New Poll: Belarusians Became More Pro-European

photo: nv-online.info

At the end of October the Office for Democratic Belarus (ODB) published the results of a public opinion poll entitled “Belarus and Eastern Partnership: National and European Values”. It shows that the attitude of Belarusians toward EU year by year is becoming more positive.

Contradicting a similar poll the same survey team conducted in December 2008knowledge about EU structures and policies increased markedly among Belarusians. Despite anti-EU state propaganda on official TV, positive public perceptions of the EU has increased from 40% in 2008 to 55% in 2013. 

The representative sample of 1,000 respondents was multi-staged, stratified, and entailed a random selection from the population aged 18+ (urban and rural) by nationality, sex, region, age and education. The Office for a Democratic Belarus (ODB) commissioned the survey. The Centre for Political Research at the Belarus State University carried out the field work. 

The survey reflects the difference in values that Belarusians associate with the EU and their country. They associate EU with a ‘liberal democracy model’, while perceive Belarus as adhering to a ‘socialist democracy model’.

Belarusians do not see the EU as a strategic partner of Belarus, rather the Eurasian Customs Union (ECU) occupies this place.  The ECU’s characteristics are similar to those associated with Belarus, and appear as a more natural association for Belarusians.  A majority of respondents (84%) believes that Belarus share common values with ECU and see the ECU as more relevant in addressing the country's immediate economic and energy security concerns.

Positive dynamics in EU perception

When compared to 2008, the level of awareness about the EU increased markedly. Despite the “cold war” between Belarus and EU, positive public perceptions of the EU has increased from 40% in 2008 to 55% in 2013. Furthermore for the first time, the respondents substantiate the EU’s reasons to engage with Belarus as identity-based (‘We are a part of Europe’) rather than the result of a geographic strategy.

Considering very limited presence of EU institutions in Belarus, and very small number of opportunities to inform Belarusians about European initiatives towards Belarus in media, the results of the poll looks more than surprising.

Commenting on the results of the research on tut.by-TV talk-show “Amplituda” principal researcher, professor Elena Korosteleva, emphasized the importance to consider the survey in the context of previous studies. In comparison to 2008, the geopolitical preferences of Belarusians have changed. According to the researcher the pro-Russian orientation no loner looks baldly obvious while pro-European orientation increased.

It also proves a level of awareness on the Eastern Partnership issue. More than one third of Belarusians (39%) are familiar with the Eastern Partnership initiative - two times more than in 2008 and represents a very high mark for Belarus.

Moreover, the number of people apprising Eastern Partnership as based on common interests and mutual confidence increased by 10%. That confirms the tendency visible from the poll that year-by-year an increasing number of Belarusians are thinking that their interests coincide with the interests of the EU.

Several reasons may explain why the attitude of Belarusians toward EU has improved. First, the attitude toward EU seems to correlate with the level of mobility of Belarusians.  According to the survey Belarusian citizens more often visit EU countries. The number of respondents who traveled abroad perhaps twice in their life increased by 5% while the number of respondents who have never travelled abroad decreased by 20%.    

The interest toward EU increases when the economic situation in Belarus becomes worse and society feels the need for the reform   

Second, the economic crisis influenced perceptions of the EU. According to Alena Artsiomenka from the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, recent surveys show that the interest toward EU increases when the economic situation in Belarus becomes worse and society feels the need for the reform.    

European Union versus Eurasian Customs Union

The research shows that for Belarusians the European Union symbolises the liberal values of a market economy (48%), democracy (43%), economic prosperity (41%), human rights (31%), and freedoms/self-realisation (27%). Conversely, people associate Belarus with peace and stability (50%), respect for cultures (34%), tolerance (33%), security (32%), and respect for religions (28%).

Discrepancies in values seems to be evident. The EU firmly comes with associations of a ‘liberal democracy model’, while Belarus is perceived as adhering to a ‘socialist democracy model’.

The ECU’s characteristics seem similar to those associated with Belarus. 84% of respondents believe that Belarus share common values with ECU. Therefore, Belarusians find it more natural to associate with it.

The researchers believe that normative underpinnings of public behaviour remain firmly rooted in cultural traditions and the historical legacies of the past.

But, commenting the results of the survey Director of the Centre for European transformation Andrei Yagorau claimed that Belarusians are very realistically assessing the EU and clearly understand the possibilities of European countries. 

On the other hand the attitude toward the ECU appears less pragmatic and people do not really understand this new formation. Associating with ECU such values as peace and stability, people are simply reacting to official rhetoric and propaganda. State media portrays the ECU as a defensive union which protects the traditional values of Belarusian society.

Drifting towards Europe

The survey showed that Belarusians' reflections became more cautious and critical in comparison to 2008. Belarusians view Russia as an important actor for the nation's energy security as well as trade. The European Union appears stronger in promoting effective governance and specific sector cooperation. In the long run, the increasingly positive perception of the European Union has become obvious with the eastern geopolitical orientation playing a less prominent role. 

Vadzim Bylina is a researcher at the Institute of Political Studies 'Political Sphere' based in Minsk and Vilnius.

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