The Secret of Lukashenka’s Popularity in the Former Soviet Union
Alexander Lukashenka's high ratings in the post-Soviet space are far less publicised than his disapproval in the West. But the fact remains: the President of Belarus is rather popular in the former Soviet republics. He is liked for appearing to create law and order and for keeping the Russian subsidies flowing. For states like Moldova and Ukraine, Lukashenka’s approval is also a vote of no confidence in their own leadership.
In the absence of fair elections and restrictions on independent opinion polls it is difficult to find reliable statistics on Lukashenka’s popularity in Belarus. It is all too easy to assume that the president has fallen out of everybody’s favour. One can make no claims about the leader’s fame within the borders of his own republic: conducting a representative survey on such a sensitive subject in Belarus is next to impossible.
However, evidence from a more democratic post-Soviet society may be instructive. And understanding Lukashenka’s ratings in Eastern European states may hold a key to finding a better European approach to the region.
"Batka’s Iron Hand Would Restore Order in Moldova"
Only Russian president Vladimir Putin was able to beat Lukashenka in popularity among Moldovans. But for the Belarusian leader standing next to Putin in a popularity contest is an achievement by itself. Moldovans cannot be unaware of these leaders’ authoritarianism, and especially of Putin’s partiality toward Transnistria in the Moldovan-Transnistrian conflict. So what explains Lukashenka’s popularity among Moldovans?
According to an online survey conducted by www.kp.md, Moldovans would like to borrow Lukashenka to bring law and order to their country. They are aware of “batka’s iron hand” and willing to try it. Putin could be useful in fighting their oligarchs and bandits.
One could dismiss the survey results as telling little about the rest of the post-Soviet space: after all, Moldova is the poorest country in Europe and suffers from a frozen conflict. Since the spring of 2009, the political climate in Chisinau has been polarised, and for some Moldovans, almost any ruler may seem better than their current leaders.
At the same time, Moldova is on the best terms with the EU among the post-Soviet states, enjoys the most EU assistance per capita and has an exceptionally high internet penetration rate. In short, its citizens are by no means vulnerable to the lack of information about Lukashenka’s sins.
Winning the Minds of Ukrainians, Georgians, Russians
Lukashenka is even popular in Georgia, an extremely pro-Western state that likes to tout its democratic credentials Read more
Lukashenka’s rating is also high in neighbouring Ukraine. The most recent albeit dated 2009 survey by Razumkov Centre found that 56.8 per cent of Ukrainians approved of Lukashenka, and only 3.9 per cent disapproved of him. Lukashenka is even popular in Georgia, an extremely pro-Western state that likes to tout its democratic credentials.
He is praised by the ordinary Georgians not so much for not recognising Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but for keeping unemployment low – or at least for creating such an impression outside Belarus. While few outside Belarus know how unprotected a Belarusian employee is vis-à-vis the state, the state-engineered full-employment façade is easily reaching the foreign audiences.
Even in Russia, where the population has had its own share of strongmanship and economic success, Lukashenka is popular. According to one survey, his approval in Russia was highest in 2000 and 2008 at 40 per cent and 38 per cent, respectively, but dropped during the Belarus-Russia information war. One cannot imagine any other non-Russian post-Soviet leader scoring points with the Russians.
Lukashenka: a Good Manager?
People in many ill-stared post-Soviet countries look up to a leader who can restore law and order in their countries. Stability for them comes before democracy and freedom of speech. The people’s choices are telling because citizens of the states that look up to Europe (e.g., Moldova) have heard the sharp Western criticism of Lukashenka’s authoritarianism.
Those who visited Minsk remember its safe clean streets and friendly hospitable people Read more
Unlike a typical Western European, many citizens of post-Soviet states have actually been to Belarus. Those who have visited Minsk remember its safe, clean streets and friendly, hospitable people. They hear that the President takes care of pensioners and the working class. It is not that the visitors are unaware of the political prisoners or have not heard about the rigged election, but they accept the price paid for the law and order in Belarus.
Even policy specialists acknowledge the attraction of Lukashenka’s style in the interviews. In an interview with Belarus Digest, Moldovan political scientist Igor Bocan pointed out that Lukashenka’s rule is a particular type of political order with authoritarian institutions that perform their functions well. Moldovan economist Galina Selari called Belarus “the only post-Soviet country where the state fulfils its functions”.
In other words, Lukashenka’s secret is getting things done better than his counterparts in Moldova and some other states. The Belarusian leader’s managerial skills and his frequent usage of the phrase “market socialism” were even noticed by the European left.
Belarusian Economic Miracle?
Among ordinary people the Belarusian leader is turning into something of a hero thanks to his dexterity vis-a-vis Russia. People in Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine believe Lukashenka has swindled Moscow into providing his country with cheap energy and a welcoming market. Most are unaware of the arguments that Belarus has lost some of its independence or will have to sell its entire heavy industry to Moscow. They wish their own politicians did not burn the bridges with the former empire.
