Public Opinion: A geopolitical shift

Andrei Vardomatsky

Summary

The Belarusian Analytical Workshop (Warsaw) presents the findings of nationwide representational opinion polls with a sample size of over 1,000 respondents in each survey and geopolitical orientations and the economic self-perception of the nation as thematic dominants.

Trends:
Geopolitical orientations: high elasticity

In 2019, the most important changes in public opinion in Belarus occurred in the segment of geopolitical orientations. The proportion of proponents of a union with Russia shrank from 60.4% to 40.4%, down 20%. The largest ever 14.7% downfall was observed from September to December, whereas European integration aspirations showed almost a 10% increase from 22.4% to 32.0%. The collapse of pro-Russian orientations in September-December was thus synchronous with a 7.6% growth of pro-European sentiments (Diagram 1).

Diagram 1. Answers to the question “Which union would be better for Belarusians: the European Union or a union with Russia?”, %

As the Belarusian-Russian relations were going from bad to worse throughout 2019, which became particularly obvious after the policy statement that Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev made in Brest,1 heated discussions in the media and frictions at the highest level changed Belarusians’ common attitude to potential integration with Russia.

Pro-Russian sentiments in Belarus have been slowly, yet steadily declining since January 2018.2 Further events, including the Belarus-Russia debates on the integration roadmaps, influenced this process, not instantly, but with a delay of around five months, which is typical of public opinion: the more nontransparent the political process at the top level are, the more delayed the public response is. Backstage activity produces negative assessments, the phenomenon that we define as “negativity of the unknown.”

The decline of pro-Russian orientations in Belarus is taking place as follows.

  1. The tonality of the union rhetoric changes in the Belarusian media: to a lesser extent in state-controlled outlets and larger in the independent media.
  2. The perception of the impact of the processes that occur at the top level of the central leadership is taking shape in society.
  3. This takes place under the influence of Russian media, the so-called “Russian Media Impact.”

The interactivity, entanglement and struggle of the two media streams bring forth the cumulative curve of the geopolitical orientations in Belarus.

A fundamentally new feature of the geopolitical orientations is that less than a half of the adult population of Belarus wants an alliance with Russia. This union would be rejected in a referendum that might legislate the entering into a union with Russia by 50% plus one vote.

Economic self-perception of the nation: better at home than in the country

Unlike geopolitical orientations, the economic self-perception of the nation has not shown big fluctuations. The diagrams of all four measured indicators of economic self-perception are plateau-like without abrupt ups and downs (see Diagrams 2–5).

Diagram 2. Answers to the question “How would you assess the economic situation in Belarus at the moment?”, %
Diagram 3. Answers to the question “How would you assess the economic status of your family at the moment?”, %

The assessment of the economic situation in the country as a whole has changed the most. In December 2019, the static estimate was down by 2.4% against December 2018 (Diagram 2). The dynamic estimate was down 2.5% (Diagram 4). The micro level indicators (households) remained almost unchanged (Diagrams 3 and 5).

Diagram 4. Answers to the question “In your opinion, how has the status of the Belarusian economy changed over the past month?”, %
Diagram 5. Answers to the question “In your opinion, how has the economic status of your family changed over the past month?”, %

Considering the above, the annual dynamics can be described by the heading of this chapter: “better at home than in the country.” Or, in sociological terms, micro-assessments of the economic situation are better than macro-assessments.

Low likelihood of a politico-business cycle

One of the questions that arise as the election campaign approaches, especially when it comes to large-scale elections in Belarus, such as presidential elections, is whether a politico-business cycle will take place. The concept of a politico-business (or political-economic) cycle is based on the quite common phenomenon of the linkage between economic activity (economic growth, welfare growth) and elections to supreme bodies and certain political decisions related to the economy.

In the course of a regular presidential cadence, at first, the rating of the authorities decreases (first of all, of the political leader), then the rating freezes at the lowest point in the middle of the cadence, and then, as the nation’s economic self-perception improves, it rises again closer to the election day.

We do not expect that the politico-business cycle will take shape in the current cadence of Alexander Lukashenko (2015–2020). Unfortunately, nothing is known so far about the rating of the president (which is a significant social fact). Belarusians will definitely not feel safer economically closer to the presidential campaign. Therefore, we can only talk about an incomprehensive politico-business cycle.

Conclusion

The combination of at least three factors – the economic recession and the crises caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and deteriorated Belarusian-Russian relations – will inevitably affect public sentiment. It seems highly probable that the assessment of the economic situation in the country will become increasingly negative, both at the macro and micro levels. Further measurements will show what is actually happening with the geopolitical orientations in Belarus, which have fluctuated many times before.