Human Rights in the 21st Century

Violence and Coercion against the Use of National Language: Seeking a Correct Perspective on the Context of Human Rights Violations in Belarus and Lessons for a Future Strategy

Author: Mikalaj Packajeu

Belarus under Alexander Lukashenka has had a dismal human rights record, very different from the countries of its neighbourhood. While in some respects the severity of political repression in Russia today is approaching that of Belarus, Belarus has never had the experience of membership in the European Convention of Human Rights, while the human rights violations in Belarus have been by far more consistent and spanning over a longer period of time, and – as will be highlighted in this paper – have had certain prominent aspects very distinct from Russia.. The many years of lack of progress with the overall human rights situation in Belarus calls for a new perspective on this problem’s particular context. This paper explores what can be learned about the scope and characteristics of human rights problems in Belarus using as a reference the situations whereby police violence, and similar acts of coercion, are inflicted against speakers of the Belarusian language.These situations appear prima facie to extreme incidents since they feature both illegitimate use of force and the illegitimate purpose of discrimination. Belarusian is still an official language of Belarus, along with Russian, under the country’s constitution. The incidents indicate that — despite the unusual triggering factor — these violations are very much part of a larger set of accompanying human rights violations. The human rights problems in Belarus are furthermore part of a context other elements of which can be addressed more appropriately within, e.g. the “anti-colonial” paradigm. The situation of Belarus also calls for renewed attention to the issues of “ethnocide” or “cultural genocide” as there may be a risk that violent breaches of cultural rights may give rise to a major humanitarian crisis in Belarus in the context of the war.



Today’s Belarus has gained a well-founded reputation for having overall the most severe human rights problems in its neighbourhood and being the least responsive to domestic and international efforts to improve the situation over the last 27 years. This record suggests that developing a better understanding of the scale and nature of its human rights problem calls for scepticism as to how adequate either generic or even regional ways of approaching the issue may be in the case of Belarus. Rather, it calls for searching for novel perspectives on the problem, in order to address – in the current, post-2020 political environment in Belarus – the interrelated problems of:
– How to interpret the conspicuous lack of improvement regarding universally recognized human rights in Belarus, as well as the lack of its convergence with the ECHR-based area of human rights regime;
– What aspects of the human rights violations in Belarus could serve as guiding indicators to gauge the scale and nature of the problem, as well as to help identify those underlying factors that present major obstacles;
– What the implications should be for re-focusing a strategy to address the problems in their right order of priority and for the effectiveness of any resources committed to trying to solve or mitigate the issues. As a more practical development of this point, what practical forms of implementation such a re-focused strategy could take for the overall objective of protecting human rights and preserving basic liberal values in the particular case of Belarus today.

The issue of violent and other coercive forms of human rights violations inflicted against persons with a link to their preference for using the Belarusian language has been noted by human rights monitors over the years as extreme instances of more routine discrimination against Belarusian-speakers in Belarus. As a particular category of violations, and its significance within the overall Belarusian human rights situation, this has remained a matter largely obscure and seemingly unpopular in the human rights literature. This paper seeks to fill the lacuna suggesting that – in the particular case of Belarus – this issue is more significant for its implications than may prima facie appear. As will be demonstrated, the way this matter is embedded within the larger context of human rights violations in the country suggests that – specifically in Belarus – this could offer a useful guiding indicator for gauging the scale and nature of the overall problem, as well as insights into possible scenarios of its development. This topic gains extra significance since this type of violations has been “an expanding field” in Belarus since 2020. This makes it one of the distinct and growing features more specific to the current situation rather than to that before August 2020. Developing that understanding could in turn help to guide a realistic, up-to-date strategy focused on addressing the overall long-standing and entrenched set of human rights problems of Belarus.

As will be demonstrated further below, it’s important to talk about this particular sort of violations in Belarus now, because these issues have come more distinctly to the forefront during the radical deterioration of the overall human rights situation since summer 2020. The previous set of domestic and international instruments working to improve or mitigate the human rights situation in Belarus have been practically lost over the same period. Furthermore, if factoring in the new context of the regional war started by Russia in February 2022, possible scenarios that can be projected from today’s dangerous trends in that area may include a major humanitarian crisis induced fundamentally by human rights abuses in Belarus in that context.

Discrimination against Belarusian Speakers within the Overall Human Rights Problem in Belarus


The case of Belarus has stood in many ways apart from its regional neighbours. Belarus has never signed the European Convention of Human Rights. Belarus has not been falling into line with the ECHR regime of human rights even during the best of times in Lukashenka’s relations with Europe. The abolition or a moratorium on the death penalty has long been a specific matter that the Council of Europe has been calling for the Lukashenka government to concede (e.g. PACE, 2017) but has seen no progress, regardless of a warmer period of relations between the Lukashenka government and the Western community in 2015–2020.

It has been not just an undemocratic system but – in the view of many, or the majority, of its citizenry, as well as largely in the view of the community of Western democracies – governed by a ruler who took the office illegitimately (e.g. Council of the EU, 2020). The usual forms of human rights advocacy in democratic politics, the promotion of liberal values in public political and social culture and education, and strengthening the framework of legal protection, have not been practically applicable in Belarus for a long time.

