Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

#9 - JRL 8349 - JRL Home
RFE/RL Newsline
August 31, 2004
By Paul A. Goble
Copyright (c) 2004. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

Many Russian nationalists in Moscow are inclined to see the regime of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in a positive light, as someone whose policies they prefer to those of Russian President Vladimir Putin. But at least some Russians in Belarus have a very different opinion about the Belarusian leader, viewing him as overseeing a regime openly hostile to the 1.5 million ethnic Russians who live in his country.

This difference -- and it is far from trivial -- casts doubt on some of the assumptions both Moscow and Western governments have made about Belarus and suggests that Belarusian national identity may be far stronger than many had assumed.

Praise of Lukashenka by Russian nationalists inside Russia has been so frequent and enthusiastic that it is now generally passed over in silence or seen as yet another indication of the fundamental authoritarianism of the Russian right. But criticism of Lukashenka by Russian nationalists inside Belarus has seldom attracted much notice. That makes a letter and an essay written by Vladimir G. Mikhailov of Minsk and published on the St. Petersburg-based Orthodox Information Agency "Russkaya liniya" website (http://www.rusk.ee) so intriguing.

In his letter to this website, Mikhailov argues that "In the Republic of Belarus, just as in the Baltic countries, the MVD [Ministry of Internal Affairs] violates an elementary human right -- the right to one's own name by forcibly changing Russian first names and family names into their Belarusian equivalents."

In the view of the Belarusian passport and visa service, Mikhailov reports, Russian names must be converted into their Belarusian equivalents, not simply transcribed from the Russian Cyrillic to the Belarusian Cyrillic. Thus, the Russian "Anna" becomes Belarusian "Hanna," the Russian "Grigorii" becomes the Belarusian "Ryhor," the Russian "Mikhailov" becomes the Belarusian "Mikhaylau," and the Russian "Putin" becomes the Belarusian "Putsin."

In the essay accompanying his letter, Mikhailov suggests that there are three reasons why ethnic Russians in Belarus and ethnic Russians in Russia should be outraged by this practice.

First, the practice violates the Belarusian Constitution, Belarusian law, and repeated declarations by Belarusian officials but nonetheless continues with extremely negative consequences for anyone who refuses to go along with it.

Indeed, says Mikhailov, the Belarusian government, as far as the public record is concerned, looks to be on the side of the "angels," but in fact, he notes, the situation in his country is "practically analogous to those of Lithuania and Latvia." And those who refuse to go along may be fined, jailed, or prevented from practicing their trade or continuing to live where they have long been resident.

Second, this Belarusian practice, Mikhailov said, is applied only to ethnic Russians and not to any other ethnic group in the country. Ukrainians, Poles, Lithuanians, and representatives of every other ethnic group in Belarus, Mikhailov said, are allowed to register for passports, residence permits, and other forms by transliterating their names rather than replacing their national names with Belarusian ones. That makes the practice directed against ethnic Russians all the more unexpected and all the more exasperating, he insisted.

Third, the Belarusian authorities, the Belarusian opposition, and the Russian media in Russia have seldom discussed this problem, thereby making it virtually impossible for ethnic Russians in Belarus to protest against this forcible reidentification of ethnic Russians by the Belarusian government.

Indeed, Mikhailov suggests that there has been a virtual conspiracy of media silence on this point, citing a rare Belarusian television program about it in March 2004 as the exception that proves the rule and as the reason for ethnic Russian passivity in and around Belarus.

But, Mikhailov continues, the situation is even worse, and Russians in Russia need to know about it. He said that for the last two years he has been sending an appeal, signed by 300 ethnic Russians in Belarus, to all senior officials and agencies of the Belarusian government.

Not only has he not received an answer to his petition, but he has discovered a strange catch-22 situation in the Belarusian judicial system: The only court with the authority to overrule the Interior Ministry, the Constitutional Court, is one that he -- as a Belarusian citizen -- cannot appeal to directly. As a result, Mikhailov and his fellow ethnic Russians face an unpalatable situation. They can either agree to have their names translated into Belarusian as Interior Ministry officials insist or they can refuse and face the legal difficulties almost certain to follow.

What is interesting about this cri de couer of a Russian nationalist in Belarus is not so much the problem he discusses but rather the light it sheds on the attitudes of Belarusian officials, a group many in both Moscow and the West view as more or less committed Russian nationalists. Instead, if Mikhailov is right about what is going on, at least some of them may be more nationalist than anyone suspected -- and that in a country where, as Mikhailov suggests, "even in the cemeteries you won't find any names written in Belarusian."

Paul Goble, former publisher of "RFE/RL Newsline" and a longtime Soviet nationalities expert with the U.S. government, is currently a research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia.