Inter-ethnic relations are not a serious problem in Belarus. Most Belarusians do not see the main ethnic minority, the Russians, as culturally alien or a threat to national identity.
There is, however, governmental and societal discrimination against Belarus’ Polish and Roma minorities. Authorities have harassed the Warsaw-sponsored Union of Poles in Belarus, including detention of its leaders. There is also a Belarus government-approved organization by the same name. The two organizations are the product of a split in 2005.
The relative status of the Belarusian and Russian languages is a sensitive issue. However, it is primarily a matter of dispute not between Belarusians and Russians, but rather between more and less Russified sections of the Belarusian population:
- Russified Belarusians, represented by the communists and the centrists, emphasize the fraternal links between Russians and Belarusians. They want Russian to be a state language.
- Non-Russified Belarusians, represented by the national democrats, stress the distinctiveness of Belarusian identity. They want Belarusian to remain the sole state language.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, center, and head of the Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Alexy II, left, attend a service in an old church in the Belarusian village of Lenino. 27 June 2001 (©AP/Wide World Photo/Pool, Vasily Fedosenko)
There is potential for tension between Orthodox and Catholic Belarusians. Lukashenko has accused Catholic priests in areas near the Belarus-Poland border of promoting loyalty to Poland instead of Belarus.
There is also potential for tension between the state-backed Russian Orthodox Church and the developing Protestant communities. Belarus adopted a law in July 2002 banning organized prayer by religious communities of less than 20 people. It also prohibited religions that have been in Belarus for less than 20 years from publishing materials or setting up missions. A 2003 government concordat with the Belarusian Orthodox Church (BOC), a branch of the Russian Orthodox Church, granted the BOC privileged status.