Mass human rights violations have long been recognized by international specialist organizations, human rights NGOs, and in the academic literature, as well as in asylum court cases, as a problem in Belarus. Some Western governments and the EU were trying to change the regime’s behaviour by imposing – and lifting – sanctions against the regime of Alexander Lukashenka and specific figures belonging to it. The issue of human rights violations in Belarus received considerable media attention in 2020 when the Lukashenka regime unleashed a violent crackdown – involving hundreds of alleged instances of torture as well as some killings (Amnesty International, 2021) – on mass non-violent protests following the presidential election of August 2020 which was condemned as rigged domestically and internationally. Most recently the Lukashenka regime’s involvement in Putin’s war against Ukraine has been an increasingly important factor: as this article was finalized, the latest four persons recognized as political prisoners in Belarus had been sentenced for various forms of support and solidarity with Ukraine (Viasna, 2022a).

The above background suggests that particular analytical attention should be given to those features that are most specific for Belarus, in order to have context-specific guiding indicators to gauge the scale and assess the nature of its entangled set of obvious and underlying problems. Within the overall Belarusian human rights problem, linguistic and cultural rights infringements have been noted in human rights reports and in academic literature for a long time, albeit the issue may appear typically overshadowed there by more universally familiar aspects of human right breaches found in the country. A likely reason for the field being relatively unpopular in the literature seems because it’s being viewed as part of a very domestic agenda as opposed to more universal human rights and familiar human rights problems. The closest regional analogies to the discrimination of Belarusian speakers could be suggested in the suppression of Moldovan-Romanian language educational rights in Transnistria. The ECHR found Russia ultimately responsible for the language and education rights violations in Transnistria1. While terms such as “Lukashenka’s ‘cultural genocide’” or “ethnocide” in Belarus have been used in academic literature since the late 1990s (Marin, 2019a:34), those concepts have not been universally recognized within the human rights community, even less so by the legal community.

As applicable to Belarus, linguistic rights and linguistic non-discrimination have been formally provided for by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, as well as by Belarusian domestic legislation. As far as the domestic law of Belarus specifically is concerned, the country’s current constitution recognizes both Russian and Belarusian as equal official languages. Despite this protection, the public use of Belarusian was swiftly rolled back by the Lukashenka authorities from 1995 – as Russian was made official again and returned to that status practically in a “package” with new state symbols modelled on those from the USSR era. While linguistic discrimination in Belarus is not limited to Belarusian but also affects most notably the ethnic Polish community (Marin, 2019b:Para 85, Marin, 2020:Para 13, Marin 2021:Para 93), the case of repression targeted at the users of Belarusian stands out due to the current constitutional recognition of Belarusian language as an official language in Belarus alongside Russian.

Likewise, while politically motivated illegitimate violence and coercion has been used by the police and other security officials in Belarus in a wide range of situations, mistreatment and coercion inflicted on a person based on his/her being a Belarusian speaker stands out further from several viewpoints. On the one hand, the police’s illegitimate violence and torture are certainly unlawful but may be methods – however illegal – of pursuing formally legitimate ends, such as of public order. On the other hand, non-violent forms of linguistic discrimination do not use criminal methods as such but are pursuing constitutionally unlawful purposes. However, the forms of discrimination inflicted with violence or coercion involve both unlawful methods and the pursuit of constitutionally unlawful purposes.

Hence, several factors suggest that the recent record of the Lukashenka authorities’ use of force targeting persons identified for their preference for the Belarusian language deserves more attention. As will be elaborated below, linguistic and cultural discrimination in Belarus typically comes in a ‘package’ with various other human rights violations. It is possible to identify certain trends in such incidents within the overall context of political repression following the 2020 mass protests in Belarus. The parameters and frequency of such instances can serve as a useful indicator of the severity and other characteristics of the human rights situation in Belarus, including for the assessment of risks to persons in particular situations. Conversely, for the above reasons it may be suggested that, by implication, tackling the practices of discrimination and persecution based on a person’s being identified as a member of the Belarusian-speaker community could one day be a good indication of substantial progress with human rights across the board in Belarus.

Setting the 2020 election as the time reference point for distinguishing the incidents – albeit similar – occurring before and after serves the purpose of highlighting what is relevant in the current situation. On the political side, the August 2020 events led in a sense to a new regime. Although no elections in Belarus have been internationally recognized as fully free and fair since the mid-1990s, for the first time Lukashenka has been formally regarded by apparently the domestic majority, as well as by most Western democracies, as a ruler who took the presidential office illegitimately. That and the sanctions that followed have led to a deep disruption of the previous internationally supported mechanisms of human rights promotion that had existed before that point. Secondly, on the human rights side, the violent suppression of the mass non-violent protests of 2020 was on an unprecedented scale and of unprecedented brutality in Belarus. At the time of this article’s drafting in summer 2022, the government’s campaign of political repression has continued – backed by many new acts of repressive legislation since 2020. In summary, despite Lukashenka having been in power since 1994, Belarus has lived – in many aspects relevant for its human rights situation – effectively under a new political, legal and police regime since August 2020. The most recent, and increasingly important, factor of Russia’s war in the region started in February 2022 and the involvement of the Lukashenka government of Belarus will be discussed later.

