employment and Occupation and others. The country participates in several treaties adopted within the framework of the Commonwealth of Independent States and concerning the protection of minorities and non-discrimination. Moreover, Belarus was one of the initiators of the Convention on Providing the Rights of Persons Belonging to National Minorities of 21 October 1994, the first multilateral legally binding treaty in minority, even preceding the CoE Framework Convention.

Most bilateral framework treaties about friendship and cooperation that Belarus signed contain provisions on mutual obligations on protection of minorities. In 1999 Belarus concluded a special bilateral treaty with Ukraine on minority issues. Apart from that, there is a number of inter-governmental and inter-ministering international agreements on the rights of persons belonging to minorities. Belarus actively cooperates with the respective treaty bodies and contribute to bilateral commissions of the implementation of interstate agreements.

The Belarusian Constitution of 1994 contains articles concerning equality, the prohibition of hate speech and the protection of ethnic communities. The country has a framework law on national minorities of 1992 and numerous minority-related provisions of the laws on education, languages, culture and other issues.[5] The major national body in charge of minority issues – the Plenipotentiary on Religious and Nationalities Affairs – keeps functioning, and so do the respective branches of the provincial administrations and a special unit of the Ministry of Culture – the Centre for Nationalities Cultures. Besides, Belarus has a special law (2014) on the support to Belarusians abroad and pursues its diaspora policy. In sum, institutionally the Belarusian diversity governance is not a sandy desert.

A case for comparison

Why might the Belarusian situation be of interest for external observers? First, Belarus is not a member of the Council of Europe; thus, it is not party to the CoE conventions. Belarus is also not affected by the EU policy of conditionality. In a broader perspective, following the ‘European standards’ was not among the official policy goals during the most part of Belarusian independence. Therefore, Belarus can be regarded as a control group for measuring and assessing such variables as ‘linkages and leverages’ [6] of the European organizations in the area of minority policy. Besides, the likelihood of the further rapprochement between Belarus and Council of Europe and then the EU is high. Future negotiations about Belarusian membership in the CoE and its further involvement into the EU Neighbourhood Policy must provide some extra food for thought about the European approaches to minority issues and their effectiveness.

A case for studying legacies

On the other hand, Belarus is a clear and undistorted case of legal and institutional continuity. The normative framework pertinent to the fundamentals of nation-state, equality regardless of ethnicity, official languages, minority policies proper was basically set up in the Soviet time, at the USSR’s demise in the late 1980s.[7] In this respect, Belarus is very similar to most other post-Soviet countries, but it remains the most emblematic case. The latter phrase contains neither irony nor disapproval. The Soviet perestroika-time model of diversity governance has proved its viability and efficacy in the long run, since its prevents and mitigates ethnic hostilities for more than 20 years. This experience, supposedly based on a weak and partly informal institutionalisation of ethnic diversity, definitely deserves a thorough investigation.

A quest for a language policy

Perhaps, the biggest and most challenging issue concerning diversity in Belarus does not relate to ethnicity. This is what diplomatically can be denoted as ‘asymmetric bilingualism’, or, in other words, the dominance of Russian along with the marginalisation of Belarusian.

The origins and historical causes of this state of affairs are more or less clear and obvious. However, the situation is not static; it is far from being simple; and it can be barely portrayed as merely a suppression or linear extinction of the Belarusian language. Belarusian occupies its own niches in public and private life, the society cannot be divided into anything deserving the name of ‘linguistic communities’, and public attitudes towards languages are changing. What is most interesting is the future evolution of linguistic policies and public reactions, that will inevitably follow the political transformations. No doubts, that there will be many claims of reversing the previous processes of Russification. An open-ended question is whether the country manages to avoid zero-sum games and elaborate a durable modus vivendi. Is it possible to enable people, who stick to different linguistic strategies, to coexist peacefully and to have all their major needs and aspirations satisfied? Is it feasible to avoid segregation, cleavages and repressive policies? How can these issues be regulated? Can an effective regulation be achieved on the basis of sophisticated legislative settings and jurisprudence, resting on the notions of legal proportionality and non-discrimination? Can it be done through informal institutions and political patterns, for example, similar to the principles of ‘pillarisation’ effective in the Netherlands up to late 1960s?[8] Such questions are highly relevant to numerous countries in Eurasia and around the globe, and Belarus can become a forerunner and a source of inspiration for analysts and policy-makers.

