President Alyaksandr Lukashenka delivered a four-hour speech on February 11, 2021, at the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly (ABPA), the sixth such gathering since 1996, when Lukashenka skillfully used this extra-constitutional entity to defeat a rebellious parliament. At that time, Lukashenka enjoyed the support of well over half of Belarusians; whereas today, this is not the case, some commentators argue (Carnegie.ru, February 12).
Yet as far as the Belarusian leader’s popularity rating is concerned, the authorities contend it remains high. According to what the government is touting as a representative survey of 9,896 respondents, 66.5 percent of Belarusians trust the president, while 17.2 percent trust the opposition. This is the public opinion survey that Lukashenka himself promoted earlier this month and which was allegedly being run by a trusted foreign polling firm (see EDM, February 9). The firm in question turned out to be the Ukrainian Politics Foundation (headed by Konstantin Bondarenko). It conducted the study in cooperation with Ecoom, a Belarusian pollster directed by Sergei Musienko, a long-time Lukashenka-loyalist. According to the same survey, only 15.4 percent of Belarusians support the opposition’s protest movement (Tut.by, February 10).
Once again, results like these arouse nostalgia for the now-defunct polling firm headed by Oleg Manaev, the Independent Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS). Although eventually terminated by the government (see EDM, September 7, 2016), the Belarusian opposition would have gladly banned it too, if it had the authority to do so, because IISEPS repeatedly showed that the opposition enjoyed miniscule popular support. In contrast, today it is as difficult to believe that only 20 percent of Belarusians voted for Lukashenka on August 9, 2020 (according to a recent Chatham House online survey—see EDM, December 9, 2020), as it is to accept the Ukrainian Politics Foundation–Ecoom poll’s contention that 66 percent trust the sitting president given the unprecedented rise in mass street rallies immediately following election day. The stark divide in Belarusian society seems to complicate and impede efforts to arrive at neutral and therefore credible observations.
The schism reflects itself in attitudes to the ABPA gleaned on online social networks. Illustratively, journalist Maxim Osipov, a delegate to the two-day (February 11–12) gathering, writes that, to him, it was “not just the achievement crowning the elapsed five-year period [the previous ABPA was held in 2016] but a warm and businesslike meeting of trusted friends and reliable colleagues that will charge [him] emotionally for the upcoming months, if not years” (Facebook.com, February 12). On the other hand, the leaders of the opposition parties who received an invitation to the ABPA chose not to appear “out of fear for their image in the eyes of their supporters and a reluctance to beсcome a decoration at someone else’s holiday” (Carnegie.ru, February 12). Mikhail Kovalev, the former dean of the College of Economics of the Belarusian State University, had to justify himself after the 1997 Graduates Association of his institution posted a picture of him in the 2021 ABPA audience; and some of his former students expressed opprobrium (Facebook.com/mikhail.kovalev, accessed February 12).
Lukashenka’s speech to last week’s gathering contained his belief that the protest movement had been instigated from abroad and that the overall unrest differs little from what was witnessed recently in many other countries. “After the storming of the [United States] Capitol, harsh crackdowns on demonstrations in Poland, Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands, a virtual imprisonment of people by the [COVID-19] quarantines, they [foreign governments] have neither the political nor the moral right to tell us […] how to live and run the state,” Lukashenka declared (President.gov, February 11).
The most important messages were delivered at the conclusion of his remarks. Thus, the project of the new constitution will allegedly be ready by the end of this year, and a referendum on the new draft will occur at the beginning of 2022. Thereafter—but not exactly clear when—Belarus will hold new elections. Lukashenka stipulated that his decision to step down from the presidency will be predicated on the total extinguishing of the protests as well as the adoption of a law guaranteeing that none of his supporters, including those delegated to the ABPA, will be persecuted. Also, he announced, the ABPA will gain constitutional status as a stabilizing force capable of preempting disorder and an unjust power grab. “I understand that all the fuss is about the personality of the current president of Belarus,” observed Lukashenka. […] I am a very determined person and not a coward. I do not tremble in my own skin, I do not have wealth (do not believe the charges that I took something from someone; I have been in power for a quarter of a century—no one has found anything anywhere, although under the current system you can find every penny). I have nothing but Belarus. I have invested my best years into this country.” The delegates rewarded his plea with emotional applause.
Anna Kanopatskaya, a former presidential hopeful and the only member of the opposition who accepted the invitation to the ABPA, delivered her own address, which Belarusian TV did not air. She stated, “We all see Belarusian society is divided. One part of it is you, supporters of the current government, the second part is us, its political opponents. Today’s event can be safely called a ‘gathering of winners.’ Yes, in this electoral cycle, you turned out to be stronger, more united, more organized. There was more of you; you had something to lose, and you won.” According to Kanopatskaya, at one point a crossroads emerged: “Either a loss of our statehood in the course of a civil confrontation organized by external forces, or a recognition of your victory. I and my supporters certainly prefer the latter.” Unlike Lukashenka, by “external forces,” Kanopatskaya meant Russia (Kommersant, February 12).
The above excerpts of Kanopatskaya’s speech were published in the Russian daily Kommersant, in an article bearing the derisive title, “Having Elected Myself, I [Lukashenka] Will Elect When to Leave” (Kommersant, February 12). And a companion piece in the same issue is notably titled “Patriotism, the Last Refuge of the President” (Kommersant, February 12), a paraphrase of the famous dictum by Samuel Johnson that is often incorrectly ascribed to Leo Tolstoy. It is unclear whether Kommersant is conveying the Kremlin’s message to Lukashenka or simply the point of view of the paper’s oligarch-owner, Alisher Usmanov. Though, as someone close to President Vladimir Putin, Usmanov has already been repeatedly accused in the past of promoting Kremlin policies in Belarus (Telegraf, June 24, 2020). Either way, Kommersant’s editorializing is certain to ruffle feathers in Minsk.