Mediabarometer: Belarusian Opposition Needs to Do its Homework

At the end of October the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS) published a new issue of its Political Mediabarometer. It shows that many in the Belarus opposition seem to focus more on international activities and less on work inside the country.

The Political Mediabarometer reflects public communications of Belarusian political parties and movements and their presence in Belarusian media and covers April-June 2013. According to the BISS' findings, the public campaign Tell the Truth, United Civic Party and the Party of the Belarusian People's Front appeared the most frequently in Belarusian media.

This media presence, however, does not lead to any serious level of public support even for the biggest parties or the most well-known politicians. The Belarusian opposition needs to fight for any publicity just to be recognised by the common people. Some of the new political forces – for example, the campaign Tell the Truth – manage to do it better. 

Who is the Opposition?

Many opposition activists may become upset after reading the new BISS study done by Aliaksei Pikulik and Alena Artsiomenka. The number of politicians' mentions according to the BISS – dropped from 3,900 in January-March to 3,084 in April-June. This means that as a whole, the opponents of the current government became less visible in the public sphere.

Essentially, oppositional political forces often have to focus on, in the least, publicity before looking for new supporters. Moreover, according to Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS)‚Äč, the level of trust in oppositional parties among Belarusians in March stood at 13.1%, while the level of distrust reached 60.1%.

The media paid more attention to those politicians who demonstrated more offline activities and communicated proactively, not only reacting to what others have done or said but taking the initiative themselves.

Anatol Liabedzka of the United Civic Party still leads the ranking of media presence, while the tendency towards a growing media presence for both Yanukevich and Milinkevich continues (at the end of 2012 the former was in 12th place and the latter 7th place).

In 2012, Liabedzka and a former presidential candidate Andrei Sannikau replaced each other at first place in the BISS ranking. In the first quarter of 2013, Sannikau found himself already at third place. And according to the study in April-June 2013 he fell even lower – to sixth place. In October 2012, he received political asylum in the UK, and as is often the case, physical absence rarely makes a politician more popular at home.  

Tell the Truth traditionally leads the ranking of political forces which more or less corresponded with the ranking of their leaders. Absolute media presence rankings for the top-5 parties and movements remain higher than those of their individual representatives and it proves that they are more than “one-man-parties”.

Party Equals Leader?

They, however, remain very much concentrated on Minsk. The proportion of regional activists, according to the BISS study, had declined. The share of provincial party leaders and members anyway never reached a tangible level. Only Tell the Truth has a tangible share of alternative representatives who articulated political messages in the period screened by the BISS. In all cases, when the media mentioned the United Civic Party, PBNF, Christian Democrats, and For the Freedom, their reporting was related only to their leader (or leaders).

Only Young Front had a considerable share of coverage linked to their regional leaders, and the Conservative-Christian Party of the Belarusian People's Front – to a regional party member.

This means that politics involved the same circle of well-known faces. Unfortunately, the old politicians of the Belarusian opposition have limited popularity among the broader public. According to the IISEPS opinion survey conducted in March, support for Niakliaeu reached 5.1% and Milinkevich and Sannikau got only 2.8% each. 

Along with regional activists, the share of women also declined. In the first quarter of 2013 four women, namely Iryna Khalip, Maryna Adamovich, Natallia Radzina and Nasta Dashkevich (Palazhanka) made it into the top-12 of the ranking. But later in the year only Maryna Adamovich, the wife of the incarcerated presidential candidate Mikola Statkevich, was still at the top.

The Opposition Prefers International Activities

Politicians and political forces over this period of time actively discussed a more balanced and diverse set of issues. In particular they focused more upon issues of international relations, domestic politics and social matters. Since April 2012, when BISS started this study, Belarusian politicians rather frequently talked about economics. The share of such statements doubled: previously it never exceeded 6-7 per cent, now it reached 15 per cent of all communications. It made the discourse of the opposition more interesting to common people.

The BISS experts named the events related to the communications of Belarusian political forces from April-June, although they did not study them per se. The study suggests that the Belarusian opposition pays more attention to international activities than to domestic problems, which are more important to common people.

