Lithuania is not the only country in the world that has adopted ‘White Russia’ as the official name for Belarus. What legacy does the name carry, and what would changing the name mean for Belarusians?
“We cannot call Alexander Lukashenko a legitimate [president], because the elections in Belarus were neither free nor democratic,” Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda told Sky News in an interview just five days after the presidential elections in the neighbouring country.
Soon after, Lithuanian media started referring to Lukashenko only as an “illegitimate president”, while Ukraine said it would only mention him by name.
Minsk did not miss the symbolic gesture – in October when propaganda specialists sent by the Kremlin were already working in the Belarusian state media – Belarusian television labelled Lithuania as well as other neighbouring countries as “former Soviet republics”.
Now, the Belarusian opposition is asking Lithuania to call their state differently and get rid of the term inherited from the Soviet era, which portrays Belarusians as a nation historically close to Russia.
Belarus or Gudija?
In Lithuania, Belarus is officially called “Belarussia” (Baltarusija). The Belarusian opposition is asking to change it to “Belarus”, a name widely used in Europe and the rest of the world.
This move would express respect for the sovereignty of Belarus and support the linguistic and cultural identity of the Belarusian nation, Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said in a letter to the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry.
The name “Belarussia” was used in the Russian Empire in an attempt to divide Belarusians from Poles and Lithuanians, according to historian and associate professor at at Vytautas Magnus University, Rūstis Kamuntavičius.
The present-day Poland, Lithuania and Belarus were part of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth until the country ceased to exist in 1795. Territories of Belarus and Lithuania fell under the rule of the Russian Empire.
Read more: Zhyve Belarus from Minsk to Vilnius – where does the slogan come from?
In an effort to portray Belarus identity as part of historical Russia, the Soviet Union also adopted Belarussia as the official name of Belarus in Lithuania.
“When the Soviet Union collapsed, Belarusians immediately changed the name of the country from Belarussia to the Republic of Belarus. [...] They put a lot of effort to make sure that the international community would call the country Belarus,” said Kamuntavičius.
“The term Belarusian, from Leucorussus in Greek, was first used in 1585 by the writer of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Solomon Risinski, when he was enrolling at the University of Altdorf. [...] Only in the 17th century the variations of terms related to Belarus began to increase,” Rimvydas Petrauskas, rector of Vilnius University, wrote in an op-ed for LRT last year.
In 2009, Belarus officials considered submitting a request to Lithuanian officials to change how the country refer to its neighbour, but it was never done.
Later, there were no such initiatives, as relations between Minsk and Vilnius soured, and Lithuania showed little interest in the neighbouring country until the protests erupted in 2020.
After receiving the letter from Tikhanovskaya, Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis requested the Lithuanian Language Commission to evaluate the request to change the name of Belarus.
However, the commission was not receptive to the request.
“It’s possible that after this bandit Lukashenko falls, Belarus will ask us to change its name, just as Sakartvel did,” Audrys Antanaitis, head of the commission, told BNS.
Lithuania approved Sakartvelo as an official name for Georgia in 2018. Georgian politicians and diplomats asked Lithuanian officials to change the name, saying that "Gruzija" reflected the Russian name for the nation.
In the Lithuanian atlases published during the interwar period, the eastern neighbour outside the Vilnius region was called “Gudija”. This term is still allowed in Lithuanian language and, according to Kamuntavičius, it was already used in the first Lithuanian language dictionary compiled by Konstantinas Sirvydas and printed in 1629.
The term “Gudian” described people living east from Vilnius and sometimes had negative or offensive meanings. “Is that how we really want to call the people we show solidarity with?” asked Petrauskas.
On the other hand, the term can also be related to words like “skilled”, he said. “I see it as a plus. Like any term with a long history it is not unambiguous – it has many different shades.”
'The only ones who want to be Lithuanian'
The current Belarus flag and the national emblem are almost identical to the ones used in the Soviet Union.
However, Lukashenko previously supported attempts to change the country's name.
“To emphasise the separation from Russia was important for him. Both opposition and regime want to keep this name,” said Kamuntavičius.
When protests against the Lukashenko regime started last August, its symbol became the historic white and red flag with the local variation of Vytis – the coat of arms of Lithuania.
This flag is banned in Belarus and even people who use red and white scarves as the decorations or hang towels in their balconies displaying the same colours are punishedb y the regime.
“It is a very strong anti-Russian, anti-Moscow symbol,” said Kamuntavičius. According to him, the origins of the flag arerelated to the legend about Prince and Hetman – Konstanty Ostrogski who was injured during the battle of Orsha in 1514 against Moscow and his head was covered with a white cloth, which remained marked with his blood.
In the Battle of Orsha, allied forces of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland, commanded by Konstanty Ostrogski, beat the army of the Grand Duchy of Moscow.
However, during the Second World War, the red and white flag was used by pro-Hitler Belarusian collaborators, so Lukashenko, who built up the myth of the Great Patriotic War against Nazism and Fascism, sees this opposition flag as going against the national narrative.
For many patriotic Belarusians, the historical period of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania is seen as the foundation stone for the Belarusian nation.
Even Lukashenko supports the version of history where the Lithuanian Grand Duchy is partly Belarusian and partly Lithuanian, which he uses to counterbalance Russia’s cultural and political influence.
“Belarusian [people] are probably the only nation in the world that want to be Lithuanians,” said Kamuntavičius. According to him, Lithuania is pushing its eastern neighbour toward Russia by not sharing the historical heritage of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy.
“If we will give up Belarus completely, the Russian border will be next to Vilnius,” said Kamuntavičius. “If we share [the historical heritage], saying that we have worked together, created a nation, culture, civilisation [...], then we also have a friend, a buffer, and greater geopolitical security.”