From January 24 to February 3, Chatham House conducted another (14th) online national survey of Belarusians. The analyzed sample consisted of 813 urban respondents. “Despite the fact that our sample has been weighted to accurately reflect the make-up of Belarusian society, it is possible that support for Lukashenka and his policies may be slightly higher than this poll indicates, since Lukashenka’s supporters tend to be less socially and economically active than his detractors,” reads the acknowledgment in the preamble to the survey’s results (Belaruspolls.org, March 2). This admission is both meaningful and peculiar; while it pertains to all of Chatham House’s previous surveys, this particular one does not contain direct questions about respondents’ attitudes to the Lukashenka regime.
Overall, only 15 percent of Belarusians believe the country does not need reforms; most believe that it does. According to Ryhor Astapenia, who directed the survey, Belarusian society is waiting for a leader resembling the currently jailed Victor Babaryko, who opted for gradual reforms (Svaboda, March 3).
Some of the most curious results of the survey deal with language and geopolitical orientation. For example, only 6 percent of Belarusians “firmly believe” that Belarusian should be the only official language of the country, and 10 percent would “rather agree” with that statement—altogether a mere 16 percent. At the same time, as many as 33 percent “adamantly disagree” and 37 percent “rather disagree” with that policy—totaling 70 percent. The statement “Belarus will not survive without Russian help” was supported by 38 percent of respondents (including 11 percent categorically) and rejected by 33 percent (including 10 percent categorically). The statement “I do not like how Russians treat Belarus” found support among 27 percent of participants and was rejected by 42 percent.
Arguably, it is against the backdrop of these societal attitudes that developments inside Belarus as well as opinions on how to affect them can only be meaningfully discussed. On the one hand, in the wake of the alleged attack on the Russian A-50 aircraft (see EDM, March 8), President Alyaksandr Lukashenka is honoring his pledge to intensify apprehending all those who harbor “extremist” views. And on the other, the opposition has restarted a debate regarding whether one can make a deal with Lukashenka.
Regarding the former, the main government newspaper reported that siloviki (law enforcement personnel) “went to those who they did not get around to before—to the participants in the 2020 riots, who already felt safe. They went to addresses in which the rebellious mood had not yet subsided. They dragged out into the light of day everyone who tried to stay in the shadows. Dozens of extremists who had huddled in were pulled out from under the baseboards. All law enforcement agencies are working. For example, employees of the Combatting Organized Crime department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs alone in just one day on March 9 apprehended more than 60 people, 21 of whom were brought to administrative responsibility and five to criminal responsibility.” The newspaper published pictures of these apprehensions and a video with a repentant monologue by a man from Volkovyssk, Grodno Oblast, who confessed that, in August 2020, he had protested near city hall (Sb, March 10).
In the meantime, the exiled opposition displayed a disagreement on the issue of negotiating with Lukashenka. Whereas some claim that the Belarusian president should first be brought to heel by sanctions, so he initiates the talks himself, others evince readiness to negotiate anytime and suggest that closure of the border crossings by Poland only harms ordinary Belarusians. Protesting this “treacherous” attitude, Pavel Latushko, former minister of culture and an ambassador, left the Coordination Council, a representative body of the Belarusian opposition-in-exile (Svaboda, March 9). It is difficult, however, to shrug off the impression that this entire debate is detached from reality. At any rate, it is unlikely that Lukashenka would be prone to negotiate with the exiles.
A broad interview with Daniel Krutzinna, a German finance and banking expert who resided in Belarus from 2005 to 2020 and was on the advisory board of the Development Bank in Minsk from 2015 to 2020, cast light on sanctions and other topical issues (Reform.by, March 7). In his opinion, sanctions on refined oil, Belarus’s major export to the European Union prior to 2021, are counterproductive as these products will almost always find their way to the global market. The economic sanctions most painful for Belarus, according to Krutzinna, have to do with Western technological modernization loans. Depriving Belarus of respective credit lines is more damaging for the Belarusian economy than it is for the Russian economy. Whereas the latter would stay afloat so long as oil and gas prices are decent, the former is more dependent on technological knowhow in processing industry and manufacturing. Lukashenka’s legitimacy as a national leader lingered in part because, in Belarus, much less racketeering and oligarchy has taken place than in Russia and Ukraine. And unlike Russian nouveau riche, who used to earn money at home, then spend it in the West, their Belarusian counterparts—aside from the much smaller scale of their fortunes—used to spend their money at home.
Despite the fact that Belarus is a victim of its geographic location next to Russia, Krutzinna does not appreciate when it is only discussed in the West within the context of the war next door. “I think it is very important to look at Belarus separately. … I am pretty sure that if Lukashenka remains in power for a while, then at some point he will offer a … realpolitik-style deal to the West, separate from Russia. If Russia continues to weaken militarily and economically, then at some point, he will try to jump off. This deal will include the release of political prisoners … or he will even promise to switch sides in exchange for the lifting of sanctions and guarantees that he will stay in power” (Reform.by, March 7).
Whether Krutzinna’s musings should be taken at face value in their entirety is a moot point, but the idea of “looking at Belarus separately” is assuredly worthwhile advice.