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Here’s why are protesters in Belarus are flying a white-and-red flag

Source: Meduza
Nataliya Fedosenko / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Where does the white-and-red flag come from? 

A white flag with a red stripe down the middle was the official flag of Belarus for several years, historically speaking. At the turn of the 19th–20th century, a cloth with this pattern was used among the first Belarusian nationalist circles and associations. The flag’s designer is believed to be architect and engineer Klawdziy Duzh-Dushewski (1891–1959), although this has never been a completely established fact. Some modern researchers claim that this pattern can be found on the banners that troops of Belarusian origin fought under at the time of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (which dates back to the 13th century) and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1569–1795). 

In 1917, Russia’s February Revolution gave a powerful impetus to the Belarusian national movement, the first legal congresses of its organizations were held under this flag. In some photographs, there are two dark stripes (supposedly either dark red or black) on either side of the red center stripe, instead of white ones (the photographs themselves are in black and white, so they can’t be used to establish the flag’s exact colors). 

The Belarusian People’s Republic (BNR) was declared in March 1918, and the white-red-white tricolor became its national flag. The republic lasted for just a few months and most of its territory was occupied by the Germans (World War I was still ongoing at the time). Nevertheless, the flag finally took root as a national symbol. During the Soviet period, the official flag of the Byelorussian SSR was initially a plain red one, but it ended up as a red-and-green one with a decorative pattern on the left side and a golden hammer and sickle. Meanwhile, the white-red-white flag remained in use among émigré organizations.

After the collapse of the USSR, independent Belarus adopted the white-and-red tricolor once again. However, during a referendum in 1995, the majority of Belarusian citizens voted for the restoration of the Soviet era red over green bicolor, without the hammer and sickle (in addition to some other minor changes).

Why does the opposition use this flag?

The 1995 referendum was an important step towards consolidating Alexander Lukashenko’s (Alyaksandr Lukashenka) power; he had been elected president the year before, and has been in this office ever since. In addition to tackling the issue of the flag and giving Russian the status of a second official language, citizens also voted in favor of granting the president the right to dissolve parliament and set a course towards integration with Russia. In those days, Lukashenko actively exploited nostalgia for the Soviet era, and considered Belarusian nationalism to be the main threat to his personal power. The country held another referendum just a year later, as a result of which Belarus effectively became a super-presidential republic (Western countries didn’t recognize the results of the vote). 

The Belarusian opposition actively uses the white-red-white flag to this very day. At first, it was only used by patriotic nationalists, but it eventually became a symbol for anyone actively opposing Lukashenko. After the contested 2020 presidential elections, the Belarusian opposition appears to have gained the most popularity it has seen in all 26 years of Lukashenko’s presidency, so it’s no surprise that the tricolor has reemerged as a protest symbol. Interestingly enough, in contrast to the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine and the 2010 protests in Belarus, for example, EU flags have been noticeably absent during the demonstrations.

Text by Dmitry Kartsev

Translation by Eilish Hart

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