The people in Moldova, Georgia, Ukraine believe Lukashenka has swindled Moscow into providing his country with cheap energy and a welcoming market Read more
During Lukashenka’s lengthy rule, thanks to Russian subsidies Belarus survived the stormy 1990s and the subsequent crises, foregoing economic restructuring which would have brought some losers and a share of pain. The Belarusian people did not live through substantial privatisation or marketisation. Until the recent currency crisis, for which Lukashenka’s fans hold the West or Moscow accountable, the average wages in Belarus were steadily climbing.
But of course, the uncomfortable truth remains: the Belarusian economy (read: the Belarusian state) is completely dependent on Russia and Russian oil. The longer the structural reforms are postponed, the greater the costs will be. Until then, Lukashenka’s style will remain popular.
Favoured Thanks to Other’s Faults
Ultimately, a president should be loved by their domestic, not foreign, electorate. Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev, Western darlings for parts of their careers, wound up deeply unpopular domestically. Russia’s favourite Eduard Shevardnadze was hated by the Georgians at home.
Support for Lukashenka in the post-Soviet space is a vote against local politicians, not so much a vote for him personally.
Solidarity Day, Election Observers, New Media Watchdog – Civil Society Digest
The most notable events of the last two weeks include the launch of the first Belarusian online media watchdog. Civil society organisations funding from the state budget becomes possible through amendments to Law on Social Services. A weekly election monitoring report notes the high rate of rejections of registration of opposition candidates initiative groups.
Day of Solidarity with Civil Society of Belarus. August 4, the day of arrest of Ales Bialiatsky, was chosen in 2012 by the Committee of International Control over the Human Rights Situation in Belarus as the international Day of Solidarity with Civil Society of Belarus. Activists in Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, Sweden, Germany, the UK, and other countries held public events, discussions, film screenings, and other activities. Ales Bialiatski, head of the Human Rights Center “Viasna” was arrested on August 4, 2011 and later sentenced to four and a half years of imprisonment for his human rights activities.
Belarusian Association of Journalists demands release of Anton Surapin. A petition with the demand was sent to the chairperson of the Belarusian KGB on July 25. BAJ member, Anton Surapin is staying on the detention center of the KGB. He has been detained in connection with the investigation into the criminal case of border trespass, so called "the teddy bears landing". The statements to release “teddy bear” free speech activist were also adopted by Amnesty International and Human rights Centre “Viasna”.
Joint appeal of human rights NGOs. Representatives of human rights organizations –Belarusian Helsinki Committee, Centre "Viasna", Committee "Solidarity", Legal Transformation Centre and the Centre for Human Rights – appealed to the General Prosecutor and Chairman of the Supreme Court requesting a meeting to discuss the situation with illegal preventive detention of civil activists and youth opposition groups. As examples human rights defenders mention detentions of more than 15 people in May-July 2012.
Report on monitoring election results: July 23rd-29th. The campaign "Human rights defenders for free elections" released its weekly report on monitoring election results. In particular, the report notes that 85 initiative groups were rejected registration which almost 4 times higher than during the previous parliamentary election. At the same time the overwhelming majority of the initiative groups in support of the oppositional candidates were registered.
EOTP invites observers. The project "Election Observation: Theory and Practice Project" (EOTP) invites active Belarusians to monitor the parliamentary elections to be held in September 2012. EOTP was launched in 2007 at the initiative of the students of European Humanities University (EHU) and Swedish International Liberal Centre (SILC). EOTP is jointly implemented by the Belarus Watch, EHU and Belarusian Human Rights House in exile in Vilnius.
Mediakritika.by: Truth Loves Criticism. A new analytical media project has been launched – Mediakritika.by. Created by a team of Belarusian journalists, it is aimed at comprehensive critical analysis of the media in Belarus. The new project sets the task to improve the quality of the Belarusian journalism by monitoring the quality of news as it is presented in all Belarusian media.
Photo exhibition and the book "No stereotypes". On August 1, Minsk hosted a photo exhibition and presentation of a book about the people with mental illness. The event was held under the project "No stereotypes" aimed at preventing prejudice against people with mental and intellectual illness. The project was launched in October 2011 and implemented by the international charity NGO "UniHelp" with financial support of the EU.
APB BirdLife invites volunteers. From July 30 to August 21, the NGO "APB BirdLife Belarus" holds a series of summer camps for the maintenance of the hydrological regime of the marsh Yelnya. This year the examination of hydrological structures and their maintenance will be made by about 50 volunteers as well as local residents of Miory and Sharkovshchina districts, Vitebsk region.
Art works of prisoners. On August 1, Gomel Picture Gallery opened an exhibition of works of women serving a sentence in a local penal colony. The event is organized by the Gomel Regional NGO "Social Projects" with the support of Deutscher Volkshochschul-Verband eV (Germany). The aim of the project is promoting the social rehabilitation of prisoners through improving their educational and professional level.
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.