Liberal Club Discussion Materials

Yauheni Preiherman

On 20 May three oppositional political structures – the Belarusian Popular Front, For Freedom Movement and Tell the Truth Campaign – announced a new common initiative. They declared the start of a three year long political campaign that will finish with a “popular referendum”.

The idea of a popular referendum immediately split the oppositional camp. Whereas the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Hramada) supported the referendum, the United Civil Party and the Belarusian Christian Democracy harshly criticized it. And the political emigrants Zyanon Pazniak and Andrey Sannikau even accused the initiators of the popular referendum of playing in favor of the incumbent regime.

Overall, the idea causes lots of questions. The tripartite coalition has not yet presented a clear plan. At the moment the referendum declaration reminds numerous similar grand initiatives of the past.

The Plan

At a special press-conference, representatives of the Belarusian Popular Front, Tell the Truth Campaign and For Freedom Movement told the journalists that their initiative would embrace three upcoming electoral campaigns: the local elections in 2014, the presidential elections in 2015 and the parliamentary elections in 2016.

This summer the activists of the three organizations will visit 30 Belarusian cities and towns and hold meetings with local residents. They will try to find out what problems worry the Belarusian people most of all. Then the campaign’s initiators will sit down together with some experts and formulate 5-6 questions for the referendum. And during the local elections they will collect signatures in favor of the popular referendum.

In the opinion of the three oppositional structures, this approach has good chances to succeed. They hope that it will make the authorities finally accept the inevitability of change in their policies.

Opposition Never United

So far the popular referendum idea has received mostly negative feedback in the oppositional camp. Only the leader of the Social Democratic Party (Hramada) Iryna Veshtard announced that her party would in some form join the initiative after consultations with the BPF, Tell the Truth and For Freedom.

The chairman of the united Civil Party Anatol Liabedzka said that no one had even tried to discuss the idea with him even though the leading oppositional structures meet almost on a weekly basis. He underlined that in the existing form the initiative can only further disunite the opposition.

One of the leaders of the Belarusian Christian Democracy Vital Rymasheuski defined the declaration as “dim” and pointed to the fact that the previous declarations of the three had not been realized in practice. For instance, they failed to work out a procedure for choosing a single presidential candidate which they promised to have finalized by 25 March.

Several Belarusian opposition leaders in exile were even less considerate in their assessments of the referendum idea. Zianon Pazniak stated that “serious people would not discuss this clownish proposal” of the people who had long ago marred their reputation. And Andrey Sannikau said that the initiators of the referendum were helping Lukashenka to distract the EU’s attention from the problem of the political prisoners.

Overblown Hopes?

The referendum initiative really looks very raw at the moment. The initiators have not yet presented any vision of what and how they are going to do. They express hopes instead of explaining how everything will work.

For example, in an interview for Belsat the first deputy chairman of the For Freedom Movement Yuras Hubarevich agreed that the referendum would only make sense after Belarusians get enough information about it. And for that, he said, all available means of communication would be used.

And this is exactly what we heard before any other opposition’s grand initiative. Or even the EU’s initiatives. Take the European Dialogue on Modernization for example. Exactly a year ago several independent mass media were contracted to promote the brand of the dialogue in Belarusian society. And they failed to achieve anything.

According to the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS), in December 2012 nearly 25% of the population knew about the dialogue. And this is nothing as it only stays within the so-called “opposition ghetto”. And another survey by the company SATIO (contracted by the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies) found out that roughly 4% of the respondents knew about the dialogue. Thus, all hopes for effective communication through the independent media have so far proved ungrounded.

History of Failures and Empty Declarations

The long history of previously failed opposition initiatives also adds scepticism. Including some initiatives where the Tell the Truth, BPF and For Freedom played central roles.

For example, in 2010 the BPF officially announced that it would initiate a referendum on increasing import duties on cars, which resulted from Belarus’s accession to the Customs Union with Russia and Kazakhstan. The initiative was then strongly supported by the For Freedom Movement. A year later the import duties went up but the declared referendum never took place.

In 2011 the For Freedom launched another initiative – the Popular Program. In many respects the idea looked similar to the current one about the popular referendum. The program aimed to unite the Belarusian society around an alternative to Lukashenka’s regime.

Finally, in 2012 the leader of the Tell the Truth Campaign Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu promoted the idea of the All-Belarusian Rally to defend the sovereignty of the country. The idea was so vague and unpractical that it did not go beyond media discussions.

Populist Race?

The proposed contents of the popular referendum also raises questions.

The initiators say that by means of the referendum they want to find out what the Belarusians worry about. This sounds quite surprising as independent opinion polls clearly show what worries the people. And among the top concerns are growing prices and low salaries.

Thus, if you ask the general public what they want to discuss at a referendum you will have exactly this: immediately stop inflation and provide higher salaries!

It would be interesting to see how the referendum’s initiators will deal with this dilemma. Will they take a populist path in order to gain more public support? If so, there is little chance they can over perform the master of populism – Alexandr Lukashenka.

Thus, the BPF, Tell the Truth Campaign and For Freedom Movement will need an extraordinary effort to overcome the existing scepticism and prove that this time everything is for real.