Violence and Coercion Targeted at Belarusian Speakers prior to 2020


Discriminatory policies and practices by the Lukashenka authorities prejudicing the interests and infringing the rights of Belarusian-speakers have been noted since the mid-1990s in academic literature. Comprehensive descriptions of human rights violations, including linguistic and cultural rights violations, have been included, e.g., in the reports of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus. Relevant observations have also been included in the US State Department’s country human rights annual reports over many years, etc. A significant Belarusian source in that regard is a book by Alina Nahornaja titled “Language 404” published in Belarusian in 2021. The book is a commented collection of personal testimonies of persons who have witnessed or experienced discrimination of different kinds, including violent, against Belarusian speakers in Belarus (Nahornaja, 2021). Also, PEN Belarus has been releasing extensive and detailed monitoring records of cultural, linguistic and academic rights violations by the Lukashenka regime over recent years.

Hence on the general cultural rights situation preceding the 2020 events, the “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Belarus” on 8 May 2019 noted, for example, the information that “access to education in Belarusian remains limited, especially for higher education”. This is while “according to the latest sociological studies, 48 per cent of the population consider Belarusian their native language” (Marin, 2019b: Para 85). The US State Department’s “2018 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Belarus” was noting that “Although by law defendants may ask for their trials to be conducted in Belarusian, most judges and prosecutors were not fluent in this language, rejected motions for interpreters, and proceeded in Russian.” Also, “opportunities to receive a higher education in the Belarusian language (vice Russian) in the majority of fields of study were scarce” and “the administrations of higher educational institutions made no effort to accommodate students wishing to study in Belarusian-language classes”. Furthermore, there was an observation on “expressions of hostility toward proponents of the national culture”, and that the Lukashenka government tended to regard “proponents of the Belarusian language as political opponents”, therefore “the authorities continued to harass academic and cultural groups that sought to promote Belarusian and routinely rejected proposals to widen use of the language” (US State Department, 2018). The 8 April 2020 UN Special Rapporteur’s report in Para 13 stated explicitly that “discrimination also continues against speakers of the Belarusian language, particularly in higher and secondary education […]”. The report in Paras 79–81 has a special section titled “Discrimination against the Belarusian language” (Marin, 2020).

A review of relevant publications and online historical media reports (however incomplete given the passage of time) leaves no doubt that Belarusian linguistic rights violations, including instances of violence or arbitrary arrest/detention by the police and other security personnel targeting persons due to their being Belarusian speakers, as well as anti-Belarusian linguistic coercion used in courts, were recorded in Belarus long before 2020. As early as in 1998 the Belarusian Helsinki Committee alleged policies of “ethnocide” by Alexander Lukashenka’s authorities pointing that “there have been instances of detention and beatings by the law enforcement and security agencies of people who were speaking Belarusian in the street” (BHK, 1998).

Specifically on violent or similar incidents – such as police violence and arbitrary arrest – the earliest testimony in Alina Nahornaja’s collection dates from 1996– 1998. The witness, a legal advisor, recalls a situation whereby he saw a group of Belarusian-speaking youths in Minsk city centre approached by several policemen who demanded the youths speak Russian, alleging that speaking Belarusian was a sign of “spreading [the] opposition” views. When one of the youths replied that the constitution of Belarus was granting them the right to speak Belarusian, the police officers reacted by beating him up and arrested the group (Nahornaja, 2021:151).

In a testimony about a situation in 2008, a person was initially detained for taking part in a protest rally. When brought to a local police sub-station in Minsk, he continued to speak in Belarusian, while the police demanded that he speak Russian only and started beating him when he failed to comply. At the same time, another detainee in an identical situation but speaking Russian all the way received no beating (Nahornaja, 2021:75)

Another testimony describes a situation dating from 2008–20132 whereby a policeman overheard a person speaking Belarusian at a public transport stop and briefly detained that one person out of the whole group at the stop for an identity check and recorded the person’s details at a police station, on a contrived pretext of suspecting him of being a potential offender (Nahornaja, 2021:50).

Viasna, the leading human rights organization in Belarus, reported on 2 November 2011 that a judge rejected the application of Viasna’s leader, Ales Bialacki (Bialatski, a political prisoner and a Nobel Prize winner today) for his trial to be in Belarusian (Viasna, 2011a). This was, however, only an instance of usual practice by the Lukashenka- appointed judiciary of Belarus, as has been noted by international human rights reports.

In November 2011, the Viasna human rights organization reported that in the regional city of Mahiloŭ (Mogilev) the police severely physically mistreated a young opposition activist Andrei Padaliak. This was triggered by police officers hearing him speaking Belarusian in the street. He was taken by force to a police station where the police officers shouted verbal abuse against the Belarusian language. The next day the judge released him pending further investigation. Even the doctor at the police station reportedly accused the Belarusian-speaking detainee of being politically subversive. It is worth noting that the human rights monitors commented that it was a ‘rare’ case at the time (Viasna, 2011b).

In December 2015, a Belarusian music academy student told the independent media that he had been severely beaten up by the police in detention. He told the media that the police patrol demanded that he and his friend speak in Russian, threatening their detention. Once at the police station, a superior officer went on with derogatory verbal abuse about the Belarusian language and provoked the detained student to spit in response. Following that, police officers beat him unconscious and he received serious injuries (broken nose, leg) (Salidarnasc, 2016). His testimony about that 2015 incident was also included in the 2021 book referred to above (Nagornaja 2021:36-39).

