Why Belarusian Authorities Fear Public Opinion
On 29 June the lower chamber of the Belarusian parliament – the House of Representatives – approved in a first reading amendments which introduce harsher administrative liability for non-licensed public opinion surveys.
The bill further restricts possibilities for independent research of the social and political processes in Belarusian society. As a result, the quality of such research will suffer a new blow. And it is the government itself that is the biggest loser in this situation.
The Belarusian authorities began their struggle against independent pollsters in the early 2000s. In 2002 the Council of Ministers adopted a decree that established a special order for surveying public opinion in Belarus.
To conduct research related to elections, referenda and the overall social and political situation in the country an organisation had to register with the newly founded Commission for Public Opinion Surveys under the National Academy of Sciences. The decree established that the Commission would ensure the high quality of all surveys and make sure that their results were objective and correct.
The Commission got the mandate to issue licenses for pollsters and double-check the results of their surveys. If, in the opinion of the Commission, a surveying organisation published incorrect sociological data, the Commission could withdraw its license.
According to sociologist Vasily Korf of the Liberal Club in Minsk, in 2002 the state decided to do away with independent researchers whose work the authorities deemed suspicious and unreliable. What the Belarusian authorities fear is any public information that contradicts their own propaganda. And independent surveys make it far more difficult to manipulate public opinion.
Take the example of the presidential elections in 2010. Officially, Alexander Lukashenka received 79,65% of the total vote. But the several independent exit-polls and surveys produced significantly less overwhelming figures – from 35% to 58%. The authorities, of course, did not want the public to hear all those "alternative" figures.
What do the Latest Amendments Add?
The amendments that the House of Representatives passed on 29 June make the punishment for unlicensed surveys more severe. Previously, the violators of the law would get either an official notice or a fine of up to 15 base rates (about $190). The newly introduced amendments make the law harsher on unlicensed pollsters. Individual pollsters will now have to pay up to 20 base rates (about $240) if they break the law. And legal entities without a proper incense for conducting public opinion surveys will pay a fine of up to 100 base rates (about $1,200).
If the same person or organisation infringes the law for a second time during a year the fine will grow even bigger. An individual recidivist will have to pay between 10 and 50 base rates (about $125 – $625). And a legal unity will be charged a sum between 20 and 200 base rates (about $240 – $2,400).
These sums, of course, are not lethal. But for small independent research groups they are unbearable.
Few Want to Survey in Belarus
As a result of such repressive measures against individual and organisational pollsters, the number of independent institutions that conduct public opinion surveys related to elections, referenda and the overall sociopolitical situation are very few in Belarus. Actually, only one research group does it on a regular basis – the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS).
Since its foundation in 1992 the IISEPS has had numerous problems with the Belarusian authorities. In 2005 the Supreme Court of Belarus liquidated IISEPS for not abiding by the law on public opinion surveys. The Institute then moved to Lithuania where it got an official registration under the same name and continued its research. But its problems in Belarus did not cease there.
In October 2011 the police detained the founder of the IISEPS Professor Oleg Manaev in the centre of Minsk. Manaev was on his way to present the results of the latest nation-wide survey that revealed that the popularity of Alexander Lukashenka was at its historical minimum. While the official propaganda claimed that about 70-80% of the Belarusians supported the president at that time, according to the IISEPS, Lukashenka's electoral rating equalled 20.5%. Oleg Manaev was released several hours later but the presentation of the survey results had to be postponed.
Other independent or commercial institutions conduct politics-oriented surveys of public opinion in Belarus only sporadically. Interestingly, even in the so-called “pro-government camp” surveying organisations that deal with political issues are very few. The Information and Analytical Centre under the Administration of the President is the only institution there that carries out regular surveys.
Impact on the Quality of Research
The unfavourable attitude of the state towards independent surveying of public opinion has a clear negative impact on the quality of sociological research in Belarus.
First, researchers have to work almost underground. Needless to say that under such circumstances it is often too problematic to strictly adhere to academic research methodologies and standards.
Second, it is very difficult for researchers to stay politically impartial when the authorities permanently treat them as an oppositional “fifth column” and even crack down on them from time to time.
Third, as there are only few institutions that survey public opinion on political issues there is hardly any competition between these few institutions. And, as we know, competition is generally the best mechanism to ensure quality.
Finally, because of the authoritarian realities in the country the majority of the Belarusian population fear to answer political questions in public. As a consequence, many respondents who agree to talk to pollsters either abstain from giving definite answers or tend to say presumably safe things like “I support the president”.
