Anyone wandering around the Belarusian capital of Minsk this autumn will soon notice the large posters featuring a happy, smiling young girl. This is not an advertisement
The text with the picture reads in Belarusian: My first word in my native language – love.
And there is also a question aimed at the viewer: What will be your first word in your native language?
The posters are part of a government campaign to promote the nation’s titular language, Belarusian.
This message is initially confusing, as it seems to imply that the population is only now going to start speaking its native language.
However, in the Belarusian context, “native language” does not normally refer to the first language spoken by a particular individual, but instead to the official language of the nation in which they grew up.
The native language mentioned in the campaign is thus not the language the audience actually learned during early childhood, but the language they are assumed to identify with.
Interest in learning and using the Belarusian language is increasing. Several civic initiatives are offering free language courses.
Perhaps more remarkable is the fact that the Belarusian President, Alexander Lukashenka, has spoken in Belarusian at several public events in recent times, and has emphasized the importance of the language for the nation.
This is a significant change in a president who had previously refrained from speaking Belarusian in public and had also spoken disparagingly of the language.
After Lukashenka came to power 20 years ago, and in the wake of the referendum on language that followed, Belarus has had two official languages. Of these, Russian has been dominant. Those who consistently prefer to speak Belarusian have encountered major practical difficulties.
In censuses, the majority of the population has indicated Belarusian as their native language, but sociological studies show that only a quarter of the population actually speaks the language, and only a few per cent use it on a daily basis.
But even though the language is not used to a great extent, it is present in other ways. It has a prominent role in public events with an emphasis on Belarusian culture or when the intention is to express loyalty to the Belarusian nation.
Most political parties – and even the Francišak Skaryna Belarusian Language Society – have abandoned the demand for Belarusian to be the only official language.
There is now an understanding that an altered linguistic situation requires both patience and an understanding of the needs of the population.
However, efforts to promote the use of Belarusian must above all be seen in the context of the need to strengthen the national identity.
This process involves finding symbols of national identity regarding which there is a broad consensus and which can be effective boundary markers against more powerful neighbors.
The regional crisis and the perceived threat to the republic’s very existence have reinforced these efforts.
So is this new found linguistic interest demonstrated by the President and the political elite just opportunistic?
And how has this interest been received by those who have long fought for a stronger national identity?
Many feel that this is too little, too late.
The role of language as an indicator of a position of opposition also makes it difficult for many to unite with the President on the issue. However, there is criticism of this attitude.
One example is the political analyst Artiom Shraibman, who recently argued in an article on tut.by, the leading Belarusian internet news portal, that it is not only an opportunity to exploit the regime’s interest in what the opposition has been striving to achieve for 20 years, but also a necessity.
The Ukraine has been at its most unstable in regions where Russian speakers are in the majority.
To that extent, says Shraibman, the whole of Belarus is exposed, and the government’s change in attitude should be exploited, regardless of whether this is primarily driven by self-interest.
For the political opposition, the language has long been a component in a political vision intended to constitute an alternative to the policies carried out by the current government.
Quite unexpectedly, this component now appears to have become part of the current regime’s survival strategy.
The situation is thus both complex and, in some respects, hopeful.
Opportunities to promote the Belarusian language – both as a means of communication and as an element in a clearer national identity – seem to be greater than they have been at any time since the early 1990s.
However, with the forthcoming presidential election and the likely continued uncertainty in terms of the economy and regional security issues, priorities may quickly change.
It therefore remains to be seen whether the increased interest by the population in the language becomes permanent and whether the President’s promises regarding an altered language policy will actually become reality.