Belorussian [belaruskaja mova], along with Russian and Ukrainian, is an East Slavonic language. The three languages were spoken in the Kievan Rus region (9th century; see language report Ukrainian). Today, the centre for the Belorussian language in Poland is Białystok [Belastok] the capital of the Podlasie Voivodship (North East Poland) at approx. 180km from Warsaw. The language is mostly spoken by students and Belorussian academics, often in the context of religious or folk celebrations.
In Soviet times, Belorussian was almost completely replaced by the Russian language. In Belarus much of the population speaks a language that is mixed with Russian (which is deprecatingly called Trasjanka [fodder]) although Belorussian is the official language. Even in Poland it is hard to speak in terms of a Belorussian standard language as many inhabitants in rural areas speak Belorussian, Ukrainian or Polish dialects or mixed forms. Interference between the languages is extremely common and has generated special toponymical forms.
The ancestors of the Belorussians in Poland settled in this region since the 14th century. Most Belorussians still live in Białystok or its surroundings. The city was founded in the 14th century and since 1665 was ruled by the Branicki family. In 1749 it obtained the status of a town and 1795 Białystok came under Prussian and in 1807 under Russian reign. After World War I it was assigned to Poland and at the beginning of World War II, as a result of the Hitler-Stalin pact, to the Soviet Union. In 1941 it was occupied by the German Wehrmacht and became part of East Prussia. In 1944/45 the Red Army re-conquered it and it now belongs to Poland.
In this region, the Belorussian and Polish dialects influence each other considerably. This entails a very complex dialectal situation in East Poland (Smułkowa, Elzbeieta 1997).
Because the Polish authorities acknowledge the Belorussians as a national minority, article 35 of the Constitution as well as the respective decrees of the Ministry of Education and Sports also apply to them (see country report ). The Belorussian minority is represented in local councils, especially in the Podlasie region. In addition, three members of parliament are of Belorussian nationality.
The use of Belorussian at school is based on the 2002 decree of the Minister for National Education and Sports (see country report ). While the number of schools for other minorities in Poland has increased, there are fewer and fewer schools for Belorussians. In the school year 2002/2003 there were 24 primary schools, 12 grammar schools and four secondary schools where Belorussian was taught. Recently, a faculty for Belorussian was established at Białystok University.
People who do not speak Polish are allowed to call a Belorussian-speaking interpreter (see country report ).
Since the Polish language is the only official language according to article 27 of the Constitution, the use of a language other than Polish is not allowed (see country report ).
There are no daily newspapers in Belorussian. The following periodicals are published in Belorussian on a weekly or monthly basis: Niwa, Czasopis, since 1998 Epoch, Haradockija Nawiny, since 2000 Prawincyja, Termapiły, Annus Albaruthenicus and Bielski Hościnieć. The public Radio Białystok broadcasts two weekly programmes for the Belorussian minority in Poland: Pod znakami Pahoni and Pażadalnaja pieśnia. In Białystok, the programme About us [O nas] is produced: it features information on the minorities of the Podlasie region with 10 minutes of information on Belorussian. This TV station also broadcasts the programme Neighbours [Sąsiedzi] once a month, which deals with issues of the Belorussian minority in Poland.
In 2002 three books were officially published in Belorussian and in 2003 one book was published. Belorussian is often used in traditional music rather than rock or pop music. Since 1996 the student theatre group Lublin-Warszawa performs a play in Belorussian once or twice a year. There are the following cultural events: the Belorussian youth music festival Basowischtscha which aims at bringing together Polish and Belorussian adolescents and is organised by the Belorussian students organisation; the festival Belorussian Song in Białystok, the Festival of the Belorussian Culture in Białystok [Festiwal Kultury Białoruskiej]; the Polish and Belorussian literature workshops Biazmieschscha; the poetry and prose competition Debiut and Kupalle – Holiday in Białowieża.
According to article 27 of the Constitution, Belorussian, just as any other minority language, is of no importance in the business world as official language. The use of Russian is dominating over that of Belorussian in the Republic of Belarus. The importance of Belorussian for cross-border business is thus only slowly increasing and is especially based on the strong national feeling of the Belorussians in Poland. One of the most vigorously developing sectors of Białystok's economy is trade and services. This sector makes up about 24% of all employment in Białystok (about 30,000 people). The importance of services, in a broader sense, is increasing; they include the so-called business environments, especially financial agencies, real estate and business services, hotels and restaurants, as well as transport and communication. The local trade infrastructure comprises numerous trade chains, such as PSS Społem, Przemysł Mięsny Białystok, Jeronimo Martins Dystrybucja Biedronka, Marcpol, or Massa; shopping centres such as Auchan, Aneks, Omnidom, Leroy Merlin or Makro; companies specialising in trade with eastern markets; Giełda Rolno-Towarowa S.A. and the biggest market in north-eastern Poland Kawaleryjska. The city's location strengthens its role as a centre of exchange between the East and West and thus has a positive influence on the development of trade.
In the 2002 census 40,650 persons declared Belorussian as their home language, 8,000 less than those also declaring Belorussian nationality. However, Belorussian organisations and experts estimate the number of Belorussian-speakers at up to 300,000 (see 1.2.2). Most Belorussians in Poland are bilingual Belorussian-Polish or Belorussian-Russian.
The majority of Belorussians in Poland belong to the Polish Autocephalous Orthodox Church which has approx. 550,000 members. Services are mostly held in Belorussian. A small minority belongs to the Belorussian Catholic Church which has its origins, along with the Ukrainian Catholic Church, in the Union of Brest-Litovsk from 1595/96. This religious split is one of the reasons why Belorussians in Poland identify themselves more with their nationality than the Belorussians in Belarus: the membership in the Orthodox Church distinguishes them from the Poles and is a statement of strong local roots in the region.
The oldest Belorussian organisation – the Socio-cultural Society – was founded in 1956 and from 1988 to 1993 it was the only Belorussian organisation for cultural issues of the Belorussians in Poland. In 1993 the Belorussian Union was founded: it serves as an umbrella organisation for other organisations: the Belorussian Literary Association Bialowieza or the Belorussian Students’ Organisation [Białoruskie Zrzeszenie Studentów].
The biggest problem for the Belorussian minority is the rapid assimilation process that has happened over the past few years. It is mainly due to a lack of a national consciousness on the part of the Belorussians – also in Belarus – which impedes a lasting unification as a minority group. Moreover, the dynamic movements resulting in the 1981 students’ movement lose their political impetus. The situation of the Belorussian language is extremely precarious since even in Belarus – where it is the official language – Belorussian is about to disappear. The current situation is similar to that of Soviet times so a total dissolution of Belorussian in Russian is almost unavoidable now. It will probably subsist as a mixed dialect with low prestige. Furthermore, Belorussian is threatened by a language variety spoken in the South of Belarus – the so-called Western Polessian – which some people wish to establish as a separate standard.