Belarus has attracted international attention recently for all the wrong reasons: attacks on demonstrators, arbitrary arrests, searches of apartments of independent journalists, and the refusal to release political prisoners, particularly Alyaksandr Kazulin, the former Rector of Belarusian State University. But how does the population view recent events? To what extent are people disaffected and seeking change? Perhaps the best and most reliable evidence of current thought is the survey conducted in March by the Independent Institute of Social-Economic and Political Research (NISEPI), which operates from Minsk, although it is officially registered in Vilnius, Lithuania. The survey interviewed 1,500 respondents over the age of 18 from different parts of the country. Some 57 percent were over the age of 40, and about 25 percent were over 60 years old, which is similar to the makeup of the population as a whole. Since the survey is extensive, the focus here will be on political leadership and opposition, as well as the attitude toward Russia and the EU.
To the question “if there were an election tomorrow, for whom would you vote?,” 42.5 percent stated that they would vote for President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, 8.8 percent for Alyaksandr Milinkevich, who was the candidate of the United Democratic Forces in 2006 but now heads the “For Freedom” movement and 5.2 percent would opt for the imprisoned Social Democrat Kazulin. When asked how they had voted in the 2006 elections, 49.4 percent claimed to have supported Lukashenka, 12.8 percent Milinkevich, 5.5 percent Kazulin, and 2.6 percent Haidukevich, the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party and a supporter of the president. Notably, therefore, support for both the president and Milinkevich has fallen. In the election, Lukashenka allegedly received 83 percent of the vote, but the survey suggests that his actual total was considerably lower and perhaps not even enough to have won outright in the first round.
Thus, the question of whether elections in Belarus are falsified is very pertinent. Over half of the respondents believe this to be the case. As to which agency has been responsible for the falsifications, 23 percent blame the authorities and 13.6 percent the Election Commission. An outside observer might have some difficulty separating the two. Paradoxically, 40.8 percent nonetheless believe the information about election results provided by that same commission, whereas 35.6 percent place more faith in observers from international organizations. Ironically, the most credible appraisal of the elections is said to come from international observers themselves (45.1 percent), although a large portion (34.8 percent) consider that observers from toiling collectives are more reliable.
When asked in what areas Lukashenka had been successful, 66.3 percent (the highest total) said that he had brought order to the country, but more surprisingly 64.5 percent maintained that he was constructing an independent Belarusian state, while 60.1 percent felt that he had succeeded in cooperating with other countries of the CIS. Also notable is the fact that over 54 percent consider that he has succeeded in promoting the Belarusian language and culture. The areas of his administration that draw the most criticism include the creation of a Union State with Russia (only 37.4 percent said that he has made progress), the protection of democracy and political freedoms (35.3 percent), cooperation with the countries of the West (29.1 percent), and the creation of conditions favorable for business (27.9 percent). A very high proportion of respondents are unhappy about the curtailment of social benefits for most categories of the population (students and pensioners in particular), and 61 percent believe that the president initiated this change. On the other hand, if there were a protest against the deterioration of the economic situation, only 17.9 percent would participate in it; 72.4 percent would decline to take part.
A majority of respondents do not believe that the recent elections in Russia will bring changes to the relationship between the two countries. On the other hand, if there were a referendum about a union of Belarus with Russia, 41.6 percent would oppose it, and 35.8 percent would be in favor, while 11.3 percent would not take part in such a vote. If there were a choice between union with Russia and joining the EU, 45.3 percent would opt for the Russian variant and 33.4 percent for the EU. However, 52 percent believe that the population of the EU enjoys better living standards than those in Belarus. If a referendum were to be held on whether Belarus should join the EU, the result would be a tie: 35.4 percent in favor and the same number opposed. The respondents generally approve of the fact that many Belarusians work in European countries; and they also agree that by joining the EU, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia have improved the lives of their residents over the past four years.
To summarize: Belarusians remain somewhat skeptical about most issues. Support for the Lukashenka regime is not overwhelming, especially given that the survey focused on an older section of the population. Youth groups would most likely have been even more critical. No opposition leader, however, currently commands widespread backing. Residents of Belarus prefer to live in an independent state rather than join Russia or the EU, although they do recognize that living standards are higher in Europe. Implicitly at least, they think the government could do better in its relations with Western countries and ease restrictions on foreign investment. Additionally, about a quarter of respondents say that their material situation has worsened in 2008, and over one-third think that the overall development is proceeding “in an incorrect direction” (NISEPI, March 3-13; http://www.iiseps.org/opros49.html).