What does Trump’s presidency mean for Belarus?

On 9 November, Aliaksandr Lukashenka congratulated Donald Trump on his victory in the US presidential election. He praised Trump's “active and sincere position", hoping to restore Belarus-US relations; he also warned Russians against rejoicing over Trump's triumph.

However, people on the streets seem to interpret his victory through the lens of the Russian media, echoing the sentiment that Trump will pursue a friendly policy towards Russia and Belarus.

The Belarusian media enthusiastically reported on Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner, whose ancestors came from Belarus and whose father visits the country regularly.

Many people noted the similarities between the leader of Belarus and the new leader of the US: both embrace elements of populism and opposition to the establishment, and both have a habit of bringing their young sons to official meetings. But despite these details, most experts agree that Belarus will hardly be a high priority on the US agenda.

Lukashenka: Trump is no friend of Russia

On 9 November Belarusian president Aliaksandr Lukashenka congratulated Trump on his victory. Lukashenka highlighted that Americans voted for a responsible, fair candidate who will bring change, saying: “You shook up American society and returned it to real democracy." The Belarusian leader expressed hopes that relations between Belarus and the US would continue on the path of normalisation.

At the same time, Lukashenka warned Russians against rejoicing too much over Trump's victory. "He is not a gift for Russia. Trump wants to make America great, but where does that put Russia?", he said. Interestingly, Lukashenka predicted Trump's victory earlier in September. "American society is not yet ready to elect a female president, even one as experienced as Hillary", he argued.

Other executive officials remained silent about the event, as the rules of the Belarusian political system restrict such public comments. In contrast, MPs were more open about sharing their views.

Recently elected oppositional MP Alena Anisim expressed her belief that Trump’s victory is evidence of the democratic nature of the US political system. Although Anisim anticipates changes in the internal politics of the US, she does not predict major alterations in external policy. Pro-governmental MP Mikalaj Ulachovič expressed hope that Trump would lift the sanctions against Belarus. However, claims about making America great disturbed the politician.

People in the streets echo Russian TV

The Belarusian media outlets Belsat, Euroradio, and Sputnik interviewed people in the streets of the Belarusian capital. Most respondents expressed happiness about Trump’s victory. The most popular reason for this concerned the close ties between Belarus and Russia: “Of course, Trump. Trump is closer to Russia. Consequently – to us.” Another person stated that Trump would definitely advocate friendship with Moscow, thus strengthening cooperation with Belarus.

Some people, however, maintained that the effect of the US election on Belarus would be invisible. As one of the respondents said, “It will hardly impact us, since there are no contacts between Belarus and the US, no trade between us”. Although some hoped to see Clinton as the new president, many Belarusians still mistrust women in politics: “If she could not control her husband, how does she plan to run the US,” said one passerby. Another woman argued that “Woman in politics is like a monkey with a grenade.”

Media focus on Trump's son-in-law

One of the most popular stories about Trump in the Belarusian media concerned the heritage of his son-in-law Jared Kushner, a real estate mogul and media tycoon from New York. As it turns out, Kushner’s great grandparents originated from the Belarusian town of Navahrudak. During World War II they escaped from the Navahrudak ghetto to join a Jewish partisan squad in the forests.

After the war they moved to the US, where Jared’s father Charles was born. Charles Kushner has a tradition of visiting Navahrudak with his grandchildren on the eve of their adulthood to show them the family’s history. Belarusians are hoping to see Trump’s grandchildren in a few years on their traditional trip.

As for the reasons for Trump's victory, Naša Niva called Hilary a “cold and uninteresting candidate”, who caused American society to vote for Trump “with their heart”.

A writer at Belarus Segodnya, one of the largest official dailies, mentioned that people are tired of democrats in the US, and this explains the success of Trump’s campaign. Although the newspaper generally demonstrates its support for the new US president, it did mention one particular threat his presidency could pose. If Trump stops investing money in NATO, Russia could gain unencumbered control of the region.

Two populists?

Some experts draw parallels between the populism of Trump and Lukashenka, both of whom oppose elite groups and seek out the support of the common people. Much like Trump, Lukashenka came to power unexpectedly in 1994 using populist slogans, while the establishment did not consider him a serious rival.

Similarly, the two leaders both rely on a certain trick – they bring their little sons to official meetings. The Belarusian president regularly takes his son with him on his trips abroad, including to the UN, North Korea, the Vatican, and to military parades in Beijing. Analysts argue that Lukashenka appears in public with his son in order to soften his image as a severe ruler. Likewise, Trump brought his youngest son to his first public meeting after the announcement of the election results.

However, there is a principal difference between them – Trump will have to work within the system of US democratic institutions, checked by the Congress, judiciary and various interest groups; he is also entitled to no more than two terms in power. Meanwhile, Lukashenka has been the sole ruler and decision-maker in Belarus for the last 20 years and shows no intention of stepping down.

As for the prospects of Belarus-US relations, experts do not think that the two presidents' vivid personal similarities will lead to much progress. Valieryj Karbalievič argues that Trump's administration does not plan to touch on the issue of Belarus in the upcoming years. The development of bilateral cooperation will continue down its existing path.

Dzianis Mieĺjancoŭ argues the US is highly unlikely to prioritise Belarus. Consequently, US-Belarus relations will develop according to a similar model to the last two years, focusing on human rights and security issues.

It is not yet certain whether the American president-elect will renege on his promises and bring significant changes to US internal and external policy. Most likely, Belarus will not see dramatic changes under Trump’s presidency. Nevertheless, the government has hopes for the new US leader, while common Belarusians replicate Russian media discourse surrounding Trump as a pragmatic friend of Russia and Belarus.

Alesia Rudnik and Vadzim Smok

Alesia Rudnik is an intern at the Ostrogorski Centre and MA student at Stockholm University.

Vadzim Smok is an analyst and project coordinator at the Ostrogorski Centre.




A Final Blow to Independent Sociology in Belarus?

On 31 July 2016, Belarusian TV broadcast a “special report,” accusing the IISEPS (Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies) of fraud and fabrication of results.

Soon thereafter, the founder of IISEPS, Aleh Manaeŭ​, stated that his organisation would cease conducting sociological surveys in Belarus.

On the eve of the 2016 parliamentary elections, the Belarusian authorities decided to tighten control over opinion polls to secure a smooth electoral campaign. IISEPS, known as one of the few independent pollsters in Belarus, was an easy target, as it had already been struggling for existence for years.

The termination of IISEPS' activities impacts the availability of independently-collected quantitative data on Belarusian society. Experts fear that this attack on IISEPS marks an end to independent sociology in Belarus.

Between a rock and a hard place

Established in 1992 by a group of academics and public figures, the IISEPS had been regularly providing public opinion polls and surveys of the socio-political situation in Belarus.

It has remained one of the few independent sources of information for social scientists on Belarus both within the country and abroad. According to IISEPS, by 2015, the number of media references to the Institute had reached 3,200, in contrast to a mere 25 in 1992.

Ironically, independent opinion polls presented an inconvenience both for the authorities and the opposition.