Violence and Coercion Targeted at Belarusian Speakers Following the 2020 Election


From the viewpoint of the subject at hand, the situation in Belarus following the presidential election and mass protests of summer-autumn 2020 featured both continuity and change. On the continuity side, the Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Belarus dated 4 May 2021 noted the same issues of discrimination against the speakers of Belarusian in state education and most public institutions (Marin, 2021). Likewise, the observation on the denial of court interpreting into Belarusian in the US State Department’s 2021 report was repeated from previous years’ reports (US State Department, 2021).

On the change side, the police violence and political repression, and politically motivated prosecutions, as well as political persecution in various other forms, reached an unprecedented scale. While this happened across the board, Belarusian speakers and those involved in promoting the Belarusian language have found themselves more predisposed to being targeted for a combination of reasons, as explained in the next section. One can take the fact that PEN Belarus has issued a special report (dated 20 July 2022) dedicated specifically to recent “violations linguistic rights” as evidence that the post-2020 deterioration has been far more intense than the pre-2020 political era in Belarus (PEN Belarus, 2022a).

Below is a sample of testimonies and media reports on such incidents of violent and other coercive actions such as arrests, in chronological order:

A testimony from a 41-year-old Israeli software engineer who was himself detained by the police in Minsk during the protests on 10 August 2020 and imprisoned in the Žodzina (Russian, Zhodino) prison. According to him, there was another prisoner in his cell who, during his trial, replied to the judge’s questions in Belarusian – to which the judge reacted saying “Do you like the Belarusian language?” in a condemnatory tone and handed down to that detainee a longer sentence than to other detainees in similar circumstances (Nahornaja 2021:176)

A testimony by Ales Pushkin (a well-known artist in Belarus, currently a recognized political prisoner) tells of being selected by the police for a demonstrative beating while in detention in August 2020. The police discovered a written note in Belarusian in his possession, which prompted them to strip him naked and beat him up in front of other prisoners: while doing so, the policemen made verbal references linking the mistreatment to the note’s being in Belarusian. (Nahornaja 2021:9-10)

In October 2020, a 48-year-old entrepreneur was imprisoned in the Žodzina (Russian, Zhodino) detention centre following the protest events of August 2020. In his testimony, he requested medical help from the prison personnel addressing them in Belarusian. A police warrant officer who came to his cell told him no help would come until he spoke in “the normal language”, i.e. switching into Russian (Nahornaja 2021:158) (The person also spoke about this incident to the media in a published interview in November 2020 (Viasna, 2020)).

According to a testimony of a prisoner detained at a protest rally on 1 November 2020, when he was brought to a detention facility he met another detainee who spoke Belarusian only. The police demanded that the Belarusian-speaking prisoner start speaking Russian while the police procedures were being carried out, and threatened him with beating for failing to comply. As he did not switch into Russian, two police officers then took that prisoner outside the room and beat him, which was repeated several times (Nahornaja 2021:167).

On 26 February 2021, a group of pension-aged persons, reportedly 26 in total, were arrested when disembarking from a local train in Minsk. This was prompted by their allegedly reading works of literature in Belarusian as a group while in the railway carriage. The official charge against them was holding a disallowed political rally, and at least some were kept in detention for at least two days (Viasna, 2021, Belsat, 2021). On 1 March, 14 of the group were reportedly handed down fines (Svaboda, 2021a). On the same day a 75-year-old woman – who claimed she was not part of the above group – was arrested at a different train station, the police having identified her as an implicated person for having Belarusian literature books in her possession. She was prosecuted on the same charge and fined (Nasha Niva, 2021).

On 22 March 2021, 35 persons were detained in a police raid in Vaŭkavysk in a classroom during a free Belarusian language course run by Mova Nanova (a legally operating educational NGO at the time). The detainees were taken to a local police station and fingerprinted. They were released after signing an official warning (, 2021). The Mova Nanova NGO that had run the language courses since 2014 was finally banned on 23 July 2021 (Lepeyko and Mardilovich, 2021). Here, it should be noted that the Lukashenka regime’s “law enforcement” agencies’ raids with the objectives of apparent intimidation against non-Russian language courses were also reported against Polish educational organizations at about the same time (Marin, 2021).

In February 2022, the media learned about a letter, sent from prison, by Aleh Kuleša (Kulesha), a recognized political prisoner, from prison whereby he complained that the prison authorities had applied pressure on him on account of his speaking Belarusian and demand he speak in Russian only (Viasna, 2022b).

As was reported by the media in February 2022, Vaładar Curpanaŭ, a recognized political prisoner, while serving his sentence at a correctional facility, was punished by punitive confinement for speaking Belarusian contrary to the prison administration’s demands and for lodging his own demands to be addressed in Belarusian by the facility’s officers (PEN Belarus, 2022a; Svaboda, 2021b). Previously, the open-type correctional facility’s officers had instigated a new case against him and initiated his transfer to a prison facility, alleging violations of the open-type prison regime – part of which was reportedly triggered by his insistence on speaking Belarusian. Neither the prison authorities nor the court satisfied his application that the criminal case file-case be presented and heard in Belarusian (Svaboda, 2021b).