The Government Itself is the Biggest Loser
Ironically, in this whole situation the government is the biggest loser. Restricting the work of research groups that survey public opinion the authorities deprive themselves of credible sources of information about the real sociopolitical processes in Belarus.
The state institutions that are supposed to provide such information (like the Information and Analytical Centre under the Administration of the President) are part of the state machine and cannot be independent. As numerous examples have shown, survey findings of such institutions often reflect bureaucratic rationale rather than impartial research standards.
Thus, the state and the whole of society would definitely benefit if Belarus had a well-functioning network of independent organisations to survey public opinion. Unfortunately, there is little hope that the understanding of this simple fact will prevail in the heads of the incumbent political leadership over fears of truth.
Lukashenka Builds Independence that Tends to Integration
Lukashenka delivered a speech dedicated to Independence Day earlier this month. According to his statements, the history of an independent and full-fledged Belarusian state started together with his election to the post of the President of Belarus in 1994. Lukashenka believes that Belarus merely used to be a part of Lithuania, Poland, and Russia in the past. “Our lands passed from one state to another over the past centuries. The Belarusian people faced political, economic, and cultural oppression. All of this can be found in our history”, said Lukashenka.
The power “wallowed in mud” in 1991-1994. “The elder generation hasn’t forgotten the image of Belarus in the hard 1990s, when the economy collapsed, the authorities were paralysed, the people suffered from unemployment and poverty, and we were trying to keep our balance on the edge of disaster. It must have been God that saved us. We started looking for a way-out, including a political one.”
Belarus was Rescued by Lukashenka in 1990s
He believes that he is a messiah, who has made Belarus independent and respected. “Luckily, I happened to be the President during that period, when we had to drag the country from the bog that it was in.” He is convinced that he embodied “the will of Belarusians, who managed to save their yearning for statehood through the ages and reach the goal they had set.”
Following Lukashenka’s speech, it seems that the way of authoritarian modernization is the only proper one for Belarus. He spoke a lot about the need of a strong power that helped “to increase the GDP almost thrice within the period between 1995 and 2011 and extend the scope of foreign trade almost eight times within the same time span. Over $140,000,000,000 USD were invested in the capital stock during the years of independence. The funds were invested in the development of enterprises and new technologies. In other words, the money was contributed to development. It was neither wasted, nor taken to offshore territories.”
Lukashenka formulated the credo of his foreign policy: to develop cooperation with Russia (and the West), but retain independence from Russia (and the West). “We have made our historical choice in favour of a new kind of independence that tends to openness and integration instead of isolation. We broke the vicious circle. We could withdraw to our national borders or become the (Russian) North-West territory. Both options were unacceptable for us.”
Lukashenka underscored that integration and cooperation have their borders though. “There are basic and fundamental things that we cannot sacrifice in any case. They cannot be sacrificed by any state that wishes to be sovereign and independent. We will never waive our statehood. We will do everything possible, in order to preserve the independence, gained through a lot of pains. We will never claim any alien property. However, we will never give up an inch of our land to anyone. Nobody will make us sacrifice our people’s freedom, achieved through much suffering by many generations. It will be only us, i.e. the people of Belarus, who choose our fate and our way of development. There aren’t forces in the East, in the West, in the North, or in the South that can make us obey them or force us to our knees.”
Message to the Russians
Lukashenka delivered a very precise message amongst the pompous statements above. It showed the border never to be crossed by Belarus in the process of integration with Russia: “I have to make this statement, since I read and hear more and more often about the immediate plans to take and share everything that Belarus and the Belarusian people have.They even have the lists of enterprises and buyers. They’ve decided for themselves, who will get BelAZ, MAZ, the Potash Company, Minsk Tractor Plant etc. It will never happen! Remember, it will never happen during the time of my presidency. We didn’t allow anyone to pilfer the public property in the past. We won’t allow doing it in the future either.”
This statement was not addressed to high-ranking Belarusian officials. Currently, the latter do not have any plans to buy large industrial enterprises. They have already privatised enough enterprises to make their dreams come true.
This statement can be regarded as another of Lukashenka’s signals to the Kremlin and his new-old partner Putin: he will not permit Russia to enter Belarus. Lukashenka cannot think of himself without the power he has. It is to Lukashenka’s advantage that he does not restrict himself to the struggle for his personal interests, holding on with all his strength to the power he has obtained. There is a broader meaning in his words about the independence of Belarus and his role in keeping the independence.