Public Opinion: Under the Sign of Events in Ukraine

Yuri Drakokhrust

Summary

The Ukrainian crisis: Euromaidan, the overthrow of President Yanukovych, the Russian annexation of the Crimea, the bloody conflict in Donbass – this chain of events was almost a decisive factor in 2014 that defined the dominant Belarusian public conscience. Belarusians were relating their lives not with an imaginary ideal, but with the harsh reality of their neighbors in the light of which the appreciation of daily life was found to be higher than it would be in a different geopolitical situation.

Trends:
The indices of the financial situation of the Belarusians and the evaluation of the ‘correct line’

Real disposable money income of the population of Belarus in January–November 2014 compared with the same period of 2013 remained virtually unchanged, increasing only by 0.7%. it had grown pretty actively for two previous years after the crisis of 2011, in particular during 2013 compared to 2012, the income increased by 17.2%. Such a vivid decline in the growth rate of welfare must have had a negative impact on the social wellbeing of the population. However, this was not the case (see Table 1). 1

Answer 06’11 12’13 03’14 06’14 09’14 12’14
Improved 1.6 12.6 10.1 9.3 13.5 13.7
Has not changed 23.2 58.1 63.3 57.6 58.8 53.6
Deteriorated 73.4 28.4 25.2 32.1 24.6 31.0
Index of welfare 2 –71.8 –15.8 –15.1 –22.8 –11.1 –17.3
Table 1. Evolution of answers to the question: “How has your personal financial situation changed over the past three months?”, percent

The December poll of 2014 was conducted by IISEPS before the start of the Belarusian economic crisis and devaluation of the Belarusian ruble. However, it is worth noting that despite a real slowdown in the growth of welfare, there was no collapse of the self assessments of the economic situation during the year.

Even more convincing was the evolution of the assessment of the socio-economic and political line which the country observes (see Table 2).

Answer 09’11 12’13 03’14 06’14 09’14 12’14
In the right direction 17.0 31.9 40.2 42.3 43.0 43.8
In the wrong direction 68.5 54.1 46.2 42.3 43.5 42.9
Difficult to answer/No answer 14.5 14.0 13.6 15.4 13.5 13.3
Index of the correctness of the line –51.5 –22.2 –6.0 0 –0.5 0.9
Table 2. Evolution of answers to the question: “In your opinion, is the situation in our country developing in the right or wrong direction?”, percent

Incomes did not grow, however, the confidence in the correctness of the line increased. This paradoxical dynamics of public mood is confirmed by the evolution of the attitude to the head of state (see Tables 3 and 4).

  12’13 03’14 06’14 09’14 12’14
Rating 34.8 39.8 39.8 45.2 40.0
Table 3. Evolution of electoral rating of President Lukashenko, percent
Answer 12’13 03’14 06’14 09’14 12’14
I trust 37.7 45.9 49.6 53.5 49.9
I do not trust 47.5 44.1 39.0 33.3 35.6
Difficult to answer 14.8 10.0 11.4 13.2 14.5
Table 4. Evolution of confidence rating in President Lukashenko, percent

Although for the last quarter of 2014 the attitude to the president worsened a bit (his electoral rating declined from 45.2% in September to 40.0% in December), in general, over the past year both electoral rating and the confidence in the head of the state has grown, while the share of those who distrust significantly decreased. In our opinion, the main reason for such a state of affairs is the events in Ukraine. Belarusians overwhelmingly negatively reacted to the results of the rapid political changes in the neighboring country.

The Ukrainian factor

In March 2014 the respondents of IISEPS were more likely to evaluate the overthrow of the Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych as a coup. Later the negative attitude towards the victory of the Ukrainian revolution increased (see Tables 5 and 6).

Answer %
“This is a coup, seizing of power” 54.7
“This is a just punishment for bloodshed” 27.7
Difficult to answer/No answer 17.6
Table 5. Evolution of answers to the question: “The President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown. How do you assess such a development of the situation?”, percent

Note. The survey was conducted in March 2014.

Answer %
Positively 23.2
Negatively 63.3
Difficult to answer / No answer 13.6
Table 6. Evolution of answers to the question: “Taking into account a further development of the situation in Ukraine, how do you assess Euromaidan and the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych?”, percent

Note. The survey was conducted in June 2014.

Very important was to assess the projection of the Ukrainian revolution in Belarus (see Table 7).

Answer %
Yes 3.6
Yes, but without violence 23.0
No 70.0
Hard to answer/No answer 3.4
Table 7. Evolution of answers to the question: “Would you like the events that happened in Ukraine to occur in Belarus?”, percent

Note. The survey was conducted in March 2014.