Ironically, independent opinion polls presented an inconvenience both for the authorities and the opposition. The latter was often unhappy with their results, which did not always conform with the wishful thinking of some of the regime's opponents. For instance, during the Ukrainian crisis in 2014, IISEPS polls reflected growth in Lukashenka's approval ratings and unwillingness of Belarusians to support possible scenarios of violent power takeover.

During the 2015 presidential elections, IISEPS confirmed Lukashenka's victory, albeit by a much smaller margin than the Central Election Commission reported. IISEPS estimated that Lukashenka had won with 50.8 per cent of votes, while his closest contender, Tatsiana Karatkevich, received 22.3 per cent of votes. By contrast, official statistics assigned 83.5 per cent of votes to Lukashenka, and only 4.4 per cent to Karatkevich.

However, IISEPS still represents a much larger nuisance to the ruling regime than to the opposition. In 2005, persecution forced it out of the country, as the Supreme Court denied the Institute an official registration, thus making its activities in Belarus illegal. IISEPS relocated to Lithuania and has been operating from Vilnius. It will continue its work until August 2016, marking an end to independent opinion polls in Belarus.

Securing stage-managed elections?

By spring 2016, Belarusian state-run media started targeting IISEPS in an organised fashion, aiming to discredit the activities of its independent social researchers. Major Belarusian official media, including Belarus Segodnia and Belta, lamented that IISEPS research was biased and unreliable.

Other media allegations centred around the legal aspects of IISEPS activities, since it conducted surveys and disseminated their results without official approval. On 31 July 2016, the leading Belarusian TV channel delivered the final strike to IISEPS by broadcasting an entire film discrediting IISEPS activities and methodologies.

Based on information from anonymous informants, journalists claimed that IISEPS did not conduct real surveys and falsified its data. Moreover, the film deliberately disclosed a number of names and the personal information of IISEPS employees, thus placing them at risk of criminal charges for working without registration.

In response, Aleh Manaeŭ issued a statement denying all accusations against IISEPS in the media. He connected the attack on his Institute with the upcoming parliamentary elections and the fact that Belarusian authorities need to ensure they go off smoothly.

In his opinion, the regime needed an uncomplicated picture of elections in order to justify more dialogue and cooperation with the West, especially in light of the deteriorating social, economic, and geopolitical situation.

The end of independent opinion polls in Belarus?

On 9 August 2016, Aleh Manaeŭ declared that IISEPS would cease conducting sociological surveys in Belarus due to the heightened risk involved for its employees. Apparently, the media attacked the entire network of interviewers, forcing some of them to give public statements under threat of criminal charges.

Experts fear that the attack on IISEPS will complicate analysis of the parliamentary elections in Belarus this fall. Aliaksandr Klaskoŭski has noted that in the past IISEPS numbers often reflected electoral fraud. Thus, the elimination of IISEPS will serve to ensure that elections appear honest while depriving Western observers of an alternative sources of information.

According to the political scientist Siarhej Nikaliuk, the upcoming parliamentary elections might not be the only reason for the attack against the IISEPS. It could also have fallen prey to the Belarusian regime's need to secure control over the country in times of deepening economic crisis. Independent opinion polls and data thus turned into a liability, whereas elections just represented a tipping point.

The attack on IISEPS coincided not only with parliamentary elections and an economic crisis in Belarus, but also with decreasing levels of support for Lukashenka. Spring public opinion polls reflect that by March 2016, Lukashenka's popularity had dropped to 27.3 per cent, in contrast to 45.7 per cent in September 2015.

Valer Karbalevich has also suggested that the attack on IISEPS might be part of Lukashenka's usual tactic to gain leverage against the West. In this case, the Belarusian regime would traditionally start a “hostage trade” in exchange for recognition of the elections. Or, alternatively, it sensed that the West chose geopolitics over democracy promotion in Belarus and therefore would not interfere much in internal affairs.

As of now, it is clear that Belarusian authorities have successfully deprived its opponents, independent analysts, and election observers of alternative sources of information. It is likely that in the future it will ensure its monopoly over sociology and opinion polls in order to showcase an acceptable version of Belarusian reality to the world.




Belarus between EU and EEU, New Opposition Strategy – Digest of Belarusian Analytics

Over the past month analysts discussed continuing rapprochement of Belarus with the West and potential Russia’s responses to it. Meanwhile, influenced by Russian propaganda, Belarusians favour Eurasian integration over European, although official Minsk finds its result unsatisfactory.

Belarusian opposition changes its strategy in relations with the authorities and plans to push them to negotiations with backing of mass street pressure. However, a Ukrainian sociologist predicts that democracy in Belarus will come not earlier than in 50 years and conditions for a Maidan do not exist there. This and more in the new Digest of Belarusian Analytics.

Foreign policy

Belarus in the EAEC: a Year Later (Disappointing Results and Doubtful Prospects) – This report was presented in Minsk on March 22, by the Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. The report is devoted to the analysis of the first year of existence of the Eurasian Economic Community (EAEC) for Belarus. Among the key findings is that Minsk had great expectations from this association, but now finds it unsatisfactory.

Europe’s Last Dictator Comes in From the ColdArtyom Shraibman, for Carnegie Moscow Center, notices that Lukashenka’s fortunes have changed. Once known as “Europe’s last dictator,” he has won friends in Europe, while antagonizing his traditional ally, Russia. It’s a situation that has left the Kremlin in a difficult position: should it punish Belarus for its pro-Western tendencies? Or should it continue to prop up the Belarusian economy rather than risk further unrest in the region?

Belarus-Ukraine Relations Beyond Media HeadlinesYauheni Preiherman, in Eurasia Daily Monitor, notices that media narratives often distort the reality of Belarus-Ukraine relations. Some observers explain this by the absence of a “strategic vision for a long-term relationship”. The author sees this a typical feature of inter-state relations in the post-Soviet space, where politics is mainly about tactics, and fighting protectionist trade wars is part of the political culture.

Politics

Belarusian Opposition Comes Up With New Strategy: Negotiations With Authorities Due to Protest Pressure – Politicians and leaders of the mass protests discuss the lessons of "The Square-2006". The new strategy is likely to depart from the revolutionary approach to power change and focus on evolutionary approach, by changing relations between the authorities and the opposition through negotiations, backed by mass street pressure.

Ukrainian Sociologist: Maidan will not be in Minsk – Democracy in Belarus will come not earlier than in 50 years. This will happen only when society is ready for this. Artificial imposition of liberal values does not work, as well as there are no political or social preconditions for Maidan of the Kyiv scenario in Minsk, according to Ukrainian sociologist, Professor Eduard Afonin.

Public opinion polls

Majority of Belarusians want to keep death penalty. According to the March national poll conducted by IISEPS, 51.5% of Belarusians do not agree with the idea to abolish the death penalty; opposite opinion is shared by 36.4%. Women are less in favor of abolition of the death penalty than men – respectively 55.3% and 46.9%. Belarus is the only country in Europe and on the post-soviet space, which still applies the death penalty.

Belarus Between EU and EEU. Nation-Wide Poll – The ODB Brussels commissioned a survey about perceptions, preferences, and values Belarusians attribute to the European Union (EU) and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). According to the study, Belarusians have a high-level understanding and appreciation of the EU, a clear opinion that the EU and EEU are competitors while public reasoning is currently swayed in favor of economic cooperation with the EEU.

