Should the Belarusian Opposition Turn to the "New Majority"?

Juriy Zisser and Natalya Radina

On 15 February 2013, Juriy Zisser, founder of the most popular Belarusian website TUT.by, and Natalya Radina, the chief-editor of popular oppositional website Charter97.org, publicly quarrelled in Vienna. This incident revealed a much deeper split in Belarusian society than many in the West think.

A substantial part of the population appears to be equally averse to both the ruling regime and to the radical opposition. But Lukashenka's opponents show little capacity to attract these people.

New Political Borderlines

The conflict occurred on 15 February 2013 during the OSCE Conference on Internet freedom in Vienna. The delegates from Belarus included Natalya Radina (from the opposition media), Juriy Zisser (from civil society) and Vladimir Ryabovolov (from the Presidential Administration).

Everybody was waiting for a huge wrangle between the governmental envoy and other participants, but really the combatants turned out to be the non-government delegates. They burst out into allegations of corruption and threats of imprisonment against each other.

Another conflict of this kind had been stirred up on the Belarusian internet just two days before. The founder of another top-rated independent Belarusian website called Onliner.by, Denis Blishch, in his twitter feed rudely insulted all the radical oppositional activists who are sometimes deprecatingly called "zmahary" (Bel. – "fighters”).

It was a reaction to a story told by one of such activists, Dmitry Galko, in his blog about Blishch refusing him a journalist job because of his political activity. The website owner insisted that he is outside of politics and that true journalists must also be above political disputes.

These conflicts reflect much deeper divisions in Belarusian society. Both founders of the two popular websites – Blishch and Zisser – are famous entrepreneurs, who made their start-ups super-profitable. They are the representatives of the modern IT-elite, well-educated and critical of the Belarusian government.

At the same time, these successful and independent businessmen not only refuse to associate themselves with the political opposition, but instead actively criticise and even resist it.

Moderates and Radicals

This relative divide between "moderates" and "radicals" also exists in other separate spheres of social life: among NGOs and journalists.

Around 50 Belarusian NGOs, gathered under the aegis of Civil Forum of the EU Eastern Partnership, have recently united in an association called The National Platform of Civil Society. The drafting of its basic guiding document – the Concept – resulted in a series of disagreements amongst its members.

The draft proposed by several organisations implied the fostering of the centralisation of civil society groups and enlarging the powers of the National Platform. Some experts and NGOs were afraid of rising politicisation of civil society which seemed unacceptable to them. The reason was rather plain: NGOs must be independent and not bound by anyone’s decisions.

Hence, they tried to oppose the proposed draft Concept, though the majority of the National Platform members backed it. This split has been echoed in numerous online quarrels and resulted in a certain amount of damage to the National Platform's reputation. As a consequence, one of the most famous NGOs, the For Freedom movement, postponed joining the Platform.

The same split has become evident amongst independent journalists. They disagree whether a professional journalist must be truly independent and unprejudiced or must fight for his ideals using the media as an instrument.

Some opposition media, such as Charter97, predominantly promote the latter view. Others, who disagree with the usage of independent media as counter-propaganda, even launched a web-project: mediakritika.by. They set as their goal the promotion of standards of pure professional journalism without propaganda. 

Opinion Polls Show Distrust

A December 2012 opinion poll held by the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS) indicated several figures and trends that should become a wake-up call for the political opposition. Although the support rate for the Belarusian ruler has been stuck at 30 per cent, the level of trust towards his opponents is far lower.

For instance, the two most popular oppositional leaders, Vladimir Neklyaev and Andrey Sannikov, have support rates of 4.6 per cent and 4.8 per cent respectively. The overall level of trust for the opposition is 20 per cent, while 55.8 per cent of the respondents distrust it altogether.

The same concerns the endorsement of the radical methods of political resistance. Only 3.1 per cent think that the opposition should resort to an "armed uprising or revolution", while the most popular answer is "to propose a dialogue with the government" (35 per cent of respondents). And 20 per cent think that the Belarusian opposition should fight for the abolition of western sanctions instead of lobbying for them.

Meanwhile, 46.1 per cent are sure that the country is developing in the wrong direction, and 49.1 per cent do not trust Alexander Lukashenka. Half of the respondents consider the concentration of power in one individual's hands to be harmful for the country’s future.

All in all, sociologists drew the conclusion that besides Lukashenka supporters (30 per cent) and his firm opponents (20-25 per cent) there is a significant social group (between 25-40 per cent according to different assessments) who are critical of both the government and the opposition. They stand for evolutionary reforms and dialogue instead of political confrontation and revolutions.

Some commentators have already called this group "the new majority".

Hard Task for the Opposition

Apparently, "the new majority" can play a crucial role in  the future democratisation of the country. The opposition, in order to succeed, should bet on attracting these people instead of confronting them.

"The new majority" seeks a constructive, ready-to-compromise force, a real alternative to the existing government. Therefore all the relative radicalism being carried out by the current political opposition is a direct obstacle on he path of uniting all dissatisfied Belarusians.

Some farsighted politicians seem to understand this need for change. Soon after the conflict between the opposition figure Dmitry Galko and the owner of a popular website, Denis Blishch, a wide discussion about this fight broke out. One regional political activist, Piotr Kuznetsou, proposed the following abruptly-arrived-at conclusion: "the opposition must please people like Blishch". 

Kuznetsou explained that successful businessmen, who are disappointed with the current situation, are the most desirable target group for the opposition. It means that such people are modern, pro-democratic, open-minded, entrepreneurial and active. Therefore, if the opposition cannot attract even them, it is doomed on a wider scale, concluded Kuznetsou.

Giving up certain ideas such as rejecting a dialogue with the regime until political prisoners are released or calling for sanctions against human rights violators, may be morally difficult for many in the opposition. But without some tactical concessions and flexibility, the opposition's rate of support in a divided Belarusian society will hardly increase.

Artyom Shraibman

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