New Polls: Belarusians Support Lukashenka and Do Not Want an Euromaidan
At the end of April, the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies published the results of two polls.
The polls demonstrate that the crisis in Ukraine became an informational tidal wave that has been sweeping over Belarus, with 90% of Belarusians following the events. Belarusian society has become strongly politicised for the first time in many years.
However, most Belarusians consider the ousting of Yanukovych a coup and do not want to host a similar revolution in Belarus. Moreover, Belarusians prove reluctant to participate in mass protests and enjoy the current stability provided to them under the Lukashenka regime, which the growth of his approval rating proves.
For Lukashenka, the crisis has been a challenge and a gift at the same time. Relations with Russia have deteriorated and Belarus may yet lose its valued Ukrainian markets. Yet Lukashenka still now has the chance to become a true national leader and consolidate the nation as the protector of sovereignty of Belarus.
Mass opinion on Euromaidan
Broader Belarusian public opinion on the events in Ukraine remains largely unstudied, since very few polls are held in Belarus. Those made by the government usually remain confidential. Perhaps the only publication on their public opinion recently appeared in a study done by the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies, the oldest independent polling institute of Belarus currently registered in Vilnius.
The IISEPS conducted the poll in March, therefore it did not include the events surrounding Crimea or the current conflict in Eastern Ukraine. However, it provides a good picture of attitudes of Belarusians towards mass protests and coups, as well as shows the level of their attention to Ukraine events.
Did you follow political conflict in Ukraine, which ended in the ousting of president Yanukovych?
The poll shows that the crisis in Ukraine has been hugely influential in Belarusian media space. Almost 90% of Belarusians followed the crisis' developments. Moreover, a third of Belarusians reported that they followed the Ukrainian crisis every day. In Belarus, where real political struggle has not existed for quite some time, and most people are interested only in routine and private issues, these figures look like a populace awakening after a long political winter.
People were discussing Ukraine in the streets and in public places, which is the first such instance perhaps since the beginning of the 2000s. Every media outlet had Ukraine headlining, and these stories garnered a virtually unfathomable number of comments. Heated discussions were unfolding, dividing people into pro and against Maidan camps.
Many Belarusians were able to articulate for themselves their values on the matters of freedom, material wellbeing, national identity and violence. The events in Ukraine have had a significant on the minds of Belarusians, making them consider their own position and future choices.
President Yanukovych was ousted in Ukraine. What do you think of these developments?
A question on their personal perception of Euromaidan showed that a majority of Belarusians (55% ) consider the ousting of Yanukovych a coup and not a democratic revolution or fair retribution. However, almost a third seems to support Euromaidan.
Would you like events similar to Ukrainian happen in Belarus?
In this question Belarusians demonstrated their famous love for stability. They would rather not have a similar revolution even provided that it is peaceful. 23% of respondents would accept a non-violent revolution in Belarus, while only 3.6% are ready to shed blood in the fight against Lukashenka regime. This means Belarus will hardly ever experience a revolution, at least until people have a minimum level of wellbeing and sense of security.
Although economically Belarusians feel that they are only slightly better off than Ukrainians in terms of corruption and security. For them, Belarus looks to be in a considerably position overall and people appreciate it. Ukraine has indeed become a fine example of poor government, associated, in public opinion, with scuffles in parliament, oligarchs and omnipresent corruption.
If events similar to Ukraine happen in Belarus, would you take part in them?
This diagram supports the previous one, and still sheds light on some interesting details. While most Belarusians state they are reluctant to participate in any kind of mass protests, only 11% are ready to defend the current political regime. This means the majority would simply observe the developments without interfering with them.
Perhaps some of them would change their mind and take one side or another, but the general trend seems to be relatively clear. And importantly, 15% are ready to struggle against the regime via a Belarusian Maidan, which is more that the number of its active defenders.
In the end, however, a majority Belarusians would accept any developments of potential conflict and largely prefer not to interfere – a strategy they have typically employed throughout their history.