Peculiarities of Public Opinion in BelarusGrigory Ioffe overviews the key results of a fresh national poll by IISEPS and an alarming reaction of official sociologists to the results, namely, the decline in Alexander Lukashenka’s electoral rating. Siarhei Nikalyuk, an associate of IISEPS, suggests that independent sociologists who are de facto allowed to work in Belarus are playing the role that jesters did in medieval Europe. After all, only a jester was allowed to speak the truth to the monarch, who actually appreciated that.

Other

Advocacy Sector in Belarus: CSO Experience – The study analyses the actual practices of advocacy in Belarus for the recent five years. The researchers see the key factor of success/failure of any campaign in its capacity for politicisation, i.e. whether authorities perceive a campaign political or not. The study was commissioned by OEEC in a series of sectoral studies aimed at summarising data on the development of specific sectors of civil society in Belarus. The presentation was held on March 24.

How to Make Minsk a Cycling City? – Pavel Harbunou, the Minsk Bicycle Society, shares the results of an annual monitoring on bicycle traffic on the Minsk streets, which shows that the number of cyclists has increased significantly in the city. The activists tells what can be done to make Minsk comfortable for all road users. Namely, the Bicycle Society launches a new campaign Street Bike Supervisor aimed to provide a regular feedback on the conditions of Minsk streets.

Ghetto for Each. Why Minsk Art Spaces Live Separately From Each OtherBelarusian Journal online describes the existing art spaces in Minsk, both mainstream and alternative. While a growing number of cultural spaces is a positive sign, it is too early to talk about the impact of these spaces for culture in general. It is more a question of the formation of separate subcultural groups, the original "ghetto" that arise, rather against the wishes 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.




Opinion: Polls and the Belarusian Reality

​On 11 October, Belarusians go to the polls in the fourth election in Belarus since Aliaksandr Lukashenka was voted president in 1994. The current campaign shares many of the features of its predecessors. As earlier, Western observers have focused on opinion polls, but in Belarus few are reliable. Thus NISEPI's publications take on special significance.

Yet during and after every election, opposition leaders have criticised and raised doubts about its conclusions. A typical example was in an article of 6 October on the Naviny.by web site, where Vitali Rymasheuski, a 2010 presidential candidate, maintained that Independent Institute of Social-Economic and Political Research​ (NISEPI) surveys serve to legitimise Lukashenka.

Are such critiques valid? How should one evaluate the current campaign?

The Rules of the Game

As with his relations with the European Union, Lukashenka has mastered the rules of the game. Just as his release of remaining political prisoners appears to respond sufficiently to EU demands for withdrawal of sanctions, so every five years the appearance of the façade of a democratic election rather than the reality, replete with Electoral Commission and requisite candidates (few or multiple) implies that there is the possibility of change.

Siarhei Haidukevich reappears at five-year intervals to lose elections “elegantly” 

This time there are four candidates, only one of which, Tatsiana Karatkevich of the People’s Referendum, opposes the president, albeit in a relatively mild and polite manner compared, say, to the ebullient TV performance of Uladzimir Kazulin in 2006 or the eloquent denunciations of Uladzimir Niakliaev in 2010.

The others are closet if not overt supporters of Lukashenka: Siarhei Haidukevich, who reappears at five-year intervals to lose elections “elegantly” and Mikalai Ulakhovich of the Patriotic Party, which is so obscure that its web site rarely functions.

The opposition remains weak and divided, with the key question whether to boycott the elections or take part. As for the election issues, the two major ones are the economy and national security. Since he has failed in the former, the president emphasises the latter, namely that only he can ensure stability and peace. As formerly, he plays no part in election debates on television and has hardly campaigned, the underlying assumption being that he remains preoccupied with pressing affairs of the state.

NISEPI’s September Poll

After the 2010 election, NISEPI researchers concluded that Lukashenka received at least 50% plus one of the overall vote. The statement prompted some critics to comment that in this way it provided legitimacy to the Lukashenka presidency. The September poll suggests that his rating is 45.7% (those who are “prepared to vote” for him) but given the likely turn out of 72.5%, the actual vote would be 64%. Karatkevich’s support, respectively is 17.9% on paper and 25% at the polls.

NISEPI adds that these figures mask the fact that support for Lukashenka is solid, comprised of committed voters, whereas that for Karatkevich includes voters who may ignore the elections altogether. Thus 64% represents a minimal figure for Lukashenka—in fact the authorities would perceive such a low figure as demeaning.

Yet elsewhere the poll elucidates a population concerned about falling living standards, a collapsing ruble, and a drop in both the GDP and real wages. As Leanid Zlotnikau points out in Belarusian Analytical Workshop 19, rather than the anticipated wage of $1,000 monthly, the average for Belarusian workers in September was $420, or almost $100 less than in 2010. Significantly, Zlotnikau attributes the current decline less to world recession than to a decline in export prices and the fall in competitiveness of Belarusian manufacturing.

Most voters, however, do not acquire their information from such sources; they rely on television and to a lesser extent social media. The overriding feature of any election campaign is the demeaning of opposition candidates on national TV.

The authorities choose to tolerate Karatkevich, however, suggesting the threat is minor

Interestingly, NISEPI posed the question in its September poll: if you knew of someone who could run successfully against Lukashenka in the presidential elections, would you vote for this candidate or Lukashenka? The response was 38.7% for the unknown candidate and 32% for Lukashenka (with 28.1% undecided).

Should one conclude that the current opponent, Karatkevich, then, is simply unconvincing to voters? In 2010, official media denounced more vocal opponents such as Sannikau and Niakliaiev as “enemies of the people.” Their subsequent arrests and incarceration amid accusations of an armed putsch likely solidified that perception.

In general, the frenzied attacks on those who dare to oppose the “people’s president” render candidates opponents of the regime, even a security risk to the future of the state. The authorities choose to tolerate Karatkevich, however, suggesting the threat is minor.

Explaining the Inexplicable

Elections for most Belarusians are less about democratic process than safety, job security and the future of families

Opinion polls generally are not about consciousness and motives; they employ carefully formulated questions with yes or no answers. In this respect they conceal a myriad of factors that are difficult to express: not least voters’ insecurities, possible fear of repercussions (KGB repressions peaked in 2011 but few have forgotten them), and general passivity.

Elections for most Belarusians are less about democratic process than safety, job security and the future of families. Polls rarely emphasise—nor could they—the highly authoritarian nature of Belarus and its dependence on state-run industries that achieved past growth simply by borrowing or relying on Russian subsidies (Zlotnikau’s conclusion).

Yet Lukashenka, whose victory is assured, fiercely declares his independence from Moscow and poses as a maverick free agent standing up for his people. In this way polls can appear misleading. NISEPI seeks to elucidate what people think, not why they think how they do. Such surveys have value and NISEPI is an honest broker, but its simply constructed questions should not define our analysis. The regime, based on such criteria, succeeds. Yet by all the indices used to measure progress, it is failing.

David Marples and Uladzimir Padhol

David Marples is Distinguished University Professor, Department of History & Classics, University of Alberta.

