Public opinion: A growing feeling of instability

Oleg Manaev

Summary

The feeling of instability in Belarus grew stronger in 2016. This concerns millions of people and almost all areas of public life: the economy, social structure, domestic and foreign policy. In public opinion, the most important political actions of both the government and the opposition, including the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly and the National Congress, as well as the parliamentary elections, still have not become a mechanism capable of alleviating the feeling of instability. Perhaps, that is why the main strategy of the government was not so much to adjust its policy, as to manipulate public opinion. It was mainly done by fighting those who express public opinion. This fight involved not only the usual actors – the government and the opposition – but also civil society, which also turned out to be split.

Trends:
Instability as the main characteristic of economic well-being

As we have written in Belarusian Yearbook 2016, 1 after the crisis of 2011, the real disposable household incomes in Belarus grew quite rapidly: a 17.2% increase was reported in 2013 alone. However, the year 2014 was the beginning of the ‘lean years’ characterized by a virtually zero increase in incomes. In 2015, real incomes shrank by 5.4% and real wages by 3.8% (7.3% and 4.0%, respectively, in 2016). The zero growth of incomes in 2014 did not strongly influence the Belarusians’ opinion on their financial standing and their expectations. The fall in 2015–2016 had a much bigger impact. 2

According to an opinion survey conducted by the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS), in June 2016, only 7.6% of respondents said their well-being improved, 44.2% said it did not change, and 46.1% said it got worse (10.1%, 63.3% and 25.2%, respectively, in March 2014). The average income (including wages, pensions, allowances and other earnings) per family member in the month previous to the survey stood at USD 170 in equivalent (USD 240 in June 2015).

Over 80.0% of respondents believed that the Belarusian economy was in a state of crisis (54.6% in March 2014). Only 27.8% said the crisis was caused by external factors, and 45.7% said domestic causes should have been looked at. Among the most acute problems that the country and its citizens were facing, 73.2% pointed at price hikes, almost 55.0% said it was unemployment, over 52% spoke about impoverishment and 47.6% blamed a production decline. According to the majority of respondents, the standards of living in all neighboring countries except warring Ukraine were higher than in Belarus.

When asked about the presidential decree on the rise in the pension age, only 19.0% of respondents agreed that it should have been done “to increase pensions”; 70.5% believed that that it should not have been done “because many will simply not reach the age.” 15.1% agreed with Alexander Lukashenko, when he said that “the firm majority of our population approves the increase in the pension age” and almost 59.0% did not. Only one third of respondents agreed with the president when he said that “in the present disturbing situation Belarus is rightfully considered a place of stability”, while 53.4% said that “our stability is more like stagnation, and the country is no longer developing.”

It is not surprising that the opinion of the Belarusians about the recent developments in the country is rapidly turning negative: in March 2014, 40.2% of respondents said the country was going “in the right direction” and 46.2% said the direction was wrong. In June 2016, these figures were at 29.1% and 57.0%, respectively. Belarusians also displayed less optimism: around 20.0% expected that the socioeconomic situation in Belarus would improve in the coming years, and 36.3% said it would not (24.0% and 26.1% in March 2014).

Attitude to the government becomes more critical

In 2016, the number of those who did not trust the main state institutions exceeded the number of those who did. As in 2011, most Belarusians blamed the president for the current economic recession: in June, 42.3% blamed Lukashenko, 35.6% blamed the government, and 12.8% rebuked the parliament. Only a quarter of respondents believed that “Lukashenko will succeed in combating corruption by means of a thorough purge among top-ranking officials and harsher penalties for such crimes.” The same number of respondents said “it is unlikely that he will be able to achieve significant success, because corruption in Belarus is ineradicable”, and over 45% said “he depends on corrupt officials himself” or even “he is interested in corruption one way or another.”

Dissatisfaction with actions of the Belarusian authorities concerns not only the social and economic sector. On the eve of the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident, only 18.9% of respondents were completely satisfied with how the Belarusian government was handling problems associated with the mitigation of consequences of the accident, and over 70% were partially or not satisfied. Quite often, dissatisfaction and the feeling of social injustice turn into resentment: almost a quarter of those questioned said that over the past three years, government officials offended them at least once. Only 22.5% said that “the police fulfilled their duties well to protect public order, rights and legitimate interests of citizens”; 47.7% said they did it “satisfactory”, and 24.1% said they coped “badly.”

