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Belarus or “White Russia”? How the country’s name is dividing Europe

Opposition demonstrations in Belarus have dominated media headlines across Europe for more than two weeks.

The brutal crackdown by authorities has generated widespread outcry and condemnation from the European Union, who say they will sanction those responsible for the violence.

But in several European nations, media coverage of the presidential election and subsequent protests has differed in one noticeable way.

Many countries did not refer to “Belarus” as “Belarus”.

In the Netherlands, national newspapers and media organisations have published frontpage stories about protests in “Wit-Rusland”, which translates directly from Dutch to “White-Russia”.

One newspaper De Volkskrant, generated social media conversation when it announced that it would no longer be using the name “Wit-Rusland”.

In an online statement, De Volkskrant said the old spelling “originates from the time when the country was governed from Moscow” and “Belarus” would be used to reflect the country’s independence in 1991.

“In order to make it clear that Belarus is a sovereign state, the Dutch government, among others, speaks of Belarus, so does De Volkskrant.”

However, on the Dutch Foreign Ministry website, both “Belarus” and “Wit-Rusland” are listed under the same country. In a statement to Euronews, a ministry spokesperson confirmed that the Netherlands considers that both are “correct names”

“Belarus” is used for official documents, such as Treaties, but that “Wis-Rusland” also remains in use.

“Most of the people in the Netherlands are more familiar with Wit-Rusland than Belarus,” added the spokesperson.

The Foreign Ministry in Germany follows a similar policy.

While “Belarus” is displayed on the Ministry website and has been officially used by the Foreign Office since March 1992, the term “Weißrussland” (“White Russia”) also appears in national communications.

But on August 10, the popular news magazine Der Spiegel also announced it was changing its naming policy.

“In order to make it clear that Belarus is a sovereign state that is not part of Russia, the Federal Foreign Office has been using the official and contemporary name for some time”, Der Spiegel said.

“We agree with this development and will in future write Belarus instead of Weißrussland”.

But despite media organisations in both the Netherlands and Germany citing the foreign ministry as official policy sources, Euronews has confirmed that neither country holds consistent guidelines.

In official documents of the United Nations and the country’s own constitution, “the Republic of Belarus” or simply “Belarus” is used

Indeed, in both 2014 and 2015, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry tweeted directly at international organisations – including the Council of Europe – requesting that they use “Belarus” in line with UN standards.

In some EU countries, this has generated a change.

In November 2019, Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde paid the first official visit to Belarus since 1992 to discuss bilateral issues.

In connection with this visit, the Swedish government announced that it would now use the term “Belarus” in official communication, instead of “Vitryssland” (“White Russia”).

“We do this to recognise the will of the Belarusian people, civil society, and the diaspora to emphasize the national identity and sovereignty of their country,” Ann Linde said on Twitter.

Activists have told Euronews that this process to change naming standards was a lengthy one.

“From the side of Belarusian diaspora, it took almost ten years since the first petition was sent to the MFA and until the official name change happened,” said chairperson Alesia Rudnik, Research Fellow at the Center for New Ideas.

This spring, the Mediespråkgruppen, which handles the language of Sweden’s largest media, said it agreed and changed its recommendation.

“Clearly, Swedish citizens will not start using Belarus instead of White Russia just in one go,” Alesia Rudnik told Euronews.

“Still, massive attention to the country today and the correct name of the country on the significant tabloids and editions should make it a more transparent and famous name.”

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs not only advocated the use of “Belarus” in Swedish language but also expressed that other countries with the Latin alphabet should use that form.

And yet in neighbouring Finland, Belarus is listed as “Valko-Venäjä” (“White-Russia”) on the country’s Foreign Office website.

“In the names and spellings of the countries, we follow the instructions and guidelines of the Finnish Language Center,” a Ministry spokesperson told Euronews.

While “Belarus” is the recommended spelling in English, organisations are instructed to use “Valko-Venäjä” in Finnish.

There are many more examples across Europe.

Denmark (“Hviderusland”), Estonia (“Valgevene”), Latvia (“Baltkrievija”) and Lithuania (“Baltarusija”) all use translations of “White Russia” when describing Belarus. The decision is something that many analysts and Belarusian citizens consider political incorrectness.

“Belarus is etymologically different from White Russia”

“I am a bit unsure why they are using that name as they really should not be,” said Mikalaj Packajeu, chair of the Association of Belarusians in Great Britain.

The name Belarus is closely related from “Belaya Rus”, which literally translates in today’s Russian language as “White Rus”.

But the term “Rus” has a wider geographical and political meaning than just Russia.

Rus, also known as Ruthenia, refers to the Eastern Slavic territories of the medieval era which now mostly belong to Belarus and Ukraine.

“The ‘White Russia’ name appears in the pre-World War I literature and was a Russian Tsarist political manipulation,” says Mikalaj Packajeu.

“Even if had to be broken down into etymological parts and then translated, the ‘-rus’ element did not mean ‘Russia’, other than in the then Tsarist Russia’s propaganda.”

And after the country gained independence in 1991, its international name in English and French was adjusted closer to the Belarusian language.

“In my view the United Nations’ English and French versions of the name is what the media should be using,” Packajeu told Euronews.

“Belarus is etymologically different from White Russia,” added Alesia Rudnik, “saying White Russia is not correct due to political associations with Russia.”

“Belarus is an independent country since 1991 and is never changing its name.”

Irony alone then that white bracelets have become one symbol of the opposition movement in Belarus in 2020, as demonstrators spread messages of peace and hope in the face of an uncertain future.

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