Uladzimir Padhol is Belarusian political scientist and journalist, editor and publisher of Narodnyi televisor. Tsitaty i baiki A.G. Lukashenko [People’s Television: Citations and Stories of A.G. Lukashenko], which is now in its thirtieth edition.




Belarusians in World Values Survey: East or West?

In February 2015 following the negotiations in Minsk the President of Belarus said he was not planning to “turn to the West.” He explained, “You and I are Russian people… we have shared history. We have shared opinions.”

According to the recently released World Value Survey (WVS), Belarusians and Russians indeed have a lot in common. Respondents in both countries perceive democracy as less important than respondents in West European states.They have become more religious in the last two decades and are much more focused on economic security.

Belarusians’ survey responses seem to reflect the quest for stability and aversion to political change inculcated by Russian and Belarusian media.

Headquartered in Stockholm, Sweden, WVS consists of almost 100 nationally representative surveys conducted with nearly 400,000 respondents. In Belarus, the survey was administered by the Centre for Sociological and Political Researches at Belarusian State University.

Does Democracy Matter?

WVS results suggest that Belarusians differ from EU citizens most when it comes to politics.

When asked to rank the importance of democracy on a ten-point scale, from absolutely important to not at all important, only a quarter of Belarusians chose the former. For comparison, nearly two thirds of German respondents and half of Polish respondents said democracy was absolutely important.

Both Belarusians and Poles were of low opinion about democracy in the 1990s. In the 1995-1999 survey wave, one fifth of respondents in each states strongly agreed with the statement “while democracy has problems it's better than any other form of government.” Over time, democracy has grown on the Poles, but not on their eastern neighbours.

The predominance of Russian-language media may be partly to blame. Belarusians watch Russian TV channels, surf Russian websites, and purchase Russian newspapers. State-owned channels tell them that democracy has already arrived in the post-Communist space and this democracy is of superior quality to the Western variety. In fact, even the Communist authorities used to call their political arrangement a "People's Democracy."

The meaning of democracy also varies across states. Relatively few Belarusians believe that choosing leaders in free elections constitutes an essential feature of democracy. Free elections are twice as important in Germany and Sweden, for example. Lukashenka would agree. In 2011 he told The Washington Post, “There is no less democracy in Belarus than there is in the United States.”

Furthermore, only 30% of Belarusian respondents said they believe that "civil rights that protect people’s liberty from state oppression" are essential for a democracy.

Interestingly, Belarusians concur with West-European respondents that democracy is not about equal incomes or soaking the rich. Perhaps due to greater inequality and conspicuousness of “oligarchy” in Ukraine and Russia, respondents from these states put more emphasis on economic redistribution.

Belarus on a Conservative Rebound?

As Maxim Trudolyubov noted in the February 2014 New York Times op-ed, religiosity is on the rise in the post-Communist states. WVS allows to compare religiosity between the 1981 and 2007 waves, as measured by the question on the importance of God.

Seven of eight states showing the greatest gains in religious faith are post-Communist: Russia, China, Belarus, Bulgaria, Serbia and Romania, Ukraine and Moldova. By contrast, religiosity has steadily declined in Western Europe. As Europeans grew richer, they went to church less and less.

Social scientists Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris explain the rise of religiosity in Eastern Europe by the combination of decreased economic and physical security and the collapse of Marxist ideology. Turning to religion in hard economic times, people in Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia are also reacting against the Soviet atheism policy.

The revival of religious faith has not gone unnoticed by the Belarusian state and opposition alike.

Imitating the Kremlin, Lukashenka frequently rails against the “degradation of Western morals.” For example, at the January 2015 Spiritual revival award ceremony, the President emphasised that “adherence to Christian values, morality, and aesthetic tradition is one of the main factors for the development of the Belarusian nation, preservation of its unity.” He described Belarus as an island of peace at the time when “the wave of international, inter-confessional conflicts and terrorist threats has engulfed the entire world.”

Some Belarusian opposition leaders seem to share Lukashenka’s sentiments. Vital Rymašeŭski of Belarusian Christian Democracy promotes “Christianity against Dictatorship” even as he rails against homosexuals. Paval Seviarynec of Malady Front in 2013 claimed that “the Bible is key to Belarusian National Idea” and in 2012 expressed concern about the “lost” believers from non-Christian traditions.

In contrast to Lukashenka, who calls himself “Orthodox atheist” and supports the Church in exchange for concrete political benefits, Rymašeŭski and Seviarynec are speaking their minds.

Growing religiosity makes Belarusians vulnerable to influence – not only from the Belarusian state or from conservative opposition leaders, but also from the Kremlin’s “Orthodox empire.”

Luckily, even as religious faith is experiencing a revival, it plays only a small role in Belarusian society. Only 16% of Belarusian WSV respondents viewed religion as “very important.” What is more, only 59% of Belarusians are Orthodox Christians. Religious pluralism as well as widespread atheism may be the surest bulwark against the encroachments of the “Russian world”.

Seeking Economic Security Above All

Social scientists have noted that respondents in post-Communist states differ from respondents in industrialised Western states in the predominance of the so-called survival (as opposed to post-materialist) values.

The survival values focus on economic and physical security. Once basic security needs are met, post-materialist priorities of self-expression and mental well-being come to the fore, according to Inglehart.

Post-materialist, liberal values have weak grounding in Belarusian society. Over 77% of Belarusian respondents, for example, viewed economic growth as their country’s most important priority, more important than, for example, “seeing that people have more say in how jobs are done in their communities” or than “making cities and countryside more beautiful.”

Preoccupation with material circumstances can be explained by the poor state of Belarus’s economy. As incomes rise, concerns about the quality of life, environmental issues, and human rights may begin replacing preoccupation with economic conditions.

East or West?

School textbooks in Belarus routinely emphasise the country’s location in the heart of Europe. On social media Belarusians themselves seem ambivalent. Some emphasise the country’s innate Europeanness and blame its current backwardness on Russian imperialism and Lukashenka’s leadership. Others rail against the depravity of the West and extol Belarus’s Slavic, Orthodox heritage.

Results from the recent WVS wave show what Belarusian and West Europeans have in common and what divides them. The Communist past and the authoritarian present have left a deep imprint on Belarusians’ attitudes and beliefs.

Out of step with their Western counterparts, Belarusians are becoming more religious, privilege economic security above other concerns, and remain suspicious of democracy. If Belarusians continue to consume Russian media, they and Russians will find more and more to talk about.

 




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.




The Myth of Belarusian Tolerance

If you ask a Belarusian about the most important national feature of Belarus, he will most probably mention tolerance.

This opinion seems to be deeply rooted in mass consciousness. Lukashenka's regime often uses it in ideological discourse to prove that Belarusians have been peaceful throughout their history and cannot stir up any conflicts, internal or external.

However, in 2012 the Institute for Economics and Peace ranked Belarus at the bottom of its Global Peace Index (109 among 158 countries), suggesting that Belarus actually belongs to the group of the least peaceful nations.

Belarusian think tanks researched public opinion to understand this issue. The research showed that the Belarusian people can, in fact, be quite hostile to "otherness" in terms of cultural and identity matters. At the same time they are much closer to European norms when it comes to political and civic values.