In particular, answering the question “Have you (or your acquaintances) ever suffered from unlawful actions of the police?” 16.4% of respondents said the police acted unprofessionally; 12.2% complained about ungrounded detentions, 10.6% about unwillingness to respond to complaints and/or refusal to accept statements, and 5.9% about uncalled for or excessive use of force. In the opinion of 34.0% of respondents, “it is almost impossible to achieve just court rulings in the current Belarusian judicial system.”

The Belarusians are increasingly critical of the changes in the social structure of society that occur under the influence of state policy, when the role of government officials is constantly increasing, and the role of the cultural and academic elite and common people is declining. Ten years ago, 37.0% believed that Alexander Lukashenko primarily relies on the presidential vertical, while in June 2016, there were 54.4%. 20.5% said the president listens to government officials (32.1% a decade back), 8.3% said he hears the cultural and academic elite (4.4%), 41.4% pointed at pensioners (21.8%), 30.2% at rural communities (11.5%), and 34.2% at ordinary people (8.2%).

As concerns the state, 29.5% of respondents said, “This is my country, and it protects my interests”; 47.1% said, “This is my country only in part, and it does not sufficiently protect interests of people like me”; 15.2% said, “This is not my country, it does not protect my interests, and I do not trust its leadership.” Since September 2009, the number of those who agree with the statement “Belarus benefits from Alexander Lukashenko having virtually all the powers in the country” fell from 44.4% to 31.3%, and the number of those who believe that “the country does not benefit from that whatsoever” increased from 36.0% to 55.5%.

In 2006, President Lukashenko’s electoral rating stood at 55.6%. It dropped almost by half to 28.4% in the first six months of 2016. The ‘Father of the Nation’ (‘Batska’ in Belarusian), as ordinary people used to call him, the ‘Belarusian Robin Hood’ as many experts called him in the 1990s, ‘the people’s president’ as he still loves to call himself has turned into the leader of the state bureaucracy in the eyes of millions of Belarusians. As a result, according to an opinion poll taken at the same time by SATIO, almost two-thirds of respondents believe that their personal choice or behavior do not mean anything in Belarus, because “everything is decided by the country’s leadership” here. 3

The hunger for change is growing

Ten years ago, 53.4% of respondents did not want the situation to change in any way, and 37.8% considered it important to change it. In June 2016, 25.2% wanted it all unchanged and 65.5% disagreed with that. A majority of Belarusians considered elections and referenda as the most realistic and desirable variant of changing the situation, although their attractiveness is gradually decreasing (50.1% and 29.4%, respectively in 2014, and 44.1% and 26.2%, respectively, in 2016). More and more people would choose street protest actions again (8.0% and 14.7%, respectively).

The growing disappointment at the actions of both the government and the opposition is manifested in the assessment of the most important political events of the first half of 2016: the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly in June and the Congress of the Democratic Forces (National Congress) in May. Only 28.0% of the respondents believed that the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly “is the highest form of grass-roots democracy”, and almost a half said that “it is just a show that the government stages for the public.” Only 28.2% agreed that the Congresses of the Democratic Forces “is the highest form of expression of disagreement with the government policy”, and almost 45.0% said “it is a flaunty performance.”

In general, the protest sentiment remains weak. In 2016, the average rating of opposition political parties was at 15.3%, and the ratings of the most prominent opposition leaders remained incommensurable with that of the president. If a presidential election was called in June 2016, Tatiana Karatkevich would poll 5.1%, Mikalai Statkevich 4.5%, Uladzimir Niakliaeu and Alexander Milinkevich 3.1% each, and the others would have a number of votes below the sampling error.

Unfortunately, opinion survey data on the parliamentary elections of September 11, 2016 from independent sources are unavailable. Considering the previous pre- and post-election surveys by the IISEPS, we can assume that public opinion on the elections was pretty much the same as before.

The expected turnout was likely to be at least 60.0% (two thirds of voters cast their votes in the 2008 and 2012 elections). An independent candidate would probably poll fewer votes than Lukashenko’s supporter, but more than his opponent.

A majority of voters considered the elections free and fair, but at least two million disagreed with that. Although two representatives of democratic forces have seats in the new parliament (most experts say they were admitted by the authorities, not through the vote), this does not suggest that political changes are coming soon, not only because the role of the parliament in the Belarusian political system is minimized, but also because Belarusians are largely paternalistically minded: almost two-thirds of respondents say “the government is responsible for people’s welfare and must help people when they are in trouble”, and only 29.5% said that “people are responsible for their own well-being and they must address their problems on their own.”