A quest for national narratives

Similar issues concern nation-building in terms of elaborating national narratives that are appropriate for the society at large and do not lead to cleavages. There is no need to stress that the images and underlying principles of state- and nationhood are closely linked to diversity issues and vice versa. In Belarus, as in many other countries, different people may have divergent views on historical events, national values and national symbols, and these discrepancies do not necessarily relate to ethnic origin or language preferences.

What can be referred to as the Belarusian national identity is a complex phenomenon combining different strands and traditions. It is in flux, and that is why too many external observers erroneously interpret it as loose, incomplete or even inexistent. However, the Belarusian authorities still manage to provide for a sophisticated interplay of historical narratives based on the heritage of the Great Duchy of Lithuania, on the role of Orthodox church, East Slavic unity, the Belarusian national liberation movement, the Soviet legacies, the contribution to World War II and the modern civic identity.

There are still many questions about the future developments and the windows of opportunities. Will there be a zero-sum game with one victorious version of nationhood and the marginalisation of the others? Otherwise, is a there a chance for some fine-tuned and durable settings enabling people to have different mindsets and not to fight each other? Belarus is likely to provide a unique food for thought and answers to touch questions.


My point is that simplistic approaches and old stereotypes detract the opportunities of studying very interesting phenomena related to the Belarusian cultural diversity, the official policies of its regulation and the processes of nation-building. Definitely, Belarus can and will enrich ethnic and cultural studies in Europe and beyond. Reversely, reflections on the country’s diversity in a broader European context and in connection with the European scholarly and political debates must be a significant contribution to the Belarusian governance and societal development. Of course, ethnic statistics or the threats of ethnic conflicts matter, but the ways how a certain society perceives and comprehends its heterogeneity is ultimately much more important. The same concerns international scholarly and political debates.


[1] See for instance: E. Szumanska. Minority Rights in a Contemporary Dictatorship: The Case of the Polish Minority. Munich: Grin Verlag, 2010.
[2] T.H. Malloy. Dialogue with the Unwilling: Addressing Minority Rights in So-called Denial States, ECMI Working Paper No. 77, August 2014. At: http://www.ecmi.de/uploads/tx_lfpubdb/ECMI_WP_77.pdf.
[3] D. R. Marples. Belarus: A Denationalized Nation. London: Routledge, 1999
[4] Перепись населения 2009. Национальный состав населения Республики Беларусь [The 2009 Population Census of Belarus. The ethnic composition of the population of Republic of Belarus]. Vol. III. Minsk: The National Statistical Committee of Republic of Belarus, 2011.
[5] A. Osipov and H. Vasilevich (eds.) Participation of National Minorities in Public Life Including their Interaction with Public Authorities. Flensburg: ECMI, 2017, pp.14-16, 20-21.
[6] S. Levitsky and L. A. Way. “Linkage versus Leverage: Rethinking the International Dimension of Regime Change”. 38 (4) Comparative Politics (2006): 379–400.
[7] M. Biaspamiatnykh, A. Osipov, F. Prina, I. Pushkin and H. Vasilevich. Политика управления этнокультурным разнообразием в Беларуси, Молдове и Украине [The Policies of Ethno-Cultural Diversity Management in Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine]. Vilnius: EHU, 2014.
[8] See for instance: R. B. Andeweg and G. A. Irwin. Governance and Politics of the Netherlands, 2nd. ed. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2005; M. Vink. “Dutch ‘Multiculturalism’ Beyond the Pillarisation Myth.”5: 3 Political Studies Review (2007): 337-350.

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