The Tolerance Narrative in Belarus

Many in Belarus like to refer to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL) as an example when they speak about tolerance. Indeed, in the GDL many religions and ethnic groups coexisted peacefully for centuries. No religious wars ever occurred throughout its history. The local population tolerated other religions and ethnic groups. Plenty of Jews and Muslims lived in peace with their Christian neighbours. 

Belarus had four official languages - Belarusian, Polish, Russian and Yiddish

After the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic was proclaimed in 1919, Belarus had four official languages – Belarusian, Polish, Russian and Yiddish. But this multicultural society vanished after the Second World War, which dramatically changed not only state borders but also the ethnic composition of Belarus. 

Today, Belarusian officials employ the history of tolerance to prove the good nature of the Belarusian people: these people have never attempted to occupy or destroy other cultures, all they want is to leave peacefully on their land, work hard and raise children. The problem, according to state ideologists, is that Belarus is surrounded by enemies, such as the EU member states and NATO. They pose threats to tolerant Belarusians, who need to unite around a strong leader and resist the aggressors.

Tolerance has already become an important element of Belarusian social consciousness. If you ask a Belarusian what national features seem typical for his countryman, he would most probably name tolerance amongst a few others. However, regular people hardly try to critically analyse this concept and how it actually plays out in Belarusian society.

Independent experts try to prove the opposite, but they rarely do empirical research to support their claims. However,oOne  such research project was conducted a couple of years ago and yielded truly interesting results.     

Belarusians have Strong Social and Cultural Phobias

The Novak laboratory and the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies conducted research on this topic in 2010. The research aimed to compare current Belarusian political culture with European values. Contrary to widespread opinion, the results showed that Belarusian are more prone to accept the political standards of the EU rather than its cultural norms.

Belarusian are more prone to accept the political standards of the EU rather than its cultural norms

Polls showed that Belarusians remain very homophobic. More than 60 per cent of Belarusians support criminal prosecution of homosexuals. Only 6 per cent said that gay people should exercise equal rights with the rest of society. No wonder that the Belarusian authorities put pressure on gay activists

The famous myth of religious tolerance was also completely debunked. According to 57 per cent of respondents, the state should restrict the spread of non-traditional religions, like Hare Krishnas or Buddhists.

Tolerance for other nationalities also received weak support. 46 per cent of Belarusians think that the state should restrict incoming immigrant labour. Moreover, 20 per cent are ready to do their best to prevent their children from marrying representatives of another race.

However, Belarusians Remain Politically Liberal

On the other hand, Belarusians demonstrated a more European approach to political freedom and citizens' relations with the state. 65 per cent of respondents believe that the state should promote international contacts between students and teachers to raise the quality of education, while only seven per cent spoke in favour of restricting such contacts.

40 per cent think that the state should the respect rights and freedoms of citizens even when citizens abuse their rights. Only 25 per cent believe that the state's primary duty is to maintain order even where it involves the violation of citizens' rights.

60 per cent think that the state should provide business with more freedom

Economic freedom appeared to be of great value to Belarusians: 60 per cent think that the state should provide businesses with more freedom, while only about 20 per cent believe the state should control business.

Freedom of consciousness also appeared important: 50 per cent of Belarusians believe that disagreements on government actions should not be an obstacle to professional development and education, while less than 20 per cent gave an opposite answer.

Belarusians are slightly less liberal with regard to organised opposition to the government and censorship. The number of opponents and supporters of restricting organised opposition activities are almost equal – around 25 per cent. More than 40 per cent think that the media should be censored in order to prevent the spread of extremist and anti-government ideas, while the share of opponents of censorship is smaller – 27 per cent.

What Does it all Mean?

This shows that Belarusians are not who they think they are, and what the regime wants them to be.

In fact, they resemble their historical and geographical neighbours from the EU – Poland and Lithuania. These countries remain rather conservative in cultural and identity matters, be it gay rights, immigrant labour or religion. On the other hand, they share European political values of democracy, respect for human rights and the free market. Europeanisation of new member states, however, develops these values further, while the Belarusian regime hinders such development.

Indeed, how can real tolerance emerge in Belarus, when no public discussions ever appear in the mass media? It looks like such problems do not exist in Belarus, so it is not worth speaking about them. The Belarusian regime aims to conceal any controversies that contradict the official ideology. It often refers to other countries in this context, where there are numerous ongoing conflicts and then points to Belarus; a model of total tranquillity with no social cleavages.

Such a policy only enhances conservativeness and prejudice amongst Belarusians. They can hardly formulate any pros and cons of a problem based on scientific facts or research, and usually employ narrow-minded phrases and myths in discussions. As a result, it is quite difficult to be “different” in Belarus.

The other part of the research, however, leaves some hope for a brighter future. Politically, Belarusians are ready for democratisation and change. This fact is most important, as it creates grounds for dialogue. Political pluralism and freedom of media will contribute to the emergence of public discussion, which will subsequently lead to the tolerance of other cultures and identities. No one knows, unfortunately, when this brighter future will come to Belarus.

Vadzim Smok




Recent Polls: Belarusians Blame Lukashenka for Their Problems (+ Video)

On 18 January the Eastern European Studies Centre and Belarus Research Council organised a panel “What Belarusians Think?”. The participants discussed the results of the December social survey conducted by the Independent Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Studies.

Professor Oleg Manaev, director of the IISEPS, presented and analysed the polls. He underlined the importance of presentation of the results abroad since deteriorating situation for freedom of speech in Belarus.

Other panellists Alexei Pikulik, an analyst of the Belarus Institute for Strategic Studies, and Sergey Nikoluk from IISEPS, continued on commenting the survey outcomes. Valery Karbalevich, a journalist of Radio Free Europe/Radio Svoboda, moderated the discussion. 

The discussants focused on the reasons for stabilisation of Lukashenka's rating although the pools proved  dissatisfaction with the deteriorating economy. They also took a closer look into low social trust for the opposition. Below is a summary of the main issues discussed. 

Lukashenka: a Source of Crisis and Solace

The December poll conducted by the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS) shows that the personal rating of Lukashenka is actually "frozen". In December, 39.1% respondents trusted him, while 49.1% did not trust (in September – 38.5% vs.51.9%). Also, the president is considered as the main culprit of the current economic crisis (41%), followed by the government (39.1%), the opposition (11.5%), Europe (10.9%), Russia (7.5%).

The polls also showed that the year 2012 appeared to be very difficult for Belarusians. Despite the salary growth, 57 per cent of respondents claimed that their material situation has not changed (vs. 27% of those who claimed that it deteriorated). 88 per cent of respondents think that Belarusian economy is in crisis. Almost half of Belarusians blamed the president for the current economic crisis (41%). However, it is less that in the previous survey (almost 50 per cent). 39 per cent of Belarusians put responsibility on the authorities.

Whereas respondents remained critical toward Aleksandr Lukashenka, many of them have expected him to overcome the economic crisis. Number of Belarusians who understand that the socio-economic model in Belarus is no longer viable has increased (33 per cent now). Almost 30% of respondents claimed that its ‘success’ depended upon substantial  financial aid from Russia.

Is That Really so Simple: Russia Closer, the EU Further?