On the ‘swing’ of geopolitical orientations

When speaking about Belarus, most Belarusian and foreign experts use not so much the once popular image of a ‘bridge’ between Russia and the European Union, as the more appropriate term ‘geopolitical swing’ (and some even talk about ‘flying on one wing’). According to IISEPS surveys, at a hypothetical referendum on joining the European Union, in 2016, 25.4% would vote for the Union and 52.1% against membership in the EU (there were 26.7% and 51.9%, respectively, in September 2008, and 48.6% and 30.5% in March 2011). 27.0% would support Belarus-Russia amalgamation, and 52.2% do not want that (35.7% and 38.8%, respectively, in December 2008, and 23.9% and 58.4% in December 2012).

The choice in favor of isolationism changes if only two options-Russia or the EU–are offered: 45.0% would vote for joining the Russian Federation, and 32.6% would prefer the European Union (46.0% and 30.1%, respectively, in December 2008, and 37.7% and 43.3% in December 2012). It is also obvious that Belarusians change their views on the geopolitical affiliation depending on the domestic and foreign political situation.

At the same time, these changes should not be overestimated: a majority of Belarusians still have stronger cultural and psychological ties with Russia, than with Europe. In March 2016, 73.9% of respondents considered themselves closer to Russians and 25.8% to Europeans; 65.8% agreed that “Belarusians, Russians and Ukrainians are three peoples of one family”, and 28.6% said that “they are different peoples” (this ratio was almost the same ten years ago). A survey conducted by the Belarusian Analytical Workshop in December 2016 gives a similar picture: 64.9% of respondents would like to see their country in a union with Russia and 19.1% wanted Belarus to be a European Union member. 4

The Ukrainian-Russian conflict remains in the focus of attention of Belarusian society, although it gradually becomes less relevant. On the one hand, most Belarusians share the Russian interpretation of this conflict. In March 2016, 57.4% welcomed the Crimea under Russia’s jurisdiction, taking it as “a return of Russian lands and restoration of historical justice”; 27.1% saw it as “imperialist takeover and occupation.” 43.7% agreed that Russia and Ukraine were in a state of war; 75.0% agreed that Ukraine was in a state of civil war.

Over 51.0% said that the Minsk agreements on the settlement of the conflict in the Donbas region of Ukraine were breached through the fault of the Ukrainian government, 23.6% blamed the West, 20.8% blamed Russia, and 17.9% thought it was the fault of the leadership of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics. After Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said that Russia and the West “were rapidly rolling into a new cold war”, 44.6% of respondents said it was the fault of the West, 12.8% blamed Russia, and 30.4% blamed both the West and Russia.

On the other hand, Belarusians are increasingly concerned about the growing tensions between Russia and the West, and, therefore, many would like to distance themselves from them: 45.4% fear that “since Belarus is Russia’s closest ally, the confrontation between Russia and the West will inevitably affect Belarus”, 30.4% were not afraid of that, and 17.5% said they did not care. Only 22.0% of respondents would approve the possible placement of a Russian air force base in Belarus, 28.8% were indifferent, and 42.9% oppose the idea.

Belarusians display a much more definite geopolitical orientation when it comes to a real or hypothetical armed conflict. “The military presence around Belarus has been building up. Russia is forming new divisions in its western regions, and NATO is deploying its battalions in Poland and the Baltic States. Some people in Belarus support the actions of Russia, while the others speak in favor of the West/NATO. What do you think about that?” was the question asked in June 2016. 26.1% supported Russia’s actions believing that it can protect Belarus from a possible aggression of NATO; 10.6% supported the West/NATO hoping for protection from a possible aggression of Russia, and almost 58.0% did not support either side, not wanting Belarus to be dragged into a military conflict.”

“If such conflict happened anyway, whose side will you choose?” was the next question. One third of respondents would choose Russia, 13.4% would take the side of the West, and 43.5% would try not to support either one. As the analysis shows, young people are most inclined to stay away from the conflict not supporting either side in the geopolitical confrontation.

The dominant leave-me-out attitude was manifested in relation to the armed conflict in Ukraine. “According to official data, hundreds of Belarusian nationals are participating in military operations in the east of Ukraine, some on the side of the Ukrainian army, and the others on the side of the opposing militants. The Belarusian government feels strongly negative about that. Not long ago, a Belarusian, who was fighting in the ranks of the Right Sector, was sentenced to five years in prison. What is your attitude to the participation of Belarusian nationals in military operations in Ukraine?” was the next question. 10.8% supported those fighting on the side of the Ukrainian army, 10.6% supported their opponents, and 71.0% disapproved their involvement.

