"Speak Trassyanka, don't be ashamed!"
To use or not use the Belarusian language? This question is highly politicized in Belarus, cross-cutting traditional political and social divisions. For Belarusian historian and parliamentary candidate Aleh Trusau, the answer is simple.
Aleh Trusau in his office. (Photo: Hubert Gregorski)
Not only is he passionate about the Belarusian language, Aleh Trusau also founded and now heads the Belarusian Language Society. Formerly also a deputy in the Supreme Soviet, he is currently running for parliament with the BPF Party. The party was formed under the name Belarusian Popular Front (BPF) "Revival", but after President Alexander Lukashenko's 2005 decree regulating the use of the words Belarusky 'Belarusian' and narodny 'national, popular, people's', the party was forced to use only the acronym.
Belarus Votes: Looking at your campaign materials, can we say that the Belarusian language is your main topic?
Aleh Trusau: Yes! Support for the Belarusian language is stronger now than it has been for a long time. Unlike the other candidates, who produce everything in Russian, I deliberately decided to print all my campaign materials in Belarusian, without a single Russian word. I have been surprised by how many people support it!
On the other hand – isn't it quite sad that you can distinguish yourself from other candidates simply by using Belarusian?
Let me put it this way – it used to be sad but now circumstances have changed. Before, we were stuck between a rock and a hard place, that is the first hundred years of Polonization, followed by Russification. After the collapse of the Soviet Union we had two official languages, but only on paper. In reality there was just one, Russian, and that is still the case. This imbalance drives my campaign to establish at least one Belarusian secondary school and several Belarusian kindergartens in my district. However, the most important move would be to open a state university, where classes would be given only in Belarusian.
Do you think other candidates will use Belarusian more often in the future?
Some candidates already are using Belarusian. For example, whenever my main adversary sees me, she immediately switches to Belarusian! In our country almost everybody understands the language; nearly 85% of our citizens are ethnic Belarusians. We appreciate our independence and don't plan to join Russia under any circumstances. Based on my experience from this campaign, I can say that one can attract voters simply by using the Belarusian language. A new generation of people has grown up that has not experienced the Soviet Union, so this trend will only increase.
Is the renaissance in Belarusian language use you mention thanks to President Lukashenko?
It is thanks to the people! Our President looks to the people to maintain their support. Now he speaks in a very different way than how he used to. Sometimes he tries to say some words in Belarusian because he knows that the attitude of the people towards Belarusian has changed.
The Belarusian Language Society has been situated next to the Minsk State Linguistc University for over 27 years. (Photo: Hubert Gregorski)
But we hear almost only Russian on the streets...
On the streets you will not find "pure" Russian. Instead what you hear is Trassyanka, a mixed language that combines elements of both Belarusian and Russian. There are two forms of Trassyanka, one dominated by Russian vocabulary, and the other by Belarusian. But, you know, many people feel a bit ashamed of speaking Belarusian. To those people I say: "Лупiце на трасянцы", which means "Speak Trassyanka, don't be ashamed!".
How can Belarusian be made more popular?
If our President or Prime Minister spoke Belarusian, after five years the whole country would also be using it. People know the language but are afraid to speak it because of our collective memory. For example, when I decided to switch to Belarusian in 1982 my grandma cried: 'They will kill you!'. She remembered Stalin's repressions, during which one could be arrested or even executed just for speaking Belarusian on the street.
Here you can buy books and CDs in Belarusian, even covering genres such as rap, blues and jazz. (Photo: Kristina Tolok)
So once the Belarusians are no longer afraid of speaking Belarusian, they will start to use it?
The key is that the elite speaks the language. We already have a young elite in Minsk that is proficient in Belarusian. Previously Belarusian was the language of the village but not any more. Now there is only Trassyanka there.
You are displaying a lot of optimism! Is the Belarusian language ready to take over such domains as medicine, science or law?
Of course. All we need right now is a political decision. Everything is ready. We can keep Russian for a transitional period of about 20 years like in Kazakhstan. When I was a deputy all legislative bills were written in Belarusian but we also provided Russian versions. Russian is an important regional language. But the main point is to preserve our independence – this is why I am applying for parliament. If necessary, I would support Lukashenko against occupation, because it is better to have our own dictator than a foreign occupant. Sooner or later the authorities will change. There are no eternal dictators.