Cultural closeness of Belarusians and Russians remains one of the key factors of the Euro scepticism in the society. Moreover, the idea of similar mindset determines often the geopolitical identity of Belarusians. For example, it encourages to integration with their Eastern neighbours, even at the level of daily life situations, such as at work, entering into mixed marriages. Changes are possible but only as long-term process. 

As the data showed, the number of proponents for the integration with Russia remains rather stable (38 per cent). Similarly, there are no dynamics in the attitude toward the idea of joining the European Union (43%).  However, 25 per cent of Belarusians have heard about the European Dialogue on Modernisation. Almost a half of respondents  think that the initiative is important for Belarus. It means that the society is obtaining information on that project and expresses its interest in it. 

Belarusians expressed positive attitude toward small cross-border movement (50% in favour of it). In particular, people living in the borderland regions remained positive for that initiative (for example, 72 per cent of Grodna’ s respondents). Asked for the reasons of problems with implementation of the agreement with Poland and Lithuania, 28 per cent respondents argued that it was due to the Belarusian side.

Only 13% Belarusians put responsibility on Poles and Lithuanians. It can mean that the society understands the political motives staying behind the Lukashenka’s strategy. According to the discussants, it is the civic initiatives that could take more active part in the process. 

The Opposition: Frozen in Inability

The rating of Lukashenka remains stable (31.5%), but with a slight decrease from 34.5 per cent in September 2012.  Interestingly, over 40 per cent of respondents did not express support to any of the listed politicians. It means that still a substantial part of society remains undecided.

The panellists disagrees on how Belarusians perceived the opposition. One of the speakers suggested that the society does not understand the idea of the political party and its formalised structure. It is thus unsatisfied with the opposition activity. On the other hand, many Belarusians associate the opposition with the concrete political force. Moreover, support for a certain political party means affiliation to it. Therefore, they remain sceptic about expressing their positive attitude.

The low support for the opposition has also other reasons. According to one speaker, the opposition has already showed its weakness and inability to exist in the state system. It is also due to the quality of the regime which efficiently hinders its functioning. For example, the opposition is not present in the information space.

Another key issue is that the Lukashenka’s socio-economic project worked out for many years in Belarus. Thus, the opposition claiming the transformation to the market economy have not yet obtained substantial social trust and acceptance for its vision.

It appears that for the Belarusian public opinion the opposition appears as eccentric and focusing on abstract disputes. On the other hand, as he noticed, the opposition weakness is also due to the regime. Different opposition would meant different regime. 

No Wind of Change?

Panellists also paid attention to the role of Belarusian language in the public sphere. Many among the opposition claim that presence of the language is necessary for development the Belarusian national project. According to some opinions, the wider usage of Belarusian could foster the national awareness and as a result, it would also have impact on the regime. Such attitude failed to obtaine much support among the discussants. Indeed, it is the Russian language which prevails in the daily life usage (around 55-60 per cent of respondents in the last 18 years). 

The survey results proved that Belarusians recognised that the country’s economic and their private material situation deteriorated. Although many of them still hold Lukashenka’s responsible for that, at the same time they perceive him as the one who can manage to improve it. 

The December polls showed that  Belarusians remain sceptical about the state institutions. The leader among the organisations of the highest social trust is the Orthodox Church (over 70 per cent). The respondents put their trust respectively in the army (53%) and advocacy (48%). 20% of people trust the oppositional political parties which is almost twice less as number of those who indicated the president (39 per cent). With lack of the social trust, the opposition stacks in its position.

VIDEO

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

 




“What do Belarusians Think?” – Broadcast of Belarus Research Council Discussion

On Friday 18 January, Belarus Digest will broadcast a panel titled “What do Belarusians Think?”. The discussion is organised by the Eastern European Studies Centre and the Belarus Research Council and will take place in Vilnius, Lithuania.

The event will give leading pollsters and analysts an opportunity to analyse the latest results of national public opinion polls carried out by the Independent Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS).

 

Moderator:

Valery Karbalevich, Radio Free Europe/Radio Svaboda

Presenter: 

Professor Oleg Manaev, Independent Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Studies

Discussants:

Alexei Pikulik, Belarus Institute for Strategic Studies

Elena Korestelva, University of Kent  

Sergey Nikoluk, Independent Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Studies

Bio Notes

Valeriy Karbalevich is a journalist and political scientist in Belarus. He is an expert at the Strategy centre and works for Radio Free Europe/Radio Svaboda. He is the author of the book Alexander Lukashenka: Political Portrait (2010).   

Prof. Oleg Manaev is a founder of IISEPS, Founding Professor of the Department of Social Communication at the Belarus State University (1999-2012), Professor of the Department of Media and Communication at EHU (since October 2012), and a Chairman of the Belarus Soros Foundation (1992-1995). He has published 200 scholarly articles and edited/authored 20 books on problems of the media, public opinion, the political process and civil society development in Belarus.

Dr. Elena Korosteleva is a Professor of International Politics at the University of Kent. Until August 2012 she was Jean Monnet Chair and Director of the Centre for European Studies at Aberystwyth University. Elena Korosteleva is an academic researcher and expert focusing on the politics of Belarus and Europe, democratisation, the European Neighbourhood Policy, European Neighbourhood and Partnership Initiative and Eastern Partnership.

Dr. Alexei Pikulik is the academic director of BISS. He received a Ph.D in Political and Social Science from the European University Institute, Florence. His research interests include political economy of reforms, political economy of oil, economic regulation. Since 2006 he has been teaching at the European Humanities University in Vilnius and since 2010 at the European University in Saint-Petersburg.

Sergey Nikolyuk is a pollster at IISEPS. With a background in science he became more and more involved in political science after 2000. Mr. Nikolyuk is an adherent of the Russian school of sociology and political science. 

The event is supported by the Belarus Reform and Media Assistance Project (BRAMA) implemented by Pact with the kind support of USAID.  The Belarus Research Council (BRC) is a loose network of polling agencies, think tanks, donors and other stakeholders interested in improving quality, interpretation and utilization of available researches and data. Currently BRC focuses on:  a) taking stock of existing research; b) create links between the researchers, analysts, stakeholders and public; c) improve research presentation and data visualization; d) increase sustainability, transparency and consistency of research activities in Belarus.  




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.




Independent Pollsters Will be Prosecuted – Belarus Politics Digest

Fines for unsanctioned polls. The House of Representatives approved in the first reading a bill of amendments, which would establish administrative liability for non-licensed public opinion surveys. The fine would in particular be established for “illegal” polls asking people about their opinion about political situation the country, a national referendum, or parliamentary and presidential elections. It would equal 20 base rates (about $240) for individuals and up to 100 base rates (about $1,200) for legal entities.

New IISEPS survey. In June, the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS) conducted a survey of public opinion on major issues of life of Belarusians. In particular, the experts observe stabilization of the "economic health" of Belarusians, but also an increasing number of people who believe that Belarus needs changes (77.3%). Also, Alexander Lukashenka's electoral rating has dropped to 29.7% compared to March (34.5%).

Council of the Republic adopted the draft law on KGB. On June 22, the upper house of Parliament adopted the draft law "On the State Security Bodies of Belarus". The law establishes the basic tasks, activities of state security, the responsibilities of the president and government in the field of the state security. The bill defines the conditions and limits of the security organs with regards to physical force, special equipment, weapons and military equipment.

