Vadim Mojeiko

Опубликовано в «Bell»

The sociological background: a demand for stability and the influence of the Russian propaganda

Findings of the Independent Institute of Socio- Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS) confirm that Belarusians tend to share Russian views on events in Ukraine. The fact that Russian TVs broadcast throughout Belarus while there is no Ukrainian TV seen in Belarus is probably one of key reasons. 

Statistics of the Belarusian public opinion about Euromaidan and the resignation of Yanukovych are very illustrative. According to the poll in June, only 23.2 per cent of Belarusians were positive about it against 63.2 per cent negative. 50.9 per cent consider the new Ukrainian government ‘fascist’, and 15 per cent do not think that Petro Poroshenko is a legitimate president of Ukraine.

Opinions about Crimea demonstrate a similar trend, with 62.2 per cent seeing the situation as a “regain of old Russian territories to reestablish the historical justice” and just 26.9 per cent as an “imperialistic annexation or occupation”. The same applies to developments in southeast of Ukraine: 65.5 per cent of Belarusians call them “a popular uprising against the illegitimate government”, 54.1 per cent do not agree with labelling protesters as “terrorists”.

Geopolitical preferences followed suit: asked about their choice at a hypothetical referendum between integration with Russia or the EU, Belarusians used to be more pro-EU since September 2012, but Russia took a broad lead in March 2014, as shown on the chart.

post-maidan belarus_chart

The situation became more balanced in the end of 2014, but Russia still prevailed with 44.9 vs. 34.2 per cent. Other indicators also saw a certain decline of pro-Russian views, but the overall attitude of Belarusians stays unchanged.

With these opinions about Euromaidan and its aftermath prevailing, it is logical that Belarusians are not in a mood for protests. The survey in December indicated that “this understanding of change has resulted in the lowest level of participation in public protests in almost 15 years: while almost 16.7 per cent participated in meetings and pickets in August 2001, 12.9 per cent in strikes, and 4 per cent in hunger strikes, the same indicators constituted 9.3, 1.6 and 0.8 per cent, respectively, in December 2014”.

The Belarusian public is not going to protest after the presidential elections in 2015, either. Even if elections are rigged, 61.7 per cent believe that the opposition should not call for people to come to the Square for mass protests; 80 per cent say they are not up for participation in such protests. Though passive and hardly inspiring for radical change supporters, this is a rather logical attitude: if Belarusians are negative about Maidan in Ukraine and think that it has resulted in ‘fascists’ taking over the power, they do not want it in Belarus. Unfortunately, the Belarusian proponents of change and fair elections do not look so consistent: 23.9 per cent think that the opposition still should call people to the Square in a case of electoral fraud, but only 13.9 per cent are ready to join the protests.

Challenges and prospects for political actors

Political players have to take the updated public demand into consideration. All stakeholders face both new challenges and new opportunities.

The increased demand for stability is an advantage for the government and a disadvantage for its opponents. Amid the chaos in Ukraine, people are keener to preserve their normal life, peace and security; even if their life is far from perfect, it is still better than the horror of life in the area of military operations in southeastern Ukraine (yet exaggerated by the Russian propaganda). Old slogans of “stability” and “everything is better than a war” are getting a second birth, while opposition’s traditional calls for a post-electoral Square do not sound appealing for people: “come on, do you want a Maidan here?”. Even many opponents of the current government are sharing an opinion that it is a bad time for the Square now. In theory, if the Square were a success (a highly unlikely scenario in today’s situation), Belarus would risk its territorial integrity with a chance for newly emerging “people’s republics” in e.g. Viciebsk and Mahiliou, supported by Moscow. Pro-democratic voters would prefer the familiar status quo under Lukashenka to such a scenario.

Nevertheless, Ukraine is offering a new opportunity for change supporters, too. The occupation of Crimea and following events have shown the danger of the pro-“Russian world”, “Slavic friendship” and “brotherhood of nations” rhetoric, and an importance of national identity- building. The current regime cannot boast any success in this field. Lukashenka has a long record of opposing “nationalists” and playing a role of the Russia’s closest ally in favor of the “integration of brotherly nations”. His rhetoric changed significantly after March 2014, but it is always hard to change your image. On the other hand, regime opponents were always associated with pro-national identity forces, Belarusian language, historical heritage and culture. With demand for these values growing, it gives the opposition and the civil society a chance to expand their influence.

New agenda: bottom-up and top-down Belarusization

All attributes of the Belarusian national otherness, such as traditional ethnic clothes or the language, are on demand now. Consciously or not, the trend has affected both common people and the government, including Lukashenka personally.

The President’s rhetoric has changed a lot, with his traditional sayings “Belarusians and Russians are the same nation” or “Belarusians are better-quality Russians” losing in intensity after spring’2014. Now, he prefers to stress the independence, uniqueness and self-sufficiency of Belarusians. This is Lukashenka’s quotation from his traditional annual speech in October 2014: “We are three brotherly, but distinctive nations, each one constructing its own state... We are not Russians, we are Belarusians”.

Many noted that Lukashenka unexpectedly chose Belarusian for his speech on the Independence Day. He also stated a need for more lessons of Belarusian in schools.

These are not first or unique cases, however: though the authorities often associated the Belarusian language with the opposition, some also stated a need to support it. Given the growing demand for “Belarusianness”, Lukashenka is in the best position to realize the Russian threat and a need to reinforce the national identity, the language being its key component. Lukashenka always has to balance between two options. On one hand, he needs to adopt brotherly rhetoric and sign union treaties with Russia, because Belarus is in need for Russian loans and energy benefits. On the other hand, he needs some distance from Russia to minimize threats to the independence and his personal power, and so he might apply soft re-Belarusization or unfreeze ties with the West.

As for the popular interest in Belarusian national identity, there are several factors here. On one hand, Ukrainian developments provoked a growing need of many Belarusians to stress their distinctions from Russians, something that helped many patriots to expand the field of the Belarusian national awareness. Actually, many are joining without any deliberate reflections just to be “trendy”. On the other hand, active efforts to promote the national language and culture have a history before the events in Ukraine, too.

For example, Art Siadziba, an independent cultural initiative, launched activities as early as in 2011 to promote Belarusian culture and use of language. LSTR, an independent brand of contemporary Belarusian clothes with national symbols and history-