A Present for Lukashenka before Elections
The same institution, IISEPS, also measured Lukashenka's approval rating in March 2014. Since December 2013 it has grown from 35% to 40%. Lukashenka surely remains far behind Putin, who currently enjoys an 82% approval rating according to Russian Levada-Centre estimates, and who has capitalised pretty well on the intervention in Ukraine under the “protection of Russian civilisation” mask.
Dynamics of Lukashenka's Approval Rating
But despite a much lower rating compared to Putin, Lukashenka has shown himself to be a true national leader in the Ukrainian conflict. Despite Belarus' heavy economic dependence on Russia and political and military union, he refused to recognise the annexation of Crimea and Belarus' official position remains in favour of the territorial integrity of Ukraine. He also spoke out against the federalisation of Ukraine, a point that Russia is strongly advocating for in negotiations with the west.
He is also continuously accusing Yanukovych of outrageous levels of corruption in Ukraine and named it the root of Ukraine's current malaise. Moreover, Lukashenka quickly recognised the new government of Ukraine, personally met with Turchynov and later discussed with him some developments in Ukraine over the phone – a move Vladimir Putin would hardly approve of.
In his address to the nation and parliament on 22 April, Lukashenka for the first time spoke about protecting the Belarusian language and ordered the KGB to identify pro-Russian "diversionists". He also criticised the position of Russia on the Eurasian Union, the main geopolitical project of Vladimir Putin.
The moves of Lukashenka appealed not only to his traditional electorate, but also to many of his opponents who agreed with him on at least some of his points. Ahead of the 2015 presidential elections, Lukashenka may appear to be a true national leader and protector of Belarus against Russian aggression. Meanwhile, his opponents remain in the shadows and are largely unknown to the majority of Belarusians.
Although economically quite damaging for Belarus, Lukashenka received an invaluable present before the next elections – the chance of becoming a truly popular leader and consolidate the nation. At this point it looks like Lukashenka can already be called the next president of Belarus, and maybe this time around he will not even need to use fraud to do it.
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Belarus Sets New EU Agenda, Calms Neighbours, Executes a Murderer – Western Press Digest
Western analysts see an opportunity, but also serious challenges to Belarus' ties with the West. The crisis in Ukraine may be an opening for the West to reconsider its position towards Belarus. Any changes in the West's ties in Belarus must not draw the ire of Moscow.
Belarus is carefully assessing its ties with its neighbours. Lukashenka met with one of the new heads of Uralkali to potentially renew ties with the potash giant.
Careful not to be too critical of the situation in Ukraine, he defended the status of the Russian language in Belarus. Meanwhile, the Ministers of Defence of Belarus and Lithuania met to ease tensions.
Western analysts consider Belarus’ current role in Europe and how its special relationship with Russia may determine its future. All of this and more in this edition of the Western Press Digest.
Lukashenka Discusses Ukraine’s Mistakes – In an annual address to the nation, the Belarusian Head of State singled out a weak economy and widespread corruption as the two primary reasons for the crisis facing Ukraine presently. According to Lukashenka, Kyiv gave into the West’s demands because of its ruinous economic state, but Belarus was able to push back and refuse the West’s overtures. During his address he also stated that he would continue to root out corruption to make sure it never took hold in Belarus.
Lukashenka’s speech took an interesting turn when he brought up the issue of the Russian language and issues related to its status in Belarus. The Belarusian ruler made clear that Russian is and will remain an official state language in Belarus. The majority of the Belarusian population speaks Russian. The RFERL report hints that this statement may have been in response to what is unfolding in Ukraine and Crimea.
Belarus and Lithuania to Keep Each Other Informed of Military Activities – The Defence Ministers of the two nations met in Minsk to ensure that they will maintain an open dialogue. With NATO forces arriving in the Baltic nations and Belarus’ ally Russia already having forces stationed in Belarus, the two sides are trying to mitigate any tension.
The Defence Minster of Lithuanian said it has a good working history of cooperation with Belarus. Further, he stated that Lithuania would be willing to help Belarus if it wanted to cooperate more closely with NATO. Lieutenant General Iyuri Zhadobin, the Belarusian defence minister, stated that Belarus is interesting in English-language training for Belarusian troops, peacekeeping force training and cooperation between the two nations air forces.
