23 years on: Referendum that took national symbols from Belarusians

The first referendum in the history of sovereign Belarus took place on May 14, 1995. Unfortunately, it is rather a sad anniversary.

On 19 September 1991, the historical white-red-white flag and the emblem Pahonya (Pursuit) were officially recognized as the state symbols of Belarus. This decision was taken by the Supreme Council of the BSSR of the 12th convocation after the Soviet collapse. Parliamentarians then adopted a resolution to change the name of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic into the Republic of Belarus.

The earliest Pahonya of which we have knowledge is represented on the seal of Prince Alexander Nevsky (13th century) who was married to the daughter of the Prince of Polatsk. According to some historians, Pahonya was originally the emblem of the Polatsk State.

Pahonya and the white-red-white flag were symbols of the Belarusian National Republic (BNR). On March 25, 1918 the Provisional government (Rada) proclaimed the independence of the BNR that came into existence at the end of the First World War, when Bolshevik forces left Minsk and the city was occupied by German troops. After the Red Army re-entered Minsk, the Communist government replaced the Rada; its members had to emigrate. Opposition activists and civil society actors celebrate the anniversary of the proclamation of the BNR every year.

Historical Belarusian symbols were official until the 1995 referendum, when on the tip from Alyaksandr Lukashenka they were replaced by the Soviet ones, an emblem that bears a close resemblance to that of the BSSR and a red and green flag which was introduced in Stalin’s time.

It should be noted that 18 deputies who opposed the referendum went on a hunger strike. On the night of 11 to 12 April 1995, the riot police and security forces of Lukashenka forcefully removed the deputies from the building.

At the initiative of Alyaksandr Lukashenka, four questions were put to the popular vote concerning state symbols, language, integration with Russia and the president’s right to dissolve the parliament (the Supreme Council).

According to the CEC of Belarus, 83.3% voted in favour of giving the Russian language an equal status with the Belarusian language, and 83.3% voted in favor of the new flag and coat of arms – those reminiscent of Soviet symbolism, 83.1% said ‘yes’ to “the actions of the President of the Republic of Belarus aimed at economic integration with the Russian Federation,” and 77.7% voted in favor of the Lukashenka’s right to dissolve the parliament.

Two days after the referendum, the white-red-white flag was torn to pieces on the roof of the presidential administration, and Pahonya was removed from the Government House.

The white-red-white flag has been often associated with the opposition to the regime of Alyaksandr Lukashenka. It is not officially banned from public usage, but is treated by the authorities as an unregistered symbol which means that demonstration of it by political activists or sports fans may result in arrests and confiscation of the flags.