On 10 March 2022, Ales Cyrkunoŭ, a widely known Belarusian artist, was arrested for 15 days while attending a hearing at the Minsk City Court. His detention was prompted, as the police witness declared, by his speaking Belarusian, along with having a badge that the police took for a dissident symbol. He was then formally sentenced for taking part in a disallowed demonstration (Skobła, 2022).

On 12 August 2022, the Viasna Belarusian human rights organization reported receiving information from a recently released prisoner that Ihar Chmara (Khmara), a tour guide in Minsk, had been held in detention since 2 August 2022. According to the prisoner, the arrest had been prompted by the police officers having overheard Ihar Chmara speaking Belarusian in the street. According to that report, there were more prisoners whose arrest had been triggered by being overheard speaking Belarusian at the Akrescina (Russian, Okrestina) detention facility in Minsk at the time (Viasna, 2022c).

Significance of Current Linguistic Rights Violations within Human Rights Context in Belarus and the Potential for Escalation


In order to explain the current significance, and the potential for growth in scale and severity, of this kind of violations, one needs firstly to describe which section of the public in Belarus is directly or indirectly affected by this discrimination and the incidents of the police political terror targeting Belarusian speakers. That will also partly answer the question why this violence is inflicted on Belarusian speakers from time to time. The second aspect would be to define what triggers or drives the violence and discrimination against such persons. The third aspect would address the question of whether there is a current trend making the affected part of the Belarusian public more vulnerable. The fourth aspect would consider how much these violations occur along with further accompanying human rights violations. The fifth aspect should be about how much these violations amount to a policy and how deliberate that policy is.

On the first point, the Belarusian-speaking community is not a strictly distinct part of the population of Belarus as there is a very large range of degrees of being a ‘Belarusian speaker’. The results of the official 2019 census carried out by the Lukashenka government reported that 54% of the population declared Belarusian as their native tongue. At the same time, only 26% admitted speaking Belarusian at home according to the official results (Drakakhrust. 2020). In an earlier study in 2019, it was reported that only 3% admitted speaking just Belarusian in everyday communication, albeit those results were criticized as manipulative, since in their responses people could choose one language option only (Drakakhrust, 2019). In other words, Belarusians are largely bilingual in Belarus and so the denial of the freedom to use Belarusian, by fear or otherwise, infringes the interests of a very large section of the population – regardless of whether or not they are part of the smaller number who speak Belarusian only which in large cities may be as low as 3–4% today. The behaviour that attracts the discrimination and violence is something that is actually or potentially relevant for more than half of the population in some measure.

Another relevant factor is that there is significant overlapping between the section of the Belarusian public that prefers the Belarusian language and other communities significant in public life and relevant in this context, most notably those from the cultural and academic sectors, the civil-society community (including the human-rights component), and even the Catholic community. A clear example is Ales Bialacki (Bialatski), a leading human rights figure in Belarus, a recognized political prisoner today and a Nobel Prize winner. It is largely common knowledge in Belarus, reflected by Wikipedia, that “he generally speaks the Belarusian language” (Wikipedia, s.d.). His biography on the Viasna website mentions that “in 1990, he was a co-founder of the Belarusian Catholic Hramada” (an association of secular Belarusian Catholics in the early 1990s) (Viasna, 2011c).

On the aspect of what triggers and/or drives the violence and discrimination, there are two major observations that can be inferred from the above review of the incidents, from both before and after 2020. Firstly, someone’s preference for the Belarusian language has tended to be taken by the police and judiciary as an identifying characteristic of a likely opposition activist, and from among those activists already identified as a characteristic identifying a ‘hardened’ activist. This aspect is largely specific to the police, court and prison contexts.

But secondly, the reported incidents of violent behaviour towards Belarusian speakers have often been essentially a violent form of denying the person’s right to use the language – which discrimination, in its non-violent forms, has been noted in human right reports as routine in education and public institutions in Belarus for years. In other words, the described violent incidents were in many cases fundamentally an extension of the “usual” long-term discrimination under the Lukashenka authorities – now in the context of greatly expanded use of violence and other forms of coercion.On the third aspect, a prima facie observation that can be suggested from the above review that incidents of targeting persons with violence, arbitrary detentions and similar coercive actions triggered by their language preference have become substantially more frequent since the August 2020 events. It can be further asked whether this is attributable solely to the fact that there has been a massive increase in illegitimate violence by the Lukashenka regime across the board – or there have been more specific reasons making Belarusian speakers more vulnerable.

On the one hand, it is true that those political forces that held the promotion of the Belarusian language as their priority policy position played virtually no role in the 2020 events. It is also true that by far the overwhelming majority of police violence, arbitrary arrests, torture and killings since August 2020 in Belarus had nothing to do with targeting persons based on language, religion or culture.

But on the other hand, three reasons specific for the Belarusian-speaking public’s situation can be suggested as to why Belarusian-speaking persons tend to be comparatively more at risk of not only ‘routine’ discrimination but also of its more violent and coercive forms than the Belarusian public at large in that context.