Domestic events included Chernobyl Way, a traditional rally dedicated to the anniversary of Chernobyl catastrophe; and formation of political coalition People's Referendum (Narodny Referendum). Inside this coalition, Tell the Truth, For Freedom, the PBNF and BSDP declared that they would work together as strategic partners during the forthcoming local, presidential and parliamentary elections.

The international activities of opposition, on the other hand, were more impressive. In the second quarter of this year, its representatives participated in a conference on Belarus in Brussels held by the European People's Party, urged the EU to ease visa regime, hold a series of meeting in Lithuanian Seimas and addressed the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry about the conditions under which the EU could normalise relations with Belarus.

Tell the Truth Grows Stronger

Yet international advocacy cannot substitute active political work inside the country. The study suggests that politicians proposed fewer new initiatives between April and June. Only Andrei Dzmitryeu (Tell the Truth) and Dzmitry Vus in this time span put forth any proposals. In general, the share of proactive communication – those when the politicians addressed publicity out of their own initiative – declined, while share of reactive communication responding to somebody else's actions or statements, grew to 85 per cent.

The structure of opposition and its activities are changing very slowly. An obvious maverick, the movement Tell the Truth demonstrate steady and vibrant activity. In less than five years it made it from zero to probably the most promising political force in an otherwise conservative Belarusian opposition. The political agenda of the movement looks rather flexible. So far, it simply takes on every local initiative it can find.

The Belarusian opposition has faced harsh suppression for years, an yet it still exists and is functioning. The new BISS study suggests that to become more visible in the domestic media and more popular among Belarusians, the opposition should spend less time doing international activities and work more inside Belarus, with its potential electorate.

Is there Meaning in Belarus’s Parliamentary Elections?

In about a month, Belarusians will vote in parliamentary elections.

Although parliamentary elections have become a mere formality since the late 1990s, each time they arise the Belarusian opposition actively discusses whether it makes sense to participate in them. The Belarusian opposition has tried both options. The outcome was the same: massive falsification and no opposition presence in the parliament.

Two years ago, the authorities changed the electoral legislation. For the first time, candidates will participate in short debates broadcast in state-owned media and are officially allowed to use more funds for their campaigns. Otherwise, the course of the campaign promises a deja-vu

Lukashenka likes to underline his understanding of the elections' significance: “We have learnt to hold elections as a festival for the Belarusian people.” Last month the United Civic Party proposed abolishing the anyway fake elections and appointing deputies. Does it makes sense to participate in the September 2012 elections in a dictatorship?

Who Will (Not) Count the Votes?

Very few representatives of the opposition and civil society have managed to enter the election commissions. The authorities particularly strictly control the formation of commissions of the first level – where the votes are actually being stolen. Out of 233 candidates proposed by the Party of Belarusian People's Front (PBNF) to join such ground-level commissions, only 13 have been included. The situation is the same with other opposition parties and organisations.

the authorities got rid of the commission chairmen from previous elections who found themselves on the EU black list

On the other hand, the authorities have got rid of the commission chairmen from previous elections who found themselves on the EU black list. The regime demonstrated a more relaxed approach in formation of the higher, second-level commissions which are not engaged in vote counting. Yet even in these toothless commissions, representatives of the opposition make up less than 1 per cent.

Old stooges fill the commissions – the majority make up the delegates of the regime's party Belaya Rus', state-affiliated trade unions and the Red Cross Society. The Belarusian ruler  has not hidden his control over the election results and has publicly demanded that a third of deputies in the new parliament should be MPs from the previous one.

Disunity Among Opposition

The opposition in not united in its stance towards the elections. The PBNF and Milinkevich's For Freedom movement are going to participate in the process. Other opposition politicians – like the still-unregistered Christian Democrats – have chosen to boycott the elections because they see them as a show staged by the authorities which should not be legitimised by opposition participation.

