Public Opinion: Back to what it used to be, or a bifurcation point?

Yury Drakakhrust

Summary

With respect to a number of indexes, in 2012 the economic situation was back to the pre-crisis status, thus the mood in society did not recover to the point of December 2010. The same more or less concerns the electoral ratings in terms of social mood: we see a considerable growth as compared with the crisis period, but the result is still below the pre-crisis level. Respondents mostly blame the president for the economic recession and put hopes on him believing that he will find a way out.

The voter turnout during the 2012 parliamentary elections was quite high, but fewer trust the election results. The prevailing aspiration towards integration with Russia registered from September 2011 to March 2012 changed to the opposite pro-European trend in the second half of 2012.

Society and state entered the year 2013 in a state of structural instability. Events can go by the most different scenarios.

Trends:
After the crisis: partial rehabilitation

For Belarus, 2012 was the year of economic stabilization, the period of overcoming the economic recession of 2011. At the end of 2012, the government managed to achieve the symbolically important result: the average wage in dollar equivalent returned to the pre-crisis level of late 2010. The wages went up 63% since December 2011. The growth of the real average wage was less impressing but also considerable reaching 18%.

According to the Ministry of Statistics, the real average wage rose by a quarter over the period till December compared with the month of the last presidential election. Finally, the inflation rate dropped five-fold year-on-year.

So, with regard to at least several socially sensitive indexes, the economic situation in 2012 is back to the earlier, pre-crisis point. However, the pre-crisis sociopolitical situation was not reached. See Table 1 for the changes in the social mood indexes in the past two years evaluated on the basis of the findings reported by the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS).

Social indexes 12’10 03’11 05’11 06’11 09’11 12’11 03’12 06’12 09’12 12’12
FSI 9 -4 -45 -72 -69 -53 -25 -19 -10 -9
EI 13 6 -37 -44 -40 -28 -10 -9 -9 -6
PCI 22 5 -33 -36 -52 -30 -17 -22 -13 -13
Table 1. Changes in the indexes of financial status (FSI), expectations (EI) and policy correctness (PCI) 1

All social mood indexes were evenly improving throughout 2012: they are much better now than in the 2nd to 4th quarters of the past year, but still there are more respondents giving negative answers to the questions than those whose answers were positive.

Attitude to the authorities: non-return to the year 2010

The public attitude to the authorities did not recover, although improvement is obvious in comparison with 2011 (Table 2).

Politician 12’10 03’11 06’11 09’11 12’11 03’12 06’12 09’12 12’12
For A.Lukashenko 53 43 29 21 25 35 30 35 32
For U.Niaklyaeu 7 5 7 6 6 7 6 5 5
For A.Sannikov 3 8 5 9 7 6 5 6 5
Table 2. Changes in the answers to the question “If the presidential election were held tomorrow, who would you vote for?” (open question), %

The electoral rating trend is almost the same: the growth is considerable compared with the bottom point of the recession period and even last year’s December, but the result does not reach the pre-crisis level (Table 3). To be noticed is that this growth was achieved in the 1st quarter of the year and then minor fluctuations of the March rating were observed. The ratings of the most popular opponents to the president thus remained nearly unchanged.

Answer 12’10 03’11 06’11 09’11 12’11 03’12 06’12 12’12
Do you trust the president?
Yes 55 48 34 25 31 42 39 39
No 34 42 54 62 55 49 52 49
Do you trust opposition political parties?
Yes 16 20 12 13 17 17 20
Are you in opposition to the authorities?
Yes 19 26 28 23 23 19 21
No 72 60 56 64 66 71 66
Table 3. Changes in the rating of trust in the president and oppositional political parties, %
Hope in the one believed guilty

It is however not about just this. People did not overcome the crisis psychologically even by late 2012. According to the December opinion poll, 88% believed that Belarus’ economy was in a state of crisis. Moreover, the blame for that was chiefly laid on the president (Table 4). At the same time, most respondents tended to hope that it would be the president, blamed for the crisis, who would find a way out.

