Belarus Opposition Struggles to Gain from Lukashenka’s Losses
The decline in Belarusians' income led to the corresponding reduction of Lukashenka’s rating. However, the regime's opponents' popularity did not grow significantly.
The Independent Institute for Social, Economic, and Political Studies conducted a sociological survey in Belarus last month. According to the research findings, 73.4% of respondents noted that their economic conditions had deteriorated during the previous three months. 23.2% of respondents stated that the standard of their well-being hadn’t changed. Only 1.6% of repondents noted that their economic conditions had improved. The similar indicators totaled 16%, 57.7%, and 24.9% correspondingly in December 2010 and amounted to 26.9%, 54.8%, and 17.2% correspondingly in March 2011.
61.8% of respondents noted that generally the situation in Belarus developed in the wrong direction. 26.1% of respondents hailed the official policies at that. The indicators totaled 32.5% and 54.2% correspondingly in December 2010 and amounted to 40% and 45.3% correspondingly in March 2011.
The rating of confidence to Lukashenka decreased considerably (i.e., almost by 20 points) in comparison with December 2010. Thus, 53.8% of respondents stated they didn’t trust the President in June 2011. 35.7% of respondents noted they confided in Lukashenka. The similar indicators had amounted to 35.1% and 55% correspondingly in December 2010.
Lukashenka’s electoral rating has decreased by more than 20 points since recently. According to the Independent Institute for Social, Economic, and Political Studies, Lukashenka would be supported by 29.3% of voters, if the Presidential election took place in June 2011, to be compared to 53% of supporters in December 2010.
The majority of respondents (44.5%) put the whole blame for the foreign currency crisis on Lukashenka, 36.7% of respondents blame the government, and 27% condemn the global crisis.
The society responds to the statements about the main danger to the independence of Belarus, coming from Russia and the unfair policies of Russian authorities in relation to Belarus, delivered by Belarusian public officials. Thus, 47.8% of respondents noted they would vote against the unification of Belarus and Russia, if a corresponding referendum was conducted. 31.4% of eligible voters would back such a union at that. It should be underscored that the Belarusian people mainly regard the unification as an economic union. According to sociological surveys, no more than 5% of respondents only support the perspective of getting Belarus incorporated into the Russian Federation.
Surprisingly, the considerable decrease of Lukashenka’s popularity didn’t lead to the corresponding rise of his opponents’ rating points. Thus, 7.4% of respondents would vote for Andrei Sannikau, 5.4% of respondents would support Uladzimir Niaklayeu, and 11.2% of respondents would vote for other politicians at the would-be election in June 2011 to be compared to 3.2%, 6.9%, and 7.9% correspondingly in December 2010.
The opposition struggle to leave the democratic ghetto even under the present-day conditions of falling living standards. All in all, around 25% of voters support the oppositional politicians nowadays.
The opposition movement includes the politicians, who stand up for closer integration with Russia. Thus, Siarhei Kaliakin, the Head of “Spraviadlivy Sviet” (‘Fair World’) stated once that Belarus had to acknowledge independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and that Russia had a right to annex the Crimea, since he regarded the peninsula as the Russian territory.
The United Civil Party (UCP) representatives stand for the sales of Belarusian enterprises to Russian companies. Surpisingly, Uladzimir Niaklayeu articulated a similar motto during the Presidential election campaign: “We should sell everything to Russia that depends on Russia and that nobody else generally needs, apart from Russia.”
A range of other oppositional parties keep to the contrary position. Thus, the “Za Svabodu” movement stands up for integration of Belarus into the European Union. The Belarusian Popular Front Party supports integration of Belarus into the EU and NATO. Just like the Belarusian Christian Democracy, they treat the sales of enterprises to the Russian businesses as a danger to independence of Belarus.
The “Spraviadlivy Sviet” left-winged party representatives speak Russian and lay flowers to Lenin monument. The representatives of “Za svabodu” civil movement, PBNF, and Belarusian Christian Democracy speak Belarusian and condemn the totalitarian past…
An independent Belarusian journalist Mikola Buhay noted as follows: “The authoritarian strategy of Belarus development has collapsed”. Hovewer, the split opposition cannot propose an alternative development strategy for Belarus at that.
Andrei Liakhovich is a contributing author. He directs the Center for Political Education in Minsk.
Choking the Social Networks Revolution
Western media often spread myths about the extent of Internet censorship in Belarus. Many have the impression that all or many social media sites have been shut down or blocked by Belarusian KGB. The truth is that unlike television or FM radio, Internet access remains largely unrestricted in Belarus.
Because only a small fraction of Belarusians use Internet to get political information, authorities are rather relaxed about Internet censorship. They usually intervene to temporarily block certain Internet web sites around the dates of scheduled protests. In addition, they effectively use traditional methods against pro-democracy activists such as arrests and pressure on protestors' universities and employers.
Vkontakte is the most popular social network in Belarus which Belarus authorities actively target. The network headquartered in Russia looks very similar to Facebook. Vkontakte is hosting the "Movement for the Future – Revolution Through Social Network" group, where citizen actions are announced, commented and reported on. Instead of blocking the whole network, Belarusian authorities deploy more creative approaches.
For instance, around 22 June a fake page appeared for Belarusian users, informing them that the group page was infected by a virus, and trying to collect information about their accounts from them. On 4 July, the group’s main page was closed for all visitors globally by the administration of Vkontakte, supposedly for violations of the rules by the group. The group’s page was then reopened with 10 times less members than it used to have (was around 200,000 and is now around 20,000). Around 13 July, access to the whole Vkontakte site was blocked inside Belarus for several hours before and during the action of that day.
Security services also visit pro-democracy activists who can be easily identified on social networks. In addition, the authorities increasingly harass bloggers. The most notable criminal cases for defamation were initiated against Andrei Poczobut and Evgeny Lipkovich. Security service agents also conduct "preemptive talks" with pro-democracy activists and detain the most active for short periods of time. Authorities can put pressure on virtually every employer or university in Belarus. The economy is still in state hands in Belarus and most people work on the basis of short-term employment contracts. With rising unemployment the prospect of losing a job is enough to deter many from active protests.
Finally, around the dates of protests opposition and independent web sites are routinely subjected to denial of service attacks. That involves saturating the target web site with an overwhelming number of external requests. The web site then cannot respond to legitimate traffic, or responds so slowly as to be rendered effectively unavailable. Charter97, Nasha Niva and Euroradio web sites are the main targets of attackers.
The Western media often overestimate penetration of Internet and social networks in Belarus. Although the role of Internet in Belarus is steadily increasing, it is far from being the dominant source of information. According to a May survey of the Independent Institute for Sociological and Political Studies, 33% of the adult population in Belarus received information from the Internet and only 2.2% – from social networks. This 33% include hard line supporters of the authorities and those who never read any political news on Internet.
Only around 2% of the Belarusians use Facebook. Twitter is even less popular. According to various estimates, there are less then 50 thousand Twitter users in all regions of Belarus. However, the authorities take no chances and actively use trolling and jamming on the days of street actions. Security services use nicknames very similar to those of pro-democracy activists and independent media to spread false news and negative comments. That makes it very difficult for pro-democracy activists to rely on Twitter.
Because of the small numbers and chaotic character of social networks protests security services can crack down on them with relative ease.
Most analysts agree that only when "ordinary" Belarusians begin to protest the situation may pose a serious threat to authorities. The vast majority of Belarusians relies almost exclusively on television and FM radio to receive information. These media are strictly controlled in Belarus and wide-scale crossborder broadcasts from neighbouring Poland and Lithuania remain possible only in theory.