Today many Belarusians celebrate Freedom Day (Dzień Voli) commemorating a creation on that day in 1918 of Belarusian People’s Republic – first attempt to bring about an independent Belarusian state. Debates about whether it was a successful project or a failed state endure even today, with both sides resorting to history, political theories and international law to prove their respective points. In the contemporary context, however, Freedom Day’s celebration is interesting as it lays bare socio-political contradictions in Belarusian society.
Quite obviously, the 25th day of March is a strong contender to be an official independence day of Belarus. Another is the 27th of July, when in 1991 Belarus declared its independence from the USSR. Nevertheless, neither is officially celebrated as such; the official celebration of independence is reserved for the 3rd of July – a reference to what official historiography calls “liberation of Minsk from the German-Fascist invaders” in 1944 – a day, the least related to independence out of three. This date was handpicked by Alexander Lukashenko and was voted in as official Independence Day during a controversial referendum back in 1996.
Both Freedom Day and official Independence Day are loaded with symbolism. Each contains a constellations of meanings, ideas and visions of and about Belarus, its history, its people’s struggles and, more broadly, what it is to be a Belarusian.
Historically, they take two different events as reference points for independence. Freedom Day brings us back to the Third Constituent Charter that declared national independence – a positive articulation of nationhood, affirmation of existence of Belarus and Belarusians. Independence Day refer us to the take-over of Minsk by the Red Army. Consequently, struggles that the dates visualise also differ. Freedom Day first and foremost symbolises anti-imperial struggle, cultural and lingual distinctiveness, but in case of right-wingers, it often translates into a symbol of anti-communist and anti-Russian resistance.
Independence Day, in turn, is all about struggle against fascism in the context of WWII. And while Russians and communists are not antagonised (the message is that Belarusians fought for “freedom” alongside Russians and other Soviet peoples), the nationhood and the national are diluted in this broad context. It always pains to see how the President and other officials stretch the meaning of independence beyond recognition to link it to the 3rd of July.
Consequently, the contradiction between the two also reflects on what proponents of either day consider to be a Belarusian identity. One can reliably profile political views and values of participants of either celebration. People who go out for a traditional march on the 25th of March are likely than not to be in opposition to the ruling regime, which they deem anti-national and pro-Russian, while they consider themselves pro-Belarusian, patriotic and often nationalist.
At the same time, vast majority of those, who celebrate official Independence Day, are stunningly apolitical and do so by inertia, for which repressive state machinery and biased educational institutions should be given credit here. The rest are openly pro-regime or pro-Russian, but they also consider themselves pro-Belarusian and patriotic. The difference lies in what identity the two roughly outlined groups of Belarusians embrace.
Standing for ideas that are difficult to reconcile, Freedom Day and Independence Day are often perceived to stand in stark contradiction to each other dividing the country into two camps. Thus, people, who celebrate the 25th of March, rarely celebrate the 3rd of July and vice versa. Nevertheless, the contradiction is false. Freedom Day has a greater potential to overcome it and become a unifying symbol, for it is far less exclusive. While celebration of national independence is ipso facto a manifestation of exclusion, since it is directed against the external world and aims to separate the nation and the territory it occupies from those political entities outside it, the two dates manifest themselves quite differently in terms of internal exclusion.
Independence Day is a negative manifestation of distinctiveness – “we are Belarusians because we are not fascists” – while Freedom Day is a positive affirmation of one – “we are Belarusians because, well, we are”. Independence Day per se adds another layer of political ideology to the idea of independence. In other words, national independence is contingent upon adherence to a particular political worldview. Therefore, it channels exclusion inside, outlawing struggles that do not fit its narrative.
In contrast, Freedom Day channels exclusion only outside, celebrating distinctiveness of Belarusians, their culture, history and language, regardless of political alignments. Of course, as it was mentioned above, the right tends to use this day in the same way – to exclude people who hold to different political views. But in itself Freedom Day, unlike Independence Day, does not have this inherent division line that splits political spectrum in two – legitimate and illegitimate.
In this way, Belarusians are welcome to mould it into anything they want. Given the painful experience of alienating and oppressive regime, hopes are that Freedom Day will shape into a symbol of free and inclusive society that embraces every Belarusian and every struggle, past and contemporary.
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