Belarus celebrated the Day of State Coat of Arms and State Flag on 12 May. Meanwhile, Belarusians are among very few nations, who have two flags competing for the right to be called a national symbol.
An official one is a red-and-green flag with a Belarusian ornament on the left side. Its corresponding coat of arms consists of green and red ribbon, a map of Belarus on the globe in sun rays, wheat ears, and a red star.
Another pair of symbols is a white-red-white flag and a coat of arms Pahonya (“pursuit” or “chase” in Belarusian – note BelarusFeed), which looks like the armed knight riding on a horse.
How come two flags?
Unlike our neighbors from Russia, Ukraine or Poland, Belarusians don’t have as strong a sense of national identity. People still argue what symbols better represent them as a nation.
The white-red-white flag was first used by a proclaimed Belarusian People’s Republic in 1918. The attempted state didn’t last – in less than a year, Bolshevik Russia swamped it.
The flag re-emerged in 1991 when Belarus was gaining independence and the Soviet Union was collapsing. Inspired by the Belarusian People’s Front movement, the parliament of Belarus made it an official flag.
The red-and-green flag is a refined flag of Soviet Belorussia (BSSR) dating back to 1951. It became a state symbol again after a referendum of 1995, initiated by the-then young president Alexander Lukashenko. Opposition still thinks that vote was unconstitutional and flawed.
Since then, two parts of Belarusian society view each of their favored flags as a national one. Those who see BSSR as underpinnings of national identity, treat red-and-green (RG) flag this way. Others claim that white-red-white flag (WRW) is a true national symbol.
Truly historic or tainted by the Nazis?
There is no clear story behind WRW origins. White and red colors were always traditional for Belarusians and made their way to the national ornament.
According to a popular legend, one wounded medieval warlord from what later became Belarus used a white piece of cloth soiled by his blood as a flag to gear up the troops against the enemy.
Other historians trace this symbol to the Battle of Orsha (1514), where the army of Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which included today’s Belarus, used red and white St. George’s cross.
In the early 20th century Belarusian soldiers in the Russian army start wearing WRW ribbons to recognize one another and group together.
In 1917, a Belarusian architect Klawdziy Duzh-Dushewski designs WRW flag as it is currently known.
An emerging Belarusian national movement then used the symbol to proclaim Belarusian People’s Republic in 1918. After its defeat the following year, the remnants of BPR continued to use WRW in exile.
During World War II, some nationalist organizations in Belarus, who cooperated with Nazi occupation forces, also used this symbol. Some Belarusians till today point to this regrettable fact to prove that WRW cannot be used as a national flag.
Their opponents believe that the misuse of the flag during the war does not deprive the symbol of its deeper historic meaning. They also point to the fact that Nazi allies in other occupied lands (including Russia, Ukraine, France, Belgium, Netherlands, etc.) used national symbols to win the locals’ support.
The story behind the red-green flag of Belarus
After Belarus became communist, it got the standard red flag and hammer and sickle coat of arms just like all the other Soviet republics.
However, after World War II, USSR leadership needed two of its parts – Ukraine and Belarus – to have distinctive flags. These two republics, together with USSR, were UN members, and Moscow wanted to demonstrate they more than just its puppets.
In 1951 the red-and-green flag with a traditional Belarusian ornament and hammer and sickle in the corner became an official symbol of BSSR. This was the case until 1991.
Then, after a brief period of nation-building under WRW flag, president Lukashenko initiated a return to a slightly modified BSSR symbol (without hammer and sickle this time).
Belarusian president himself embodied the widespread Soviet nostalgia of a poor country hit by USSR collapse. Lukashenko’s proposal got a decisive 75% support during the 1995 referendum.
How the government treats WRW
Despite not using Pahonya – the coat of arms that went in pair with WRW flag during 90’s – the Belarusian authorities officially recognize its cultural importance.
Pahonya was the official coat of arms of Great Duchy of Lithuania in the Middle Ages and it remains a symbol of many Belarusian towns till this day.
However, the treatment of WRW is different. After the opposition started to use this flag for protests, it became a hostile anti-governmental symbol.
Authorities allow to use it during permitted oppositional rallies. Also, wearing WRW-coloured T-shirt or having a small flag inside a private car will hardly cause much trouble.
Except those, any other public display of WRW is considered an unauthorized demonstration followed by arrest or a fine.
Football fans get removed from stadiums and fined for waving a white-red-white flag. When a person leaves the permitted rally venue, the police ask them to hide it inside the bag.
Opposition groups have been long petitioning to get WRW officially recognized as the flag of Belarus and legalized, but the government’s position remains rock solid. It looks like Belarusians will live under two flags for many years to come…