Art-Siadziba ousted. Pavel Belavus, the Art-siadziba director, was summoned by the premises owner (the administration of the Horizont plant) that they must leave the office by July 23 and that their contract that had to expire at the end of October has been cancelled. The reason for it was the fact that they violated fire safety and numerous other regulations.

Amnesty International declares Pochobut prisoner of conscience but he is released shortly. In a statement on June 26, Amnesty International has declared Belarusian journalist Andrzej Poczobut a prisoner of conscience detained solely for exercising his right to freedom of expression. On June 30, Andrey Pochobut was released from the Grodno prison under travel ban. 

Opinion of animal defenders taken into account. The claims of CSOs involved in animal protection, as well as ordinary citizens were taken into account and the draft law "On the treatment of animals" was sent back for revision. It was reported by the internet community "Right to Life."

Uruccha protesters dispersed by police. Leanid Mazhalski, one of the leaders of a group of people protesting against a infill construction in Uruccha city district was detained in Minsk on July 5. The hearings in court are scheduled for July 17. It should be noted that inhabitants of Minsk protested against the construction of six blocks of flats for riot policemen in the district. The construction works are going on in spite of their protests.

National Gender Policy Council’s structure approved. The Council of Ministers approved internal regulations of the National Council for Gender Policy. Along with numerous government officials, the Council will include representatives of at least three women CSOs: Gender Perspectives, Young Christian Women Association and Women’s Independent Democratic Movement.  

The draft law on state social contracting adopted by the Parliament. On June 27, the House of Representatives adopted the amendments to some laws on social service. One of the most important parts of the bill is introduction of the mechanism of social contracting that allows nonprofit organizations to get funding from the state budget.

Deputy Minister participated in the CSO training. On June 26-27, NGO "ACT" together with Mogilev oblast executive committee held a training on "Social contracting basics" for Mogilev officials. Among the speakers there were the deputy chairman of the Mogilev Regional Executive Committee Valery Malashko, as well as Deputy Minister of Labour and Social Affairs Alexander Rumak.

International 

EU creates pro-democracy fund. On June 25, EU member states agreed to create a European endowment for democracy aimed to encourage "deep and sustainable" change in societies struggling under oppressive regimes, EU observer informs. The fund should become operational by next year and will primarily target EU neighbouring countries such as Belarus, where people are routinely jailed for showing opposition to President Alexander Lukashenka.

PACE committee statement on Belarus. The Committee on Political Affairs and Democracy of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), in a statement on June 26, urged the Belarusian authorities to "open up political space" ahead of September's parliamentary elections. The statement called on the Belarusian leadership to promote a democratic and fair parliamentary campaign and to ensure freedom of expression, association and assembly, as well as political rights for all opposition movements.

Ashton calls on authorities to stop harassment of opponents. In a statement on June 29, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton has called on the authorities in Belarus to stop the harassment of the opposition, media and civil society, expressing deep concern at a number of recent incidents.

Worst of the Worst 2012. A new Freedom House report "Worst of the Worst 2012: The World’s Most Repressive Societies" highlights those countries that earned the lowest possible scores (Worst of the Worst) or fell just short of the bottom scores (On the Threshold) in Freedom in the World 2012, Freedom House’s annual global assessment of political rights and civil liberties. Belarus was deemed to be “On the Threshold” together with Burma, Chad, China, Cuba, Laos, and Libya.

Linas Linkevicius appointed as Lithuanian new ambassador to BelarusLinas Linkevicius, a former Lithuanian defense minister, has been appointed as the Baltic state's new ambassador to Belarus, said a spokesperson for the Lithuanian embassy in Minsk on July 5.

UN appointed a special rapporteur on Belarus. On July 5, the United Nations' Human Rights Council adopted a resolution and  agreed to appoint a special rapporteur to monitor the situation of human rights in Belarus and to make recommendations for its improvement. The 47-nation council voted to create the post, as proposed by the European Union, by 22 votes to 5, with 20 abstentions. Belarus does not recognize the mandate of the UNHRC Special Rapporteur on Belarus and will not cooperate with him, the press service of the Foreign Ministry of Belarus said.

Belarusian envoy speaks against the appointment of rapporteur on Belarus at UN Human Rights Council. Mikhail Khvastow, Belarus' permanent representative to the UN Office in Geneva, said on June 28 during a session of the UN Human Rights Council that there was no need for the appointment of a special rapporteur on Belarus.

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.




Drift Towards Russia, Legal Environment for NGOs and Journalists – Digest of Belarusian Analytics

Belarusian analysts discuss the country's drift towards Russia, recent public opinion polls and which human rights are more important – social or political. New reports were published on the state of media in Belarus and environment for NGO activities. 

Who Is Losing Belarus? – Grigory Ioffe responds to Zbigniew Brzezinski's thesis that “with the decline of America’s global preeminence, weaker countries will be more susceptible to the assertive influence of major regional powers". Ioffe thinks that Russia is winning the tug of war for Belarus due to its businesslike Belarus policy. This is why, and not because of the decline in the overall America’s power, Belarus is on the “geopolitically endangered species” list. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Former National Security Adviser of the United States and the author of the concept of NATO expansion to the East, included Belarus into a list of eight geopolitically endangered countries in the event of slower foreign policy activity of the United States.

Book presentation: "Europe – the choice of free Belarusians". On January 26, in Minsk, the office of the Movement "For Freedom" presented a book with the participation of the authors: Andrey Yahorau, Eduard Melnikau, Sergey Alfer, Dina Shevtsova, and others. The book consists of road maps for rapprochement Belarus and the EU in selected thematic areas: media; government cooperation with civil society; local government; freedom of conscience and religion; culture, etc.

What Eurasian integration holds for Belarus – Yauheni Preiherman analyzes the prospects of the new phase of the post-Soviet integration. The expert thinks that the Eurasian integration process alone does not make Belarus’ dependence on Russia total and inescapable. At the same Belarus’ dependence on Russia is gradually growing stronger, which directly constrains any space for Belarus' geopolitical maneuvering.

BISS December 2011 Polling Memo – Belarusian Institute of Strategic Studies presented the fourth issue of the polling memorandum series based on the public opinion poll data of the Independent Institute for Social, Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS). In particular, the authors consider that December’s polling results support the trend of the year – the formation of a new majority of Belarusians politically staying "in the middle", being represented neither by the incumbent, nor by the opposition.

Reform, but not radical – Vadim Gigin, the editor of the state-owned magazine "Belaruskaya Dumka" comments on Lukashenka's statement about the intention to modernize the political system. Political scientist says that modernization means no revolution and its purpose is to overcome the political split in society and creating conditions for national consolidation. Gigin notes that the split is along the line of the civil majority (dominant) and the political opposition (underground).

Violations of Journalists' and Mass Media Rights in 2011The Belarusian Association of Journalists has released an annual review . In particular, BAJ identifies the following blatant violations: criminal prosecution of journalists; numerous detentions of journalists at protest actions throughout 2011; the introduction of claims against “Narodnaya Vola” and “Nasha Niva” by the Ministry of Information; restrictions on the free use of the internet, etc.

