It’s Belarus, not White Russia: Why rebranding a country starts with its name

A number of countries are beginning to realise that Belarus does not mean White Russia.

In several European language families, principally Germanic, Baltic and Uralic, Belarus is translated as White Russia.

For example, the Dutch word is Wit-Rusland, the German Weißrussland, while in Latvian it is Baltkrievija, Finnish Valko-Venäjä and Hungarian Fehéroroszország.

“The first aspect of the naming issue is historical,” Anton Vasiljeu, a Belarusian student at Warsaw University, tells Emerging Europe.

“The original name of the country in the Belarusian language is Беларусь, or Biełaruś if written in the Belarusian Latin alphabet,” he says.

“The part Bieła- indeed means ‘white’, while –ruś doesn’t stand for ‘Russia’.”

The more exact translation of Biełaruś would be ‘White Ruthenia’, says Vasiljeu.

“Belarus’s name refers to the East Slavic federation called Ruthenia, which existed during the Middle Ages, and not to the country called Russia, which appeared much later. Thus in terms of history it’s not correct to call Belarus ‘White Russia’,” he goes on.

Vasiljeu points out that in terms of branding, it’s not profitable for Belarus to be named after Russia.

“Russia has quite a controversial reputation. The FutureBrand Country Index 2020 put Russia in 31st place. In other words, it’s not a country you want to be associated with if you try to attract new businesses, skilled workers, students or new residents,” he says.

“What is even more important is that Russia’s image is something Belarus can’t control. In order to manage its image independently Belarus needs to be renamed, as having your own unique and distinctive name means gaining greater control over your image.”

White Russia no more

In March 2021 the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that it will officially use the word Belarus instead of Hviderusland.

The decision was made after Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the Belarusian opposition leader who lives in exile in Vilnius, Lithuania, visited Copenhagen to seek support for the Belarusian democracy movement.

Sweden had already made the change. In November 2019, Ann Linde, the country’s minister of foreign affairs, visited Minsk and tweeted” “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs will use the term Belarus instead of Vitryssland. We do this to recognise the will of Belarusian people, civil society and the diaspora to emphasise their national identity and sovereignty.”

Changes have affected the German language as well. In February 2021, the chancellor, Angela Merkel, posted a video called Solidarität mit den Frauen und Männern in Belarus (Solidarity with women and men in Belarus) in which she used terms the Belarus and belarussisch instead of Weißrussland and weißrussich.

Another country that has raised the issue of renaming Belarus is Lithuania. However, in January 2021 the State Commission on the Lithuanian Language decided not to change the name of its neighbour as long as the political crisis in Belarus continues.

“For such post-Soviet countries, which appeared on the world map just 30 years ago, creating a good image and building a strong identity is undoubtedly a great challenge – perhaps, the only former Soviet republic that has succeeded in doing so is Estonia,” says Vasiljeu.

In two rankings topped by Japan and Germany – FutureBrand Country Index and Anholt Ipsos Nation Brand Index – Belarus is not even present.

“Before the protests in Belarus began in 2020 few people could tell you about the country more than just its name,” Vasiljeu says.

“And that name is the most fundamental problem that the future leadership of the country and its possible brand managers will be confronted with.”

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