The first reason is the ‘inertia’ hostility. The activists of the Belarusian national cultural revival since the late 1980s have been by far predominantly pro- democracy, pro-Western, and all in opposition to Lukashenka’s policies of re- Sovietization. More on the policy dilemmas that ‘Belarusianization’ presented to the Lukashenka regime back in 2019 can be found in Anaïs Marin’s 2019 article (Marin, 2019a:42-43). For the Lukashenka officials, their leader’s oft-expressed personal disdain for the Belarusian language can also be a factor. As has been already noted above, the US State Department’s 2018 human rights report on Belarus directly noted “expressions of hostility toward proponents of the national culture that the government often identified with actors of the democratic opposition” (US State Department, 2018). As an implication of that point, the security forces, coming under political pressure from the top of the regime to keep finding dissidents, were likely relying, as the starting point, on their past knowledge of the “usual suspects” and on “profiling” based on a person’s identifiable markers of belonging to a social group, such as by virtue of the person’s linguistic, cultural or religious identities. When tasked by the supreme authority with the ‘clean-up’, i.e. getting rid of civil society, and under pressure to report results, Lukashenka’s political security forces have been going after their familiar targets or “usual suspects” for practical reasons.

The second reason is that while the promotion of the Belarusian language during the years preceding 2020 was driven largely by civil society, it is the civil society community who have been very heavily targeted by the post-2020 repression. Anaïs Marin describes the ‘soft Belarusianization’ of ca. 2014–2020 as substantially “a bottom-up process stemming from civil society” (Marin, 2019a: 27) – while she also notes that “the promotion of Belarusian language is a key – if not the only – driver of soft Belarusianization, whether these efforts are conducted from the bottom-up or in a top-down way” (Marin, 2019a: 46). Therefore, it should not be surprising that once civil society and NGOs at large became a major target of repression after the August 2020 events, the fact that the ‘Belarusianization’ was an output of civil society activity could then only reinforce the regime’s hostile attitude. And by implication, while the majority of civil society that faced suppression post-2020 had nothing to do with the ‘Belarusianization’ agenda, the very fact of civil society’s leading role in the promotion of the Belarusian language made it easy for the security agencies to regard anyone’s preference for the public use of Belarusian as an identifying marker of civil society and NGO activity. The link has been very clearly made in the PEN Belarus report titled “Right for Culture” in February 2022 as the general crack-down on NGOs and non-state institutions in 2020–21 immediately affected those involved in the promotion of the Belarusian language directly or as part of other cultural activities. That included private publishing houses that published printed media in Belarusian (PEN Belarus, 2022b).

The third reason is that while the effective policy of linguistic discrimination in Belarus has been a long-standing policy practice of the Lukashenka regime, in 2020 Russia has publicly stated its hostile attitude toward any expansion of the role of Belarusian in public life in Belarus. In August 2020 Russia’s Foreign Minister Lavrov effectively accused Sviatłana Cichanoŭskaja of planning to bring the Belarusian language back into public life again which according to him meant damaging the position of the Russian language in Belarus (Interfax, 2020). Although it would be too speculative to claim that the Russians were acting back in 2020 with specific plans to turn Belarus into their army’s tactical and strategic rear in a future war with Ukraine, their effectively unfriendly position expressed to Belarusian speakers in Belarus could only resonate with that of Lukashenka’s own attitude and strengthen the latter.

On the fourth aspect, an observation can be made that the instances of use of force targeted against Belarusian speakers typically gives rise to a situation of multiple rights violations such as discrimination, violations against the freedom of expression, arbitrary arrest, lack of fair trial, inhumane prison conditions, torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, illegitimate personal property confiscations, etc. And looking from a different aspect, this discrimination leads to still wider rights infringements stemming from the fact that, as was elaborated in the UN Special Rapporteur’s 2020 report, “discrimination against the Belarusian language in the public sphere has a negative effect on everyone’s ability to take part in cultural life, which is guaranteed by article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights” (Marin, 2020).

On the fifth aspect, it is important to consider the question of whether these incidents amount to a policy, and if yes, what are the implications, in order to assess the potential of the problem’s further growth in scale and severity. Linguistic discrimination, even non-violent, is certainly a violation of several human rights conventions, but the notions of “ethnocide” or “cultural genocide” have not been universally accepted as legally included within the scope of the Genocide Convention. At any rate, the question of “ethnocidal intent” in the policy of the Lukashenka government would be furthermore debatable, as there have been no clear expressions of it in legislation or in formally and unambiguously stated policies. There have been seemingly contradictory statements on the matter made over the years preceding 2020 by Alexander Lukashenka to different audiences and in different contexts3. The regulation stipulating the use of Belarusian in geographic names in Belarus remains in force.

A counterargument could be, however, that some lack of consistency and certain policy camouflaging, as well as lack of interest in formalizing policies in regulations, does not necessarily amount to a lack of an effective policy as universally understood and implemented by Lukashenka’s security and other officials today. From the practical policy viewpoint, the prevailing long-term practice by the Lukashenka regime’s loyalists has had its real-life expressions in various forms of denying, sometimes in violent forms, the right to use the Belarusian language. It could therefore be described as motivated by their practical preference for seeing the use of the Belarusian language in Belarus completely discontinued in favour of Russian – and their practical understanding that that would be in line with Lukashenka’s (and Russia’s) own wishes.

