Should the Belarusian Opposition Turn to the “New Majority”?
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.
Do Well-Situated Belarusians Need European Values? – Digest of Belarusian Analytics
Do well-situated people need European Values? Does the new Russian foreign policy doctrine prompt changes in Minsk to turn to the West? Analysts also examine if there are any pro-Western trends in foreign policy and society.
Belarusian experts discuss whether the Western Partnership has potential and the recent indicators in the economy. Mediakritika’s survey reveals Belsat is not far ahead of state-run channels by international journalism standards.
The Main Character – Authorities – Mediakritika.by presents a content analysis of three Belarusian TV channels (two state run channels and the Warsaw-based Belsat) for the last six months of 2012. The survey noted that the main newsmaker for both public and independent channels remains the authorities – national or local, while the Belarusian opposition had almost no coverage.
Moreover, all channels were far from meeting basic professional standards – separation of facts from opinion, standards of completeness, and reliability and accuracy of presenting information.
Does Belarusian IT Programmer Need European Values? – Dmitry Galko of the online magazine New Europe discusses why the high income of the IT community does not guarantee the ideological shift to the active rejection of the current political system. The expert believes that satisfaction with personal situation wins out, and highly paid groups prefer to maintain the status quo.
Media in Belarus – 2012. Final Analytical Review – BAJ issued a final report of the media situation in Belarus in 2012. The main conclusion is that the media situation in Belarus during 2012 changed together with the socio-political situation. A critical point of the year was the three criminal cases against journalists in summer 2012.
Oleg Manaev: We Have to Distinguish Serious Sociology from Boloney – on 8 February, Professor Oleg Manaev conducted a public lecture titled The Future of Belarus as a projection of the current under the cycle Urbi et Orbi, the Flying University. On the eve of the lecture, TUT.by journalist talked to Manaev about possible scenarios of the future of Belarus and sociology in Belarus.
Review-Chronicle of Human Rights Violations in Belarus in January 2013 – The Human Rights Centre Viasna issued its monthly thematic review. The experts note that the first month of the year brought no changes in the human rights situation. 12 political prisoners remained in jail, and the persecution and pressure on public and political activists, human rights defenders and independent media continued.
Freedom of Associations in Belarus in 2012 – the Assembly of Democratic NGOs and the Legal Transformation Center released the annual review of freedom of associations and the legal status of non-profit organizations in Belarus for 2012. The paper highlights the most important trends and developments related to the legal conditions of different forms of civil society organizations.
Integration Is Given a Boost – Grigory Ioffe observes that while Minsk has been recently trying its best to revive its relationships with the West, reciprocal steps have not yet been undertaken by the Western countries and international structures. In contrast, the analyst lists a number of recent success stories which show that Russia has been energetically and conspicuously acting to tighten its bonds with Belarus.
Lukashenka Gave the KGB Special Mission to the West? – Alexander Klaskovsky, naviny.by, focuses on the foreign policy of Belarus: the Belarusian president again demonstratively shows interest in the Western direction, in that time he had just returned from Sochi, where he waited in vain for over a week, for Vladimir Putin. BISS analyst, Denis Melyantsou believes that in this way Lukashenka again starts to shake geopolitical swings to impress the official Moscow; although PR moves may follow real steps towards unlocking relations with Brussels and Washington.
New Russian Foreign Policy Doctrine – Dzianis MIliantsou, BISS, breaks down the new Russian Foreign Policy Doctrine, signed in February by Vladimir Putin. According to the analyst, Belarus is losing its exclusive status of Russian ally, while the doctrine demonstrates Russia’s willingness for constructive cooperation with the West.
Can the Eastern Partnership Work? – Jana Kobzova notes that the EU has been promoting its interests in Eastern Europe by exporting its values and building more political and business links with the region, but the strategy has thus far not worked to the EU’s liking. To make the Eastern Partnership an initiative worthy of its name, the EU should continue to promote both its interests and values in its Eastern neighbourhood, but it also needs to invest much more in cultivating new partners in the region.
Policy Brief: National Security, January 2013 – Belarus Security Blog issued its monthly review of national security of the country. The authors observe that the first month of the year has not brought significant changes. The previous threats to the sustainability of Belarusian state remain: the poor quality of public administration, human resources crisis in the government, the negative trends of foreign trade, limited funding of national security and defense, etc.
Western Vector of the Belarusian Foreign Policy – Alexander Shpakouski, Analytical Center for Conservative Concepts, observes that since the appointment of Vladimir Makey to a post of the head of foreign policy department there is a noticeable intensification of contacts with the West countries, first of all with the EU and the USA. The expert believes that in such situation pressure and imposing of unilateral understanding are unacceptable, but joint movement in the direction of creation social and fair, democratic world way is necessary.
A Potential Rapprochement with the West and the Prospects of Economic Liberalization – Grigory Ioffe notes that Belarus’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has generated a flurry of activity on the country’s western flank. Reviewing the recent trends, the expert cautions that there is still a great deal of harmony between Belarus’s political regime and many ordinary Belarusians. Western attempts to base its relationships with post-Soviet countries on a putative community of values have apparently exhausted their potential.
On the Fantastic Figures of Labor Migration – Andrei Eliseev of BISS, questions whether the number of Belarusian migrants of 1,3 million people, voiced by some experts, is realistic. Using simple math and available official statistics data, Eliseev shows exaggeration of these numbers and promises to devote his next paper to the issue of real numbers of Belarusian labor migrants. The article is posted in the section Blogs analysts on the updated BISS website.
Economicus Obcuricus: Economic Results of Belarus in 2012 – Anton Boltochko, Liberal Club, analyzes the economic policy of Belarus in 2012 with the ranking of economic victories and defeats. The expert says that every victory allowed maintaining the relative stability of the entire system. In particular, euphoria, caused by exports of solvents / thinners / biofuels, prevented the officials to focus on reforming the economic system after the crisis 2011.
Belarusian Monthly Economic Review, February 2013 – the IPM Research Center has released February issue of its monthly review which covers recent developments in political and economic life of the country. Namely in January, Belarusian Potash Company – an exclusive distributor of Belaruskali and Uralkali – signed a new contract on supply of 1 m tones of potash fertilizers at a price of 400 USD/t to China. This is 70 USD/t lower than a price of a previous contract with China. In general, this event might stipulate a number of negative outcomes.
Lessons From the 2011 Belarusian Devaluation – The paper shows that the currency crisis and inflation of 2011 rapidly decreased the level of well-being of the Belarusian society. The state tried to cushion the crisis effects but their policies had a very limited effect. Mechanism of index of prices appeared to protect the poorest social groups in Belarus from the currency crisis effects. However, the group of pensioners seemed to be the most harmed by the politics of the state.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.