The release of the latest opinion poll from the Independent Institute for Social-Economic and Political Research, headed by Dr. Aleh Manayeu, provides many insights into recent political events in Belarus. Based on 1,474 respondents, the survey was conducted in all regions of the country in the period January 20-30, 2007. The wide variety of questions reduces the possibility of very straightforward conclusions, but it also provides an indication of the ambivalence of Belarusians toward many of the pressing questions of the day. However, some of the revelations are remarkable.
More than 15 years after the collapse of the USSR, 38.3% of respondents agree that the Belavezha Pact that brought about its dissolution was a struggle for power among the leadership, whereas 32.4% consider it a tragic episode with profound consequences for country and people. As for the events responsible for the fall of the Communist state, a plurality (44.9%) equate it with a general collapse under Mikhail Gorbachev and his policy of perestroika, 26.3% with the personal ambitions of republican leaders, 23.7% with the August 1991 putsch in Moscow, and 21.9% with the conflict between Gorbachev and Russian President Boris Yeltsin.
The relative lack of nostalgia for the former USSR is mirrored by a new disaffection for Russia as a result of the gas and oil crisis in the winter of 2006-07. Nearly 70% of respondents believe that the Russia-Belarus “gas and oil war” was the most significant event of 2006, ahead of the 2006 presidential elections (63.2%), and the protests that followed these elections in Minsk’s October Square (18.1%). Over 50% concur that Lukashenka has emerged as a strong leader from this crisis, whereas about one quarter think that he appeared weak. Just over half of respondents feel that it is better today to live in Belarus, compared with a mere 11.8% who would opt to live in Russia.
The possibilities of joining Russia in a union or of Belarus joining the European Union are no longer attractive to Belarusians (27.5% and 25.3% support, respectively). If a referendum were to be held on the former issue, 35.1% would vote in favor and 39.3% against. On the other hand, 54.2% of those polled speak Russian as their everyday language, 24% mixed language (trasyanka), 14.3% use both Russian and Belarusian, and only 5.2% describe themselves as exclusively speakers of Belarusian.
In most categories, the Lukashenka regime appears to have weathered the storms over a third presidential term. On the other hand, the poll offers some very significant insights. Of those surveyed 55.4% profess confidence in the president of Belarus. However, with regard to the 2004 referendum, only 45.4% voted in support of the motion to allow the president to run for more than two terms. This is in line with polls conducted at the time, but contrary to the officially reported total of 77.3%. The survey also brings into question the results of the 2006 presidential election, as 50.7% said they voted for Lukashenka and 15.3% for United Democratic opposition challenger Alyaksandr Milinkevich. The officially reported results were 83% and 6.1%, wildly at variance with these figures. Imprisoned Social Democratic leader Alyaksandr Kazulin was the choice of 4% of those polled, as compared to his official total of 2.2%. The returns for the opposition may be understated, as more than a quarter of those polled are pensioners and over 30% from rural regions (the bastion of Lukashenka’s support). Only 22% are under the age of 30. The NISEPI survey thus confirms that the 2004 referendum and 2006 presidential election were deeply flawed. Indeed, based on the likely results of the referendum, Lukashenka clearly did not receive a mandate to run for a third term.
If there were to be a vote “tomorrow,” the results might be similar to those of last year. Lukashenka’s support would hold steady at 50.9%, Milinkevich’s vote would fall slightly to 11.4%, and Kazulin’s would remain firm at 4.2%. Survey questions about the media provide some reasons for such an outcome. Over 90.5% of respondents watch Belarusian TV compared to 35.9% who watch cable TV. In terms of gleaning information about events in Belarus and abroad generally, over one-quarter rely on television (especially ONT), while the most widely read newspaper is the official daily Sovetskaya Belorussiya.
Conversely, the main opposition newspaper, Narodnaya Volya, is cited as the basis for information by just 0.7% of respondents. Only 6.5% listen to European radio transmissions for Belarus from Warsaw, and a mere 2.8% to the Baltic radio station in Vilnius. Internet usage is spasmodic: 64.2% claim never to use it. On the other hand, 63.9% express interest in watching a new independent TV channel supported by the EU that will be accessible to Belarusians from Poland in both Belarusian and Russian languages.
The Lukashenka government remains relatively popular, largely because it is perceived to have been unfairly targeted by Russia during the recent energy dispute, the economy has yet to be affected by the dispute, and because it has maintained firm control over the media, and television in particular. Opposition campaigns, like Milinkevich’s “For Freedom” are virtually unknown according to this survey. A siege mentality thus prevails in Belarus, but hardly alters the fact that the regime has consistently deceived the public.
(http://www.iiseps.org/opros45.html; SB Belarus’ Segodnya, October 19, 2004, and March 24, 2006)