The attitude of Belarusians to the events in Ukraine was a serious challenge for the opposition. Close to the previous election campaigns the slogan “Ploshcha is mass protests after the election” was an important element of the strategy. The opposition openly called to this, inspired by the experience of peaceful revolutions in other countries: during the election of 2001 – by the Yugoslav revolution of 2000, during the 2006 election – by the Ukrainian Orange Revolution.

However in the spring of 2014 calls for Ploshcha 2015, appeals to the Ukrainian Euromaidan disappeared from the plans and rhetoric of the Belarusian opposition. The reasons for that was not just the dramatic experience of the brutal suppression of the Ploshcha events in 2010, but also the fact that the opposition realized the reaction of the Belarusian society to Euromaidan. Belarusians were afraid of blood and found such a scenario of changes unacceptable to their country. However, with the victory of the revolution the bloodshed in Ukraine only started.

Further events in Ukraine even more reduced the sympathy of Belarusians to the development of the situation on the Ukrainian model. The estimation of the annexation of the Crimea and Donbass rebellion by the majority of Belarusian respondents coincided with the official Russian estimates (see Tables 8, 9). However, the Belarusian public opinion in relation to the events in Ukraine turned out to be less unanimous and more nuanced in comparison with the Russian one.

Answer 06’14 09’14 12’14
“This is imperialist seizure, occupation” 26.9 27.2 31.6
“This is the return of Russian land to Russia, the restoration of historical justice” 62.2 59.9 56.8
Difficult to answer/No answer 10.9 12.9 11.6
Table 8. Evolution of answers to the question: “How do you assess the annexation of the Crimea to Russia?”, percent
Answer 06’14 09’14
“This is a crime, a war against its own people” 57.7 60.6
“It is a legitimate suppression of an armed rebellion” 14.0 12.0
“It's tough but necessary measure” 19.5 19.0
Difficult to answer/No answer 8.8 8.4
Table 9. Evolution of answers to the question: “How do you assess the use of armed forces by the Ukrainian authorities in the spring and summer of 2014 to regain control over Donbass?”, percent

The vast majority of Belarusians voted against the territory of their country to be used for military operations against Ukraine (see Table 10).

Answer %
Yes 15.2
No 74.8
Difficult to answer/No answer 10.0
Table 10. Evolution of answers to the question: “If Russia decides to send its troops to Ukraine, should in your opinion, Belarus allow Russia to send its troops through Belarusian territory?”, percent

Note. The survey was conducted in September 2014.

The same solidarity could be seen as a negative attitude towards the participation of Belarusian citizens in the Ukrainian conflict on either side (see Table 11).

Answer %
“Positive, if in favor of the Ukrainian army” 6.0
“Positive, if in favor of the members of the armed protests” 8.3
“Negative” 76.9
Difficult to answer/No answer 8.8
Table 11. Evolution of answers to the question: “How do you feel about the participation of Belarusian citizens in the fighting in the East of Ukraine?”, percent

As it might seem at first glance, the data in Table 9 and tables 10, 11 logically contradict each other, which is a bit suspicious and may speak about respondents’ fibs. How so? If the majority of Belarusians consider that Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic are right, why don't they dream about the Russian army to come and rescue the residents of Donbass from ‘punishers’? Why do most of them chase away the idea of participation of Belarus in the ‘just cause’? The thing is in a mismatch of ideological and practical levels of thinking: the ideological setting does not displace either pragmatic or existential motives.

This ambivalent attitude of Belarusians to the events in Ukraine was embodied in the policy of President Lukashenko, which can be defined as maneuvering (see Table 12). Thus, Belarus refused to condemn the annexation of the Crimea in the UN. It hosted the Russian combat aircraft on its territory and in 2014 signed the Treaty on the Eurasian Economic Union. However, Minsk recognized the annexation of the Crimea to Russia only de facto; during the whole time the President maintained a friendly working relationship with the new leadership of Ukraine; the separatists did not receive any material or moral support from Minsk. The result of the Belarusian position was the transformation of Minsk into a meeting point for opposing Ukraine's parties. This line was generally approved by the Belarusian society.

Answer 09’14 12’14
Definitely positively 14.8 13.6
Rather positively 44.7 45.1
Rather negatively 17.2 16.8
Negatively 9.6 12.9
Difficult to answer/No answer 13.7 11.6
Table 12. Evolution of answers to the question: “How do you evaluate the policy of President Lukashenko in relation to the crisis in Ukraine?”, percent

IISEPS analytical articles have repeatedly stated that despite the conflicts of the Belarusian President with the Kremlin, most of his supporters are committed to integration with Russia. This ratio was preserved in 2014 in a politically and ideologically sensitive situation: while the line of the official Minsk was noticeably different from the policy of the Kremlin, among Lukashenko’s supporters and among those who approved his Ukrainian policy the majority shared the Russian interpretation of the events in Ukraine (see Table 13).