A final point here can be made regarding the potential of the problem to increase in scale and severity, in the current climate of repression in Belarus. While all the pre- 2020 forms of discrimination have continued and hardened, the increase in violent incidents marks a trend in a dangerous direction for Belarusian speakers. The general climate of police violence in Belarus means that violence against persons targeted on the basis of cultural, linguistic or other identity criteria risks crossing the line between just a number of isolated incidents – and something close to a new norm and universal practice. This means that the problem is “outgrowing” the definitions of discrimination as such. Once physical mistreatment becomes “normally” involved, there is only a dangerously disappearing line between selecting persons to beat unconscious based on their speaking their national tongue in order to break their spirit, and targeting persons for physical destruction as members of a national or ethnic group in the full sense of the Genocide Convention. The war may have a further amplifying effect in that regard, too.

The Impact of the Context of Russia’s War Against Ukraine


Russia’s war against Ukraine, using Belarusian soil and airspace with the Lukashenka regime’s complicity, has not created anything radically new in the country’s human rights situation, but has been a factor working against any trends of relaxation in the post-2020 regime of repression. However, the impact of the war is still unfolding and there are several distinct trends with significant potential to make the human rights situation in Belarus even worse.

There is an increasing number of political prisoners sentenced for various forms of solidarity with Ukraine and support to its defence effort. While no prosecution with a distinct nation-cultural aspect has been reported, the threat is there, given the cultural war element that the Russian war propaganda includes about Russia’s war goals against Ukraine. The Belarusian-speaking public could be inherently at risk since Russia and the Lukashenka regime are likely to regard cultural diversity, along with all real or suspected dissident activity, as a potential military vulnerability in their operational rear.

A dangerous trend that has already surfaced in that regard has been the ‘securitization’, in the eyes of the Lukashenka government, of dissident activity, viewed increasingly in terms of the war context. Real or suspected dissident activity that used to be designated as just ‘extremist’ now tends to be regarded as actually or potentially ‘terrorist’.

The war context creates for the Lukashenka regime ‘legitimate’ excuses officially to do away – such as by introducing martial law or the ‘counter-terrorist operation regime’ – with what is left from human rights and personal protection granted to an individual by the country’s constitution.

At the same time, the war has had an effect devaluing the impact of Western sanctions as an instrument of pressure trying to discourage the Lukashenka regime from human rights violations. All the recent meaningful sanctions against the Lukashenka regime have been instruments to discourage the regime from involvement in Putin’s aggression against Ukraine, with no reference to the domestic abuses. The most onerous of Western sanctions introduced have already been used to penalise the regime’s role in Putin’s war. Against that background, any deterring potential of using – or the enticing potential of lifting – Western sanctions to encourage the regime’s “behaviour change” domestically has been effectively undercut.

Finally, the context of the war presents new problems of uncertainty in terms of planning a strategy to recover and promote human rights in Belarus, as the future of the region is being decided on the battlefield.

Implications for Strategy Building


The above exposé of the human rights situation, structured around admittedly an unusual and very domestic – but highly indicative – issue of violence and coercive discrimination suffered by the beleaguered Belarusian-speaking members of the public, presents in my opinion a clear view of where today’s Belarus is. It is a country in a state similar to a frozen conflict, and most recently effectively drawn into Putin’s war against the wishes of its population. Structuring the discussion around the particular very domestic matter at hand helps to highlight that human rights in Belarus today are part of a set of interlinked problems some of which fall way outside the field of human rights. Looking at it from the ‘anti-colonial’ perspective, as discussed in Anaïs Marin’s 2019 article (Marin, 2019a) would, all too likely, suggest blueprints for progress different from the more familiar approaches to the preservation of human rights and promotion of liberal values in Central-Eastern Europe. With that in mind, the above exposé may help to focus minds on what may be realistically possible to achieve to prepare a comeback for Belarusian civil society and to help Belarus return to the path of convergence with the ECHR human rights regime in the future.

Firstly, scaling back the expectations in today’s context of Belarus would call for focusing on a more humanitarian response to start with. If it is not possible to influence government policy, one needs to focus on mitigating its harmful effects where possible, with a view to facilitating a recovery when possible. Ensuring the survival of the sections of the Belarus public that are likely to provide the human resources for the country’s civil society in the future should be viewed as a fundamental prerequisite for a future recovery. That recovery will need new resources, so resource-building is important.

Secondly, focusing on those Belarus-specific issues that are the underlying problems of that country’s troubles would help to pave the way for progress with the human rights agenda when the conditions are right. Some of the problems of Belarus that are to be solved in the first place may appear somewhat remote from the traditional human rights advocacy list but that is what the unusual case of Belarus requires. It is unrealistic to argue that solving a particular problem in Belarus would, in isolation, be like toppling the first domino to bring down the whole repressive system. But, for example, sponsoring Belarusian cultural activity provides material resources to the same segment of the public that is also most involved in pro-human rights and pro-democracy activities which could not be directly supported in Belarus today.

