Lidiya Yermoshina, chair of the Belarus Central Electoral Commission, long on the EU travel ban list, was invited to the Vienna-based July 12 OSCE conference “Democratic Elections and Election Observation.” Her deputy, Nikolay Lozovik, also under EU travel sanctions, was invited as well, and both received Austrian visas and took part in the meeting http://naviny.by/rubrics/politic/2012/07/09/ic_articles_112_178399/).
This is not the first time Belarusian citizens on the travel ban list were able to circumvent the ban. This happens when an invitation is issued by a multi-national body of which Belarus is a member state. For example, in January 2012, former Minister of Internal Affairs, Anatoly Kuleshov, directly responsible for the December 19, 2010 post-election crackdown, visited the Interpol HQ in Lyon, France (see EDM, February 1). Each time a visa ban is dodged, the EU travel sanctions policy is undercut. In this case, the effect was exacerbated by the fact that a seasoned member of the Belarusian opposition, Victor Korniyenko, who co-chairs the campaign “For Fair Elections,” was denied exit at the Minsk airport when he was heading to Vienna to participate in the same conference. An official note was stamped in Korniyenko’s passport to the effect that he is denied permission to leave the country (http://belaruspartisan.org/politic/214743/). Upon returning to Minsk from Vienna, Yermoshina remarked in her interview to a state television channel that she “was allowed to go in order for [her] to receive a dose of personal mentoring” (http://www.svaboda.org/content/article/24647176.html).
In the meantime, a new (June 2012) quarterly national survey of Belarusian public opinion by the Independent Institute for Socioeconomic and Political Studies (IISEPS) was published. The survey revealed that while public perception of the economic situation has been on an upward trend for the fourth quarter in a row, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s personal rating has shrunk to 29.7 percent. This is the share of the electorate that would be willing to vote for Mr. Lukashenka if the presidential elections were conducted “now.” In September 2011, Lukashenka’s rating reached an all-time low of 20.5 percent; by December, it was up to 24.9 percent, and by March 2012 to 34.5 percent – a jump of almost 10 percent in one quarter (http://www.iiseps.org/). Previously, his in-between-elections ratings used to hover around 40 percent, plus or minus 3 percent, and they fluctuated in unison with the people’s perception of their economic situation.
The talk show “Prague Accent” of the Belarusian Service of Radio Liberty discussed on July 9 why this pattern in Lukashenka’s support appeared to be broken this time. According to one participant of the show, Sergei Nikolyuk of the IISEPS, the populace feels that the socio-economic model of Belarus is close to exhaustion and blames the President. Yelena Artyomenko of the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, yet another Minsk-based think tank funded by the West, believes that the change in ratings recorded during just one quarter cannot alter the trend, and in the longer run the parallelism between the economic situation and the President’s popularity will be reestablished. Sergei Bogdan, an independent political commentator, thinks that the improvement Lukashenka achieved from a very low point of support was prone to a quick political dividend whereas further improvement was not. All participants, however, shared the impression that the protest potential in Belarusian society is low, and extremely few people relate better prospects for the future with the activity of the Belarusian opposition (http://www.svaboda.org/content/article/24640070.html).
The government has attacked the IISEPS since about 2000 and has been subjected to harassment by the Belarusian KGB. A booklet, issued in conjunction with the 20th anniversary of the IISEPS and passed around at the Vilnius-based conference “The future of Belarus” (http://belarusdigest.com/story/international-conference-%E2%80%9Cfuture-belarus%E2%80%9D-kicks-vilnius-9405), included two remarks by Lukashenka about Oleg Manaev, the organization’s founder. One of them is dated September 1997 and is flattering, and the other, dated October 2011, is disparaging. On December 27, 2004, the US ambassador visited IISEPS as a sign of Washington’s support for beleaguered Belarusian nongovernmental organizations. Four months later, on April 15, 2005, the Supreme Court of Belarus ruled to close down the institute. It is currently active as a nonprofit organization registered in neighboring Lithuania. Manaev has been repeatedly warned by the General Prosecutor’s Office that the continuation of polling in Belarus by an institution not registered in Belarus is a criminal offence. Manaev’s response so far has been that the polling is conducted by a group of private citizens. In 2010, an attempt was made to fire Manaev from the Belarusian State University, for which he works as a full professor. More than one hundred scholars from across the world petitioned the Rector of the university on behalf of Manaev, who retained his job as a result (http://www.cogita.ru/dokumenty/arhiv-dokumentov-2010-peticii-otkrytye-pisma-zayavleniya/pismo-v-podderzhku-belorusskogo-sociologa-olega-manaeva).
However, on June 26, the lower chamber of the Belarusian parliament adopted an amendment to the Administrative Violations Code, stipulating harsh penalties for conducting a sociological survey without accreditation. It could be that the entire amendment is effectively targeting just the IISEPS simply because it is the most active opinion surveyor in the country. Other pollsters that conduct and publish surveys in Belarus on orders of international agencies and grant-making institutions – such as “Novak,” headed by Dr. Andrei Vardomatsky, and a group of sociologists from the Belarusian State University under the guidance of Dr. David Rotman – already have proper accreditation papers. So far, the quarterly surveys by the IISEPS have been the most reputable source of sociological information about Belarus. The fact that approximately since 2006, IISEPS’s surveys have been almost equally disliked by the government and by the opposition (as ratings of the opposition parties, of their leaders, and of alternative presidential hopefuls have been routinely assessed as abysmally low) has boosted the prestige of the IISEPS even more as a sign of its impartiality. It is unclear at the moment what the adopted amendment would mean for the further activity of the IISEPS, but the potential disappearance of the IISEPS quarterly surveys would do much harm not only to political commentators but to all students of Belarus and its society.