  How do you assess the annexation of the Crimea to Russia?
“This is imperialist seizure, occupation” “This is the return of Russian land to Russia, the restoration of historical justice”
Do you trust the president?
I do 15.2 75.0
I do not 58.4 31.5
How do you assess the policy of President Lukashenko in relation to the crisis in Ukraine?
Definitely positively 19.0 74.1
Rather positively 18.1 68.6
Rather negatively 51.2 38.1
Negatively 73.1 21.8
Table 13. The relationship of trust in the president and estimates of his Ukrainian policy with regard to the annexation of the Crimea by Russia, percent

Note. The table is read horizontally. The survey was conducted in December 2014.

The Ukrainian crisis has shown some vulnerability in Belarus in terms of a national identity. It was shown above that most Belarusians supported Russia in its activities in Ukraine. It should be noted that in Belarus, in contrast to Ukraine, there are no regions with a predominantly Russian population. However, answering the question about the reaction to hypothetical forceful actions of Russia towards Belarus only a minority chose active resistance (see Table 14). The share of those who are ready to welcome Putin's ‘polite people’ is small, but almost every second respondent stated the intention to adapt to such a hypothetical situation rather than resist it.

Answer 09’14 12’14
“I would resist with arms” 25.9 23.4
“I would try to adapt to a new situation” 39.7 48.0
“I would welcome these changes” 13.3 9.7
Difficult to answer/No answer 21.1 18.9
Table 14. Evolution of answers to the question: “If Russia tried to annex the entire territory of Belarus or part of it by force, how would you act?”, percent

In early 2014, the Ukrainian crisis led to a substantial increase of pro-integration ideas in favor of Russia and to a sharp reduction of pro-European ideas (see Table 15). However, after the March peak the pro-Russian intentions had declined slightly by the end of the year, but remained at the level significantly higher than the pro-European ones.

Answer 12’10 12’11 12’12 12’13 03’14 06’14 09’14 12’14
Unification with the Russian Federation 38.1 41.4 37.7 36.6 51.5 46.9 47.4 44.9
Membership in the European Union 38.0 39.1 43.4 44.6 32.9 33.1 32.0 34.2
Difficult to answer/No answer 23.9 19.5 18.9 18.8 15.6 20.0 20.6 20,9
Table 15. Evolution of answers to the question: “If you had to choose between integration with Russia and joining the European Union, which would you choose?”, percent
Conclusion

Summing up, it should be said that 2014 in terms of public opinion was unfavorable for democratic alternatives in Belarus. Belarusian public opinion supported, although not as reckless and unanimous as Russian public opinion, an aggressive policy of the Kremlin in Ukraine. The Ukrainian revolution not only failed to cause a domino effect, but, on the contrary, in a certain sense strengthened the socio-political system in Belarus. Belarusians even more started to value if not wealth, then, at least, the order which they have in comparison to the post-revolutionary turmoil and horrors of war of their neighbors.

The Belarusian government has taken even a more moderate position than the majority of the Belarusian society: the official Minsk did not support the rebels of the DPR/LPR, demonstrating a positive attitude to the Ukrainian authorities. However, this position, together with good relations with Moscow and even deepening integration in the form of joining the Eurasian Economic Union, was in tune with the real and not ideological attitude of an average Belarusian to the new geopolitical situation in the region.

The economic crisis in Belarus in late 2014 weakened the influence of the Ukrainian events on the thoughts and feelings of Belarusians, which may change the above described picture in 2015. However, this forecast does not have a high degree of certainty, because the events in the neighboring country are of violent and negative dynamics. The relative calm after the “Minsk-1” Agreements turned into a sharp and bloody conflict. The fact that the capital of Belarus in February 2015 became the venue of the Summit of the ‘giants’ of European policy raised the prestige of the Belarusian authorities, strengthened its positive image in the eyes of the public opinion.

A variant according to which the Ukrainian experience in an unexpected way would be attractive for Belarusians seems unlikely. Also the playing of the ‘Russian card’ in Belarus during the election campaign in 2015 also seems very unreal (though possible): external approval of Moscow's policy in Ukraine was combined in the Belarusian public opinion in 2014 with an extreme reluctance to involve Belarus into the dispute of ‘Slavs among themselves’ on Ukrainian soil. As the hypothetical success of the ‘Russian world’ in Belarus means expanding the scope of the conflict, there are not many chances for such a success.