Recent IISEPS Polls: Belarusian Society Slowly Matures

Aleh Manaeu, the head of IISEPS

In early January 2014 the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS) published its December 2013 poll results for various domains of public opinion.

Though some people, including opposition politicians and activists, doubt this institute's ability to handle a proper social survey in an unfree society, most Belarusian experts and analysts trust their data.

The results of the latest poll suggest that Belarusians show certain signs of a gradual "maturing" as a society.

In the economic realm respondents tend to be pessimists, blame the government and the country's ruler for its failures and show high demand for market reforms. When speaking of foreign policy, more and more people prefer the EU to Russia and support the authorities when they clash with their eastern neighbour.

At the same time, the support rate of Alexander Lukashenka have fallen, but the opposition did not manage to gain any points from it.

Economic Pessimism and Blaming Lukashenka for Crisis

The IISEPS poll indicated a further deepening of people’s pessimism with the state of the economy and the prospects of their own welfare. Almost 69% of the respondents agreed that the Belarusian economy is going through a crisis. The numbers have worsened since the previous IISEPS survey, which was conducted in September 2013 (57% that time).

A considerable 12% pessimistic shift in the numbers can be explained by salary growth freezing at the end of the year, the authorities’ plan to cut budget spending, several rather doubtful governmental fiscal initiatives that were recently announced (like auto-owners tax, $100 exit-fee and "sponger-tax"), a gradual devaluation of the national currency etc.

The number of people awaiting the situation to worsen further has become nearly three times higher than the number of economic optimists (36% vs. 12.5%).

When asked who is responsible for the crisis and whom they rely on to resolve it, Belarusians came up with the following responses.

Whose fault is the current
crisis in Belarus?
Rank Subject %
1 President 45
2 Government 42
3 Parliament 19.6
4 People 16.3
5 The USA 15.5
On whom do you rely in overcoming the crisis?
Rank Subject %
1 President 36.8
2 Russia 27.8
3 Entrepreneurs 25.7
4 West 22.7
5 Government 21.3

 

Blaming the head of state and government for the crisis represents the majority’s immunity to the state propaganda, however, combined with a certain amount of paternalism – they maintain hope that Lukashenka and foreign countries will play a key role in overcoming the crisis.

Of all the results of the survey, what appears to be most surprising in a generally paternalistic Belarusian society is the number of market reforms supporters has reached 60% (46% among those who trust Lukashenka). These figures, meanwhile, can deceive because the history of market transitions in other post-soviet states shows that the reforms’ support falls after people feel the first painful consequences which inevitably accompany any economic liberalisation policy.

All in all, the ongoing failures of the Belarusian "socially-orientated" economy has people disappointed with the government and has them beginning to recognise the need for changes and market reforms in particular.

Pro-Russian Moods Gradually Fade Away

The poll also confirmed another trend continuing: more people prefer EU to Russia if asked about with whom it would be better to integrate. 45% have chosen EU, while only 37% - Russia.

What would you prefer: Uniting with Russia or entering the EU?

 

At the same time, 45% agreed that Belarus should change its policy to become closer with the EU, with only 22% disagreeing with this position.

One further result that can be derived from this issue seems quite surprising: 39% claimed they do want to see more Russians coming to live in Belarus (only 24% held the opposite view and 33% held no position one way or the other). Analysing this data, one must take into account that Belarusians are generally known as a tolerant nation, most of them speak Russian. Moreover, full freedom of movement became one of the most notable, if not the only achievement of so-called Union State of Belarus and Russia.

Belarusian authorities enjoy rather high approval rate with regards to their stance in the latest conflict with Russia (known as the "potash war"). Only 13.6% blamed Belarus for starting the conflict and only 25% disapproved of the arrest of the Russian potash giant "Uralkali" CEO Vladislau Baumgartner.

As the years go by, the number of pro-European Belarusians gradually increases, while the number of pro-Russian ones continues to decline. This remains true despite all the anti-Western propaganda in the state media, the officially announced course towards Eurasian integration and the vast annual economic benefits being reaped in from Russia. So, one could only guess what the situation will be given these factors cease to exist in the future. 

Opposition Cannot Catch the Points Lukashenka Loses

The decline in support and trust in the Belarusian ruler was another unexpected result of the December poll. Both figures have shown relatively stable growth for the last two years (after the 2011 economic crisis).

Do you trust current president?

What concerns the electoral support rate, less than 35% of Belarusians would have voted for Lukashenka in December 2013 (after 37,3% in June and 42,6% in September). The primary reason for this decline is, naturally, the government's economic failures. As was demonstrated in the first paragraph – people tend to blame the country's leader for the crisis.

The swift increase in the figures from September occurred right after a particuralry active phase of the above mentioned potash war. Insofar as public opinion was generally positive with the Belarusian government's actions in this conflict, Lukashenka, praised by state TV as a fighter for sovereignty and national dignity against insidious Russian oligarchs, gained some points. With three months having already passed, the "nation's defender" image has faded.

All of Lukashenka's problems with public support contribute little to the opposition's own popularity. Support rates for opposition leaders do not go any higher than 3% except for two ex-candidates for the presidency: the head of civil campaign "European Belarus" Andrei Sannikau (3.2%) and a poet Uladzimir Niakliaeu, leader of "Tell the truth" campaign (7.1%). 

Aleh Manaeu, the head of IISEPS, in one of his latest interviews explained Niakliaeu’s relative success by the "Tell the truth" strategy to concentrate their activity on pertinent social issues. Many other opposition structures choose to promote a purely political and human rights agenda, which remains unpopular among most of Belarusians. 

Thus, even the aggregate rate of all the opposition leaders remains far behind Lukashenka’s own declining figures. Moreover, trust in the opposition parties in general (16%) appeared to be lower that the level of trust to KGB (34%), courts (35%), police (35%), the Central Election Committee (32%) and even to the utterly passive pro-government political parties (20%).

As always, the IISEPS poll reveals a wide range of public opinion trends, which seem difficult to summarise in a single unified conclusion. In general, Belarusians, against all the existing odds, show signs of slow maturing as a society: appreciating their sovereignty more, detecting the government's fault in the economic crisis, striving more for European integration and market reforms.

Unfortunately for the opposition, its leaders fail to be in tune with people, often proposing them an agenda too divorced from their actual needs and ideals.

Artyom Shraibman is a political correspondent and editor working for a major Belarusian informational portal TUT.BY in Minsk.

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