Monitoring of the legal environment for NGOs-2011. The Assembly of democratic NGOs and Legal Transformation Center released a full text of a monitoring of the NGOs’ legal status and freedom of association in Belarus in 2011. The authors name the following significant events and trends: the change in legislation, enacting new restrictions on the financing of NGOs and political parties; the verdict against the Head of the Human Rights Center "Viasna" Ales Byalyatski; the prosecutor's warnings under Article 193-1, etc.

Non-governmental organizations in exile: the Belarusian phenomenon – political analyst Yury Chavusau draws attention to the fact that not all NGOs wishing to obtain legal status can be registered in Belarus. In these circumstances, many of them get legal status in neighboring countries. Considering Ales Byalyatski’s case, the expert recommends to register an official legal entity abroad for donations and grants that may be an important tool to prevent allegations of tax violations.

Tonkacheva and Gigin on the transformation of the political system – on January 24, on the air of TV-TUT.BY a human rights activist Elena Tonkacheva and chief editor of "Belarusian Thought" Vadim Gigin, discussed the situation of human rights in Belarus. According to Tonkacheva, the critical areas are civil and political rights, while for Gigin economic rights were more important. Vadim Gigin emphasized that Belarusian authorities did not close down any media last year and that Belarusian human rights activists work only with certain groups of population rather with all segments of the society because thematic directions are given to them by donors. 

Election-2012. Possible scenarios – activist of the Movement “For Freedom” Yuras Hubarevich describes three scenarios for the possible participation of the opposition in parliamentary elections in September: active boycott, participation with demands to authorities, and participation to the end. The politician does not give any solutions as to which scenario is the best.

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.

 




Belarus – The Land Of Apolitical Internet Users

In the first week of January various media reported that  under Belarusian law browsing foreign web sites on the territory of Belarus became a crime. Soon it became clear that the new law did not target ordinary citizens.  A week after the worries around the new law had subsided the online research agency Gemius published the results of its November study. According to the study, the Internet audience in Belarus has reached the record 4 million people and the level of Internet penetration is already more than 50%.

Even despite the authoritarian political realities a growing number of Belarusians freely navigate the World Wide Web, including independent information portals and opposition web pages. However, the Gemius data shows that such web sites are not very popular among ordinary people. And it means that even on the background of massive political repression against civil society and the latest economic turmoil the Belarusians remain mostly apolitical.

The Internet Nation

Gemius does regular measurements of the audience of the biggest Belarusian web sites. It should be noted, however, that not all the web sites are covered by the research — only those that give permission for that. That is why the study does not feature the most popular Belarusian Internet portal — tut.by on one can find everything – from news to jobs and maps. Its daily audience is roughly 1.8 million people.  

Nonetheless, Gemius provides quite a telling and systemic overall picture of the Belarusian Internet. Importantly, the company’s archives help understand the dynamic of different data and identify various trends.

According to the study carried out in November 2011, from the gender point of view the Belarusian Internet is a zone of absolute equality: 51,3% of the Internet audience in Belarus is represented by female users and, respectively, 48,7% by male users. The age structure of the Internet audience is as follows:

Age group

% out of total audience

15-18

9,77

19-24

21,8

25-34

29,97

35-44

19,31

45-54

13,39

55+

6,48

Thus, the Internet penetration indicator in the country is quite high and already higher than in Ukraine and Russia. Internet users are more or less evenly distributed across the gender and age groups. As a result, the role of the Internet as a source of information and communication for the majority of the population is growing. More and more Belarusians create their accounts in social networks such as Odnoklassniki.ru, Facebook and Vkontakte.ru. On Facebook, for example, the number of ‘Belarusian accounts’ grew in the last half a year by 15%. Belarusians aged 25-34 years comprise the most fast-growing group here.

The Internet is gradually displacing the traditional mass media. The latter’s role in Belarus is diminishing. This is particularly true of newspapers. The falling circulation of the biggest state paper ‘Sovetskaya Belarus’ serves as a vivid example of this trend. In January 2012 the circulation dropped by 11,8% (from 400,000 in December to 352, 860). Even though the paper enjoys large-scale administrative support  – most of its circulation is literally forced on state enterprises and institutions – these might be very telling numbers.

Free To Choose

The most interesting data from the studies conducted by Gemius concern the web sites that are most popular among Belarusian Internet users. This data reveals clear thematic preferences. According to Gemius, in November 2011 the top-10 Belarusian web sites by the number of visitors (real users) were:

1. mail.ru (mail service)

2. yandex.by (search engine)

3. odnoklassniki.ru (social network)

4. onliner.by (technology and gadgets reviews)

5. livejournal_by (blogging platform)

6. deal.by (online shop)

7. zaycevnet.by (music sharing)

8. irr.by (online classifieds)

9. abw.by (car classifieds and reviews) 

10.by.all.biz (equivalent of yellow pages)

As we can see, among the top-10 there are different types of Internet shops (5), an email service, search engine, social network and a music portal. In other words, it is entertainment and shopping that Belarusian Internet users are mostly interested in. Only one page (livejournal_by) in the top-10 has some political content. And there is not a single news site – either governmental or independent.

One possible explanation for such a low level of interest to news and politics might be that the economic situation in Belarus stabilized in November 2011 after Belarus secured various economic subsidies from Russia after the agreements on the Single Economic Space, Beltransgas deal and gas contracts were signed in Moscow. To test this hypothesis we can look at the top-10 Belarusian web pages in, for example, June 2011. At that time Belarus was in the middle of currency crisis and the silent protests were in full swing.

Here are the top-10 web sites by the number of visitors (real users) that Gemius named in its study in June 2011:

1. mail.ru (mail service)

2. yandex.by (search engine)

3. odnoklassniki.ru (social network)

4. onliner.by (technology and gadgets reviews)

5. zaicevnet.by (music sharing)

6. livejournal_by (blogging platform)

7. naviny.by (news)

8. deal.by (online shop)

9. av.by (car classifieds and reviews) 

10. charter97.org (news)

The top-10 list in June had two independent from the government news pages – naviny.by and charter97.org. However, as the statistics provided by Gemius shows, each of these sites was visited by only about 10% of the Belarusian Internet users. To compare: the top-3 web sites (mail.ru, yandex.by and odnoklassniki.ru) were each popular among roughly 50% of the Internet users in Belarus.

The data in the archives of Gemius shows that in 2009-2011 the thematic priorities of the Belarusian Internet audience were almost unchanged. Entertainment and shopping were high on the preferences list, but news and analytics were either absent from the top-10 list at all or among its outsiders.

Why Are Belarusians So Apolitical?

Despite the authoritarian political system Belarusian citizens are free to use the Internet and choose what they want to read or watch there. But the research findings demonstrate that the majority of the Belarusian Internet users do not make use of this freedom in order to access uncensored news and analytical web sites. In other words, people choose to be apolitical.

The reasons why the Belarusians are so apolitical are multiple and need to be thoroughly researched. However, one reason clearly lies on the surface – no attractive and trustworthy political group has emerged which would make the Belarusians believe that reading political news will be of any importance to the future of the country.