08 September 2022

The “Year of Historical Memory” and Mnemonic Constitutionalism in Belarus

Introduction: a “lesson of history” on 1st of September 2022 amidst the war

On 1st of September 2022, the academic year in all Belarusian schools started with an atypical lesson, on “historic memory” – led in Minsk by none other than the country’s “President” himself, Aliaksandr Łukašenka, who has been in power for a quarter of a century. Earlier, by a decree, Łukašenka’s government proclaimed 2022 to be the “Year of Historical Memory” (hod histaryčnaj pamiaci). The decree follows Łukašenka’s demagogic compulsion over the interpretation of certain historical events, symbols and personalities, in particular, those regarding World War II, the “genocide of the Belarusian people” and, consequently, the regime’s epiphanies about symbolic and historical affiliations of the democratic opposition to “Nazi collaborationism”. Apparently, any alternative interpretation of history in Łukašenka’s Belarus, including probably this analysis – had it been written by a historian inside the country – risks leading up to eight years of imprisonment, in line with recent domestic criminal legislation.

This 1st-of-September pedagogic extravagancy took place amidst the Russian military aggression in Ukraine, where Łukašenka sacrificed Belarusian independence to allow Putin’s “de-Nazifying” army to attack Ukraine from the territory of Belarus, despite (unlike in Russia) barely existent support for this invasion amongst Belarusians, their close ethno-linguistic ties with Ukrainians and a history of splendid relationships between the two nations, whose cultural elites have been traditionally consolidated against Russian imperialism. Unsurprisingly, Belarusians also form the largest foreign military unit fighting on the Ukrainian side and – despite all the terror inside Belarus – continue a strong partisan movement inside their country in support of Ukraine. The terror inside Belarus culminated after mass protests by citizens against Łukašenka’s impudently falsified election results (in 2020), leading to thousands of political prisoners, tortures and murders of the democratic opponents of the regime. In the meantime, the President-Elect (since 2020), Ms. Sviatłana Cichanoūskaja (also transliterated as Tsikhanouskaya in anglophone sources), representing the country in exile at the moment, has been speaking explicitly – along with all other major Belarusian opposition leaders – in support of Ukraine and against Russia’s war. She also speaks against the de facto “double occupation” of Belarus by both, the vassal Łukashenka’s regime (who lost the 2020 elections) and the unlawful Russian military presence (with its effective decision-making control) in Belarus.

Yet there is also a legal – even more so, constitutional – dimension to these developments on historical memory in Belarus, which are better grasped through the looking glass of mnemonic constitutionalism, a term I first introduced on this Verfassungsblog (here), in several academic publications (e.g., here and here), and which has been gaining momentum in memory studies recently. Through mnemonic constitutionalism, I address the advance of the legal governance of historical memory to the constitutional level. Mnemonic constitutionalism often encompasses, yet transcends, another legal phenomenon; that is memory laws. The heading “constitutionalism” replicates the notion that limitations can, and should, be placed on governmental powers. Mnemonic constitutionalism positions the authority and legitimacy of a state into the boundaries of a certain historical paradigm, whereas current and future attitudes and behaviours of state actors derive from and are limited by moral lessons of the past. Within mnemonic constitutionalism, the historical past becomes the foundation underlying the collective identity prescribed by either the national constitution itself, by legal provisions which traditionally shape the substructure of national constitutional law (such as citizenship laws), or statutes shaping collective identities by virtue of imposing specific understandings of the historical past. As I have demonstrated elsewhere, without consciously or explicitly identifying this area of law-making, and without necessarily changing the constitutional text itself, new populist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe clearly perceive this invisible mnemonic constitution as an ontological foundation for their “illiberal democracies”, as a basis for an entire governance of historical memory and as justification for their current political choices. I will further unpack these choices made by Belarusian memory politics and apparent in the constitutional referendum of 27 February 2022, along with the rise of Belarusian memory laws and coercive mnemonic constitutionalism prior to, and after, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022.

Belarusian memory politics before and after the constitutional referendum of February 2022

Four demarcated time spans are indispensable for grasping memory politics and related legal aspects in Belarus, after the country gained its independence in 1991.

1. The years 1991-1994

The first covers the period between 1991 and 1994, when Belarus existed as a parliamentary republic, with a strong and vocal democratic opposition in the parliament, promoting the ethos of sovereignty, the revival of the Belarusian language and culture, liberal economic reforms, the pursuit of human rights and the rule of law. This first period inevitably led to a renaissance of Belarusian national historiography, including attribution of the early Belarusian identity to the medieval statehood of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and an acclaimed tribute to the proclamation of the independent Belarusian People Republic in 1918; the return of poets, novelist, artists, linguists who were repressed during the Soviet period, along with Belarusian émigré thinkers into the central cultural realm; and cultivating a memory politics that is comparable to the flourishing of national myths and de-Sovietization along with de-Russification in all other neighboring states in the post-Soviet period. This period also witnessed the revival of minority cultures in Belarus, including the rise of cultural, religious and political representation of the Jewish, Lithuanian, Polish, and Ukrainian communities.