The struggle for public opinion is getting fierce

In 2016, the struggle among various political forces for public opinion in Belarus has intensified considerably. The IISEPS was the main target of this struggle, and the Belarusian government was the main attacker. This is most likely due to the internal and external instability of the situation in the country, as identified and demonstrated by Urbi et Orbi surveys conducted by the Institute.

For example, in March, BelTA state news agency and the major state newspaper Sovetskaya Belorussia published an article, in which heads of state research agencies called the IISEPS a “phantom”, and the results of its opinion polls “untrue.” They accused the Institute of a “gross violation of the law”, because it conducts surveys without specific official permission. The article was posted on official websites of many district administrations on the next day. 5

In August, Belarusian TV channels showed a ‘special report’ titled ‘Primacy of the IISEPS.’ The authors accused the Institute of falsifying public opinion polls and appealed to law enforcers to take it to account. 6 This time, the Belarusian authorities attacked the most important component of the Institute: the national network of interviewers. The head of the network was detained and forced to make a ‘confession’, ‘exposing’ sociological surveys by IISEPS. Dozens of people were threatened with criminal prosecution. As a result, the network of interviewers was destroyed, and the Institute had to stop public opinion polls.

A specific feature of this aggressive campaign, which distinguishes it from many previous ones, is that it involved not only the Belarusian authorities, but also various nongovernmental institutions, i.e. civil society (to be more exact, not the civil society, which respects democratic values, the rule of law and the European choice). It turned out that civil society experienced a split.

Secretary of the Belarusian Union of Journalists, political observer for the Belarusian Television Andrei Krivosheyev initiated a boycott of the IISEPS in the journalistic community. He called on to abide by the following rules when dealing with information received from the IISEPS:

Fierce-sarcastic philippics addressed to the IISEPS were heard from such nongovernmental tribunes as IMHO Club, 8 Dal.by – Active People’s Movement, 9 and Stop opp (the site about the Belarusian opposition and Belarusian politics). 10 The involvement of pro-Russian civil society institutions in Belarus and various Russian agencies in this campaign is especially indicative. 11 Perhaps, this activeness is caused by the IISEPS’ findings regarding the potential of the Russian World in Belarus. Yuri Drakokhrust wrote in his article on IISEPS polls titled ‘The Russian Bomb in Belarus’, “If the people lose faith in the legitimacy of the authorities, the Donbas scenario can theoretically become a reality in Belarus. There is a certain mass base for that.” 12

Even a political antagonist to the regime – Rasurs pra zmaganne i peramogu Narodau (Recourse About the Struggle and Victory of the Peoples) of the Conservative Christian Party Belarusian Popular Front – also contributed to this campaign. It seconded the report ‘Primacy of the IISEPS’ saying that for the first time, the Belarusian TV told the truth about the most flamboyant Mickey Mouse gang headed by sociologist-collaborationist Mr. Manaev.” 13 No wonder they say “extremes meet.”

The World Association of Public Opinion Research (WAPOR), which has been operating for 65 years now uniting hundreds of professionals from more than 50 countries, chaired by a newly elected president formed an ad hoc committee to consider the IISEPS case. In an official statement released in December, WAPOR said it did not find falsification of data in Institute’s surveys. 14 Neither the above-mentioned institutions, nor civil society (not to mention the Belarusian authorities) responded to this statement.

As seen from the statement by WAPOR, not the NISEPI, but the Belarusian state-controlled TV and security services use falsifications, plain lies and threats of criminal prosecution to discredit independent sociology and public opinion that disagrees with the official policy. Although the WAPOR’s statement did not help to resume IISEPS surveys, it defended its reputation and, ultimately, the very opinion of the Belarusians, which the polls reflected.

Conclusion

The feeling of instability, which increased in 2016, affected millions of people and almost all areas of public life in Belarus, but it still remains unsystematic. This means that, for example, dissatisfaction with the socio-economic situation is not directly related to the attitude to the governmental authorities and still does not take the form of conscious and structured protest.

In public opinion, both the authorities and the opposition are getting too far from ordinary people. However, the ordinary people themselves and even civil society multidirectional interests and values not only do not solidify, but diverge or even come into conflict. In conditions of geopolitical instability this internal instability can strengthen negative processes in the country and the whole region in the long term.