09’11 12’11 03’12 12’12
President 61 54 49 41
Government 41 45 47 39
Parliament 12 20 17 17
USA 16 14 13 15
Opposition 5 9 6 12
Europe 12 11 16 11
Belarusian people 10 11 10 9
Russia 7 13 6 8
Table 4. Changes in the answers to the question “Who is to blame for the current crisis in Belarus?” (More than one answer allowed)
Parliamentary elections as a mirror of ambivalence

The Belarusians also showed ambivalence towards the parliamentary elections of September 2012. The result was totally predictable. All elected house representatives were on the list compiled by the authorities.

No one knew what turnover figures to expect, especially given that some influential opposition organizations led a vigorous boycott campaign. However, according to IISEPS polls, elections should have been voided only in the capital. Only around 10% of respondents said they consciously boycotted the elections (Table 5).

Answer Minsk (19) Regional centers (18) Big cities (19) Small towns (17) Rural settlements (26)
Voted early on September 18–22 (17) 10 12 19 19 25

Voted on September 23 (49)

34 60 37 53 59
Voted, total (66) 44 72 56 72 84
Boycotted these elections (10) 19 7 10 8 5
Did not vote for other reasons (24) 37 21 34 20 11
Did not vote, total (34) 56 28 44 28 16
Table 5. Answers to the question “Did you vote in the elections to the House of Representatives on September 23, 2012?” by type of settlement, %

According to the polls, turnover in the 2012 elections was approximately the same as during the previous parliamentary elections in 2008 and made up 66%. However, it does not mean that the attitude did not change. Seriously undermined trust was behind this invariance (Table 6).

Answer 10’08 12’12
Yes 56 42
No 24 39
Don’t know/No answer 20 19
Table 6. Answers to the question “In your opinion, were the past parliamentary elections free and fair?”

The number of those who believed that the elections were unfair was up 60% and over in the four years and almost equaled the number of those who held the opposite opinion. People’s behavior does not change, but their life philosophy does, and the difference isdistinct.

Between the West and the East

The most surprising was the last year’s change in the geopolitical priorities of the Belarusians. Russia rendered Belarus impressive economic aid during the crisis year. Agreements of late 2011 were crucial. Belarus enjoyed the lowest prices for energy materials among all CIS partners of Russia. Political relations between Minsk and the West were in a state of sovereign “cold war”. It is enough to mention the extending list of Belarusian officials and businessmen banned from entering the European Union, the concerted departure of EU ambassadors from Belarus and actual severance of diplomatic relations between Belarus and Sweden after the teddy bear airdrop.

Any appreciable economic assistance from the West was certainly out of the question. The loan negotiations with the IMF, which lasted the whole year, came to nothing. But the geopolitical choice of the Belarusians changed in an unexpected manner.

Answer 12’10 03’11 06’11 09’11 12’11 03’12 06’12 09’12 12’12
Integration with Russia 38.1 31.5 35.3 41.5 41.4 47.0 43.6 36.2 37.7
Accession to the European Union 38.0 50.5 44.5 42.0 39.1 37.3 39.8 44.1 43.4
Table 7. Changes in the answers to the question “If you were to choose between integration with Russia and accession to the European Union, what would you choose?”, %

The preference towards Russia in September 2011 – March 2012 can be explained by its massive financial support. But the effect appeared to betemporary: Belarusians became more magnetized by Europe than Russia (not much more but still more) as soon as the second half of the year.

Conclusion

In sociopolitical terms, 2012 was not a year of bouncing back. Despite the achieved economic stabilization, the attitude to the government was not restored up to the pre-crisis level. In this respect, 2012 was a year of crossroads, or bifurcation. The government’s attempts to offer projects to modernize the economic, administrative and political sectors show that the country leadership realizes what is happening and tries to revitalize the existing system.

At this junction, the situation does not threaten the authorities. Their popularity has bottomed out before in the contemporary history of Belarus, in 2002–2004, and then jumped again, but there is a first time for everything.

Society and state entered the year 2013 in a state of structural instability. Events can go by the most different scenarios now.