Signs of Possible Rapprochement with Russia’s Uralkali – After nearly 9 months of prolonged conflict between the Belarusian state and its long-time Russian potash business partner, it appears that Lukashenka is taking the first steps towards renewing ties. After a joint venture between Uralkali and state-owned Belaruskali fell apart last year, the two sides have been unable to normalise their relations. Lukashenka met with the new co-owner of Uralkali Dmitry Mazepin, who recently bought a stake in the company after its former owner Suleyman Kerimov and his partners sold their shares at the end of 2013.
While no concrete details emerged from the public meeting between the two parties, it appears that both parties feel that the split has not been beneficial to either side. Uralkali’s other majority co-owner, the Onexim group, also appeared to support renewing ties between both parties to better their position on the global market.
Belarus Executes Convicted Murderer – The Belarusian authorities have executed Pavel Selyun a year after he was found guilty of murdering his wife and brutually decapitating her alleged lover. The family of Mr. Seylun was notified only after the execution had taken place. According to the human rights organisation Viasna, the news of Seylun’s execution was first discovered by his lawyer who had gone to meet with his client.
The Global Post notes that Belarus is the only country in Europe that administers the death penalty at present. Miklós Haraszti, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus called on the Belarusian authorities to place a moratorium on the death penalty. A similar call was also made by Catherine Ashton, Vice President of the European Commission.
Brief Prison Stints for Activists Who Commemorated Chernobyl – After Minsk city officials gave permission for a march to take place on April 26 to commemorate the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, 8 activists were detained for committing acts of hooliganism and resisting arrest. RFERL notes that the march has annually taken place in Minsk since its inception in 1988. The arrested activists were handed sentences ranging between 15 to 25 days for their alleged transgressions. One of the imprisoned activists declared a hunger strike for the duration of his 25-day sentence.
Western Expert Analysis
The Real Winner in the Ukraine Crisis – Volha Charnysh (a Belarus Digest author) describes in National Interest how while many in the Belarusian opposition hoped that Ukraine's Maidan would reach Minsk, they are now more concerned about maintaining Belarus' sovereignty. Lukashenka has now made it clear that Belarus is seeking to renew its ties with the EU, opening up the potential for the EU to reconsider its foreign policy it.
On the home front, he has enjoyed a rise in popularity as Belarusians watch the rapidly deteriorating situation in Ukraine continues to grow more and more unpredictable. Lukashenka's message of promoting stability and internal unity has found favor with Belarusians.
Can the EU Help Belarus to Guard its Independence? – Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform, notes that Minsk is keen not to become too dependent on Russia, and have therefore renewed their on-and-off flirtation with the EU. The analyst notes that there are clear limits to how far any rapprochement can go.
The IMF is unlikely to lend billions of dollars to a country with a state-run economy that is undemocratic. That means that Belarus needs Russia’s good will and money in order to sustain its economy. If Minsk moves too close to Brussels, Moscow would have plenty of levers to pull, in order to yank it back.
Belarus: Silver Linings From the Crisis in Ukraine – Grigory Ioffe provides an overview of the recent statements of Belarusian politicians and analysts on Ukrainian events. He arrives at the conclusion that apparently the overall fallout from the crisis in Ukraine has brought about some positive benefits for Belarus.
According to Alyaksandr Milinkevich, a 2006 presidential candidate, new opportunities may arise now for improving relations between Belarus and the European Union as Russia's expansionism shifted the EU's Belarus agenda away from democracy promotion and toward support of Belarus' sovereignty.
Belarus Wants Out – Andrew Wilson, a foreign policy expert, believes that Russia cannot afford to gain Crimea while losing more post-Soviet friends. Countries like Belarus and Kazakhstan may eventually be obliged to recognise Russia's annexation of Crimea – if, and when, Russia absorbs the territory completely, they will have no choice.
But their current silence speaks volumes about their present concerns and future plans. (The article was written before adopting on March 28 the U.N. General Assembly's resolution on Ukraine's unity. Belarus was among 11 countries that voted against the resolution).