Thirdly, although it is true that civil society in Belarus has been virtually destroyed by the regime after the 2020 events, many elements of Belarusian civil society have renewed their activity now in exile. Today, a large number of prominent pre- 2020 figures of Belarusian civil society and cultural life have found themselves in exile, mostly in neighbouring countries. While Belarusian intellectual and cultural products, previously generated by civil society, can no longer be created in Belarus, there are opportunities to “repatriate” those products created in exile. This calls for supporting the Belarusian cultural initiatives in those countries where Belarusian cultural life continues in exile such as Poland and Lithuania, and also in the UK due to the historically strong independent Belarus diaspora institutions in the UK.. This approach would form an element of a three-fold strategy of preserving and developing the Belarusian political and cultural capabilities outside of Belarus, aiming to use the latest online technology to “repatriate” Belarusian cultural and intellectual products to the public in Belarus, and finding ways to support activities that have survived in Belarus directly or indirectly. Belarusians have become more of an extraterritorial community than ever before.

The Belarusian diaspora community in the UK has adopted an approach along similar lines since around 2016. Without disclosing the details, the fact that those members of Belarusian civil society whose activities were supported are mostly still in Belarus could be taken as a positive indication. Although they have had to be inactive in public life during the current climate of repression, those segments of civil society that we have supported have a chance to recover when it becomes possible without risk to their personal safety.

Speaking of international instruments from the pre-2020 era still available for influencing the human rights situation in Belarus today, sanctions have not completely lost their meaning. While many Belarusians in Belarus and in exile have been ambivalent about sectorial economic sanctions, personal sanctions against the regime’s leaders, officers and whole organizations implicated in torture, arbitrary arrest, mistreatment, and politically motivated sentencing, have been widely supported by the Belarusian pro-democracy public where it has been able to express its view. Given what has been highlighted in this paper, sanctions for “cultural repression” could be considered in the particular case of Belarus. The major problem with the effectiveness of Western sanctions has been that their pre-emptive and deterring components have been weak or non-existent, which seems to be rooted in the dominant concept of their use for “behaviour change”. Lobbying for strengthening the pre-emptive and deterring effect of the EU and UK’s sanctions designed to address human rights violations worldwide could be a task for human rights activists and organizations in the West.



This paper has endeavoured to explore the value of selecting a particular human rights issue specific to Belarus as a reference point for examining the characteristics and trends of the larger context of human rights problems in Belarus.

The importance of seeking a novel perspective on the problems of human rights in Belarus now is twofold. Firstly, little progress has been achieved with progressing human rights in Belarus over many years. When new opportunities for human rights work in Belarus emerge, it is important that a realistic and effective strategy be pursued. Secondly, there may be a risk of a major humanitarian crisis developing in Belarus if violence against persons based on their linguistic, cultural or ethnic identity by the security forces settles as a new norm, in the context of the war in particular.

The premise for adopting said approach was that given how much Belarus’s human rights record has been different from that of the region, some analytical value could be sought in selecting the matter most specific to that country’s human rights problems.

The issue selected for that purpose was that of police violence and other forms of coercive actions by officials targeted at persons due to their preference for using the Belarusian language.

Those have been incidents united by a common underlying triggering factor and – as a set – offering a picture that features “clusters” of various accompanying violations, as well as giving some idea of the likely parameters of the violations involved in such situations. Those parameters include how violent such situations may be, the level of the perpetrators’ disregard for the law, the manifold nature of the violations, the likely context of such violent incidents, how low or high the trigger level may be, how deliberate or systemic the practice of such violence and coercion is, how wide the social cohort is which may be at risk of such incidents, and some observations on the trends in their frequency, brutality, etc. It also suggests the width of the range of situations in which a person can encounter such incidents.

The review of the incidents has led to a number of observations that help in understanding today’s human rights context in Belarus. Fundamentally, it supports the point that although the subject matter is very Belarus-specific, the practical incidents indicate that these violations take place as part of a “package” of more generally familiar human rights violations and tend to serve as their trigger. Another point that can be suggested is that these human rights problems in Belarus are part of a larger set of problems – within which some problems are not on the traditional human rights list. The paper has referenced Anaïs Marin’s 2019 article for the “anti-colonial” hypothesis (Marin, 219a) about some of such issues involved. It seems reasonable to suggest that a strategy for renewed work to protect and promote human rights in Belarus and to bring Belarus closer to the ECHR standards, when becomes possible, should endeavour to take into account the local context of human rights problems in order to be most effective.


[1] Catan and Others vs the Republic of Moldova and Russia, Judgment 19.10.2012 [GC], para 150 stated: “it is not necessary to determine whether or not Russia exercised detailed control over the policies and actions of the subordinate local administration (see para- graph 106 above). By virtue of its continued military, economic and political support for the “MRT”, which could not otherwise survive, Russia incurs responsibility under the Conven- tion for the violation of the applicants’ rights to education”.

[2] This date timeframe is not specified in the book but was obtained directly from the book’s author.

[3] While Lukashenka is known for many derogatory comments about the Belarusian lan- guage, in one instance in April 2014 he also stated that “The great Russian language will keep developing in Belarus in the same way as our native Belarusian language. If we stop speaking Russian, we will lose our minds. If we forget how to speak the Belarusian lan- guage, we will cease to be a nation”. Quoted in Nasha Niva (Nasha Niva, 2014).