2. The years 1994-1995 and the period until 2020

The second short span, 1994-1995, is particularly important as this is when Lukašenka won the first (and so far, last transparent) presidential election in Belarus. Since then, he has built an authoritarian state with the full expulsion of democratic opposition from the parliament, suppression of the rule of law and media freedoms, mass repressions and violence, and embedded machinery of consistently falsifying all of its elections and referenda. The very first referendum he staged in 1995 made Russian de jure the second official language. De facto, Łukašenka made Russian the only fully protected state language. The referendum has also re-introduced the Soviet-Belarusian flag and coat of arms (instead of the historic “white-red-white” flag that was used in Belarus in 1991-1994) and has constitutionally imposed closer economic ties with the Russian Federation.

This time span proved crucial for the entire subsequent period up until 2020, which can be characterised by a peculiar competition of two sets of memory politics in the country. One of them built upon the existing national historiography, stressing the uniqueness of the Belarusian identity and its historical development. To a certain – albeit weak –  degree, its soft promotion has become possible due to the courageous activism amongst history educators at schools and universities, who for many years resisted the Russification and re-Sovietization when teaching Belarusian history, as well as thanks to the mobilisation of cultural activists along with the bare necessities – on behalf of the formally independent state – of maintaining albeit minimum diversification from Russia (inter alia, by virtue of national toponymics, Belarusian spelling of the names as well as modest investment into restoration of historical monuments). Yet the second competing politics of memory, with its cult of World War II (or rather “Great Patriotic War”, the post-Soviet vocabulary and chronology transplanted from the Russian analogues) has been incomparably more powerful, due to its sustainment by Łukašenka’s state machinery (including financially). It has encompassed not only the explicit linguistic Russification of everything (from teaching at schools and universities to Russian becoming de facto the only language of court proceedings), but also showcased Belarusian historiography and cultural representation as derived from the Soviet hagiography of Belarusian statehood. Whilst imperial Russian concepts have also been given a green light for competing on this non-free market of historical ideas in Belarus, the state’s memory politics foremost favoured the Soviet elements of historical narratives (including pompous military parades glorifying victory in the “Great Patriotic War”, on 9 May), rather than outright Russian imperialistic constructs (the latter deny Belarusians and Ukrainians any historical agency and independent identity). Civil society, with its mnemonic practices, has continued to function inside the country, though under quasi-dissident conditions.

3. The year of 2020

The unsuccessful mass protests of 2020 triggered the start of the third time span which is crucial for understanding the escalation of Łukašenka’s politics of memory and the rise of mnemonic constitutionalism. This new period was marked by its unsuccessful though impressively massive and peaceful uprising against the dictatorship of Łukašenka after presidential elections in August 2020. Despite their fraudulent result, the elections have demonstrated the unequivocal victory of a democratic – albeit completely accidental – candidate, Ms. Sviatłana Cichanoūskaja (Tsikhanouskaya), with all the major opponents of Łukašenka (including her husband) having already been imprisoned that summer. The peaceful uprising was brutally suppressed (with Russia backing Łukašenka’s cruelty), alongside several people losing their lives (including those under circumstances that were not investigated), thousands of people being tortured and imprisoned, and hundreds of thousands leaving the country in the two years that followed (both as political refugees and even more so as economic migrants escaping the dictatorship). The widespread use of the red-white-red flag and other historical symbols during the protest constituted a trigger for the impulsive turn in Łukašenka’s politics of memory, towards not only a re-Sovietization of the historical policies, but also – to a large degree – their substitution with Russian historiographic myths. Furthermore, support by Poland and Lithuania extended to the Belarusian democratic opposition has led to Łukašenka’s notoriously aggressive stance towards not only activists of the Polish and Lithuanian minorities, but also towards the periods of the Belarusian historiography that are shared for Belarusians with Lithuanians (during the Grand Duchy of Lithuania) and with Poles (the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania, and the later period up until 1939), along with Łukašenka’s staging of the refugees crisis on the Polish and Lithuanian borders. Putin’s economic and political support of Łukašenka’s suppression of the mass peaceful protest has led to daily arrests, as well as gigantic political and social repression on various levels.

4. The year of 2022: the war and the referendum

The final demarcated period, the current year of 2022, marks another evolution in the memory politics of the dictatorial regime in Belarus. Memory politics serves as a