Belarus Censuses: Population Declines, National Identity Strengthens

By Vadzim Smok

Population censuses in Belarus conducted in 1989, 1999 and 2009 reveal a number of interesting trends.

They show that the population declines, the proportion of those who identifies themselves as Belarusians increases and the role of Belarusian language weakens. The period of Lukashenka rule coincided with the sharpest decline of population since the collapse of the USSR.

The other important development is that the use of Belarusian language  reduced dramatically, leading to formation of Russian-speaking Belarusian nation. It is remarkable that the largest share of Belarusian-speakers is among those who identify themselves as Poles.  

General Trend: Depopulation

Belarus, along with many other European countries, faces a problem of depopulation. The government seems to be aware of that, as they included statements on demographic security and policy in such important national documents as Programmes of Social and Economic Development and Concept of National Security. However, the data from the censuses shows that the policies towards tackling demographic problems have been inconsistent and ineffective.

Total number of population decreased by 650,000 in 1989-2009. The main reason is natural ageing, observed in most European countries. Another major reason for depopulation is emigration - economic, and to a lesser extent, political. 

While in the first decade (which was a stormy transitional period) the population decreased by 100,000, in the second decade, marked by consolidation of authoritarian regime, the rates of population decline went up - to more than 500,000 over 1999 - 2009.

Of course, it would be wrong to assume that only changes in the political regime caused it. Rather, complex factors are involved. The obvious thing, however, is that population of Belarus still decreases, indicating the fail of demographic policy of Belarusian authorities.

Urbanisation: Soviet Legacy and Over-Centralization

The process of urbanisation continued throughout the period. The number of urban population reached 74% in 2009. 

Interestingly, population of regional (voblasc) centers of Eastern Belarus increased only slightly or even decreased (as in Homel), while western cities, Hrodna and Brest, grew considerably (+ 50,000 each).

This is probably due to the fact that Eastern Belarus was incorporated into USSR twenty years earlier than its Western part. Hence, hereSsoviet industrialization, accompanied by urbanisation, was implemented earlier, while Western Belarus retained a considerable number of rural population. 

Minsk, the capital, remains the most populated and fastest growing city of Belarus. As the main economic and educational center, it attracts young people from all over the country. In terms of numbers, Minsk grew by 230,000 in the last two decades.  A fifth of the whole population lives there now.  Such over-concentration of resources in the capital along with regional decline poses serious problems, which any government regardless its political regime will have to face in future.

Migration: Low Immigration and Hidden Trends in Emigration

Unlike in western countries, in Belarus the decreasing native population is not replaced by inflow of immigrants.

According to official statistics, only 39,000 immigrants came to Belarus in 2005-2009, which is not sufficient to balance the native population decline. Most of the immigrants to Belarus originate from former soviet CIS countries (32,000) – predominantly from Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. The share of non-CIS citizens is insignificant and the biggest groups include Chinese, Lithuanians and Latvians.

According to official data, in 2005-2009 around 30,000 Belarusians left their homeland, but independent experts often dispute this figures. The official methodology does not include some important categories of migrants, such as labour migrants to Russia. Today this is perhaps the biggest Belarusian migration group, the data on which is not officially published.

Identity: Belarusianisation without Belarusian Language

Belarus remains a relatively monoethnic nation-state.

Notably, the number of people who consider themselves Belarusians increased from 80% to 84% over the last twenty years. Among the national minorities the largest are Russians, Poles, and Ukrainians.

Traditionally, Russian minority resides in central and northern parts of Belarus and big cities, while Polish minority makes a considerable part of western voblasc of Hrodna, and Ukrainians settle more densely in the southern Brest and Homel regions near Ukrainian border.  

As the diagram shows, the size of each of minority group (especially Russians) decreased since 1989. This trend apparently shows that minorities assimilate and change their identities along with the development of Belarusian independent state. On the other hand, this may be a result of growing national consciousness among Belarusians, who identified with the other nation previously.

However, this growing national consciousness is not based on language and culture of the dominating ethnic group, as was usually the case with modern nation-states.

Here, a rather different picture is observed: over the period, significance of Belarusian language declines. While in 1990s, before Lukashenka regime was set, national Renaissance policy improved the positions of Belarusian language, stabilisation of the regime brought the decay of the Belarusian language.

Speaking this language was attributed with opposition to Lukashenka's pro-Russian regime. As a result, its speakers were implicitly or explicitly excluded from politics and public space in general.  This is clear from the diagram below.

The same concerns such indicator as use of Belarusian language in the families, which shows actual viability of the language. Here, the decline is even more dramatic:

Belarusian Poles are an interesting phenomenon when it comes to Belarusian language.  They are the biggest national group in relation to the total number of a group, who speak Belarusian at home. Out of 295,000 poles, 120,000, or 40%, speak Belarusian at home, while the share of Belarusians speaking Belarusian at home reaches only 26%.

The term “Pole” in Belarus has a rather confusing and ambiguous meaning, as many consider Belarusian Poles as Belarusians of Roman Catholic tradition, who historically were under a strong influence of Poland. This group, though referring to the polish tradition, evidently is a community that strongly preserves the features of Belarusian culture.

In Minsk, the number of people who indicated Belarusian as their native language decreased almost two times within the last decade (1999-2000). In general, only a little more than 10% of urban population of Belarus speaks Belarusian at home, and for the lagerst cities this number is much smaller. 

Thus, Belarusian remains a language of disappearing rural population, and its future in urban centres does no look optimistic. Language policy of Lukashenka led to formation of a particular type of modern Belarusian identity, urban Russian-speaking population considering itself an independent community.

Belarus Digest