Of course, even those who want to participate have declared that their main aim is not to be elected. Alyaksandr Milinkevich, the 2006 presidential candidate and the leader of the For the Freedom movement, stated: “The main goal is to remind Alexander Lukashenka that there are no honest elections. We have set a task to show the people that there is a positive alternative [proposed by opposition].”

Imprisoned former presidential candidate Mikola Statkevich also urged participation in the elections. In May 2011 the regime sentenced the Social Democrat politician to six years of imprisonment. He remains the only 2010 presidential candidate still in prison. 

According to Statkevich, "The task of the participation of the democratic forces in the parliamentary election shall be use of the legal opportunities for a national outreach campaign, holding coordinated protests throughout the country in the form of meeting with voters and collection of proof of falsification. Lack of participation of the opposition in the elections is not grounds for their non-acceptance by the international community, nor is participation grounds for their acceptance.”

The leader of the United Civic Party Anatol Lyabedzka talking recently to the Radio of Liberty emphasised that the opposition should prepare for the 2015 presidential elections.

The opposition parties use the election campaign to meet voters or collect signatures for petitions to release political prisoners. Following their registration, the candidates will have access to state-controlled media – something rare in Belarusian politics since the late 1990s. They get five minutes on TV and radio to participate in short debates, as well as an opportunity to publish their programmes in national and regional newspapers. For the first time the candidates may legally use their own funds to finance the campaign.

Of course, the role of these elections is limited also because of the parliament's function. It is a rubber-stamp institution. As political scientist Andrei Yahorau notes, over the last four years the parliament has initiated and drafted only one law: On Protection of Animals. 

Lukashenka Cares about the Elections Illusion

Despite numerous cases of fraud and falsifications most Belarusians still participate in elections

Despite numerous cases of fraud and falsification, most Belarusians still participate in elections. According to the NISEPI June survey, more than a half of Belarusians are willing to vote, about 20 per cent declare that they will not participate, and just 14 per cent support the boycott proposed by the radical opposition. Perhaps they see it at one of very few ways to somehow participate in political decision-making.  Facing rigged electoral procedures, people see the regime's lie.

Lukashenka cares about the forthcoming elections. He often mentions them and urges state officials to pay attention to this event. History shows that even in authoritarian regimes, rigged elections may provoke people's rage simply through their scale. As political analyst Valery Karbalevich noted, “any elections are a challenge to the authorities, as in a certain way they create a legitimacy crisis”.

The regime refers to the level of participation in elections as a proof of its legitimacy. Officially,  in 2004, 90.14 per cent of eligible voters voted in the parliamentary elections; in 2008, 76.7 per cent. The authorities used pressure to get these figures, forcing vulnerable groups to vote, such as students in dormitories or people employed in state organisations. One of the most efficient pressure mechanism was pre-election day voting, which enables the regime both to control participation and stuff the boxes with falsified ballots. In the five days before the actual election date in 2008, 26.3 per cent of voters cast their ballots.

Opposition as Carnival

Opposition politicians should go to the local level and systematically work with people's grievances. That means showing people how their problems are linked to the dictatorship and which solutions the democratic opposition proposes. A good example is the campaign organised by the Tell the Truth movement against the Chinese industrial park.

At the same time, only the hardcore opposition supporters will be attracted by unrealistic calls and campaigns such as For Fair Elections Without Lukashenka. The United Civic Party organised this two weeks ago in Barysau. The authorities punished the organisers and created a picture of persecution. The action, however, hardly had any effect on mobilising Belarusians against dictatorship.

Unfortunately, in recent years the struggle against the regime has too often ended in some postmodernist performances – like the scandal action of Ukrainian FEMEN in Minsk and Swedish teddy-bears bombing. Opposition and international media enthusiastically covered these artistic performances. But in reality such artistic undertakings may look exciting but will never topple any regime. They may easily become a justification to avoid working with ordinary people.

But in order to achieve change the people should see the link between their everyday problems – unemployment, rising prices – and the lack of freedom. This is where the opposition politicians should come into play and patiently explain their own solutions to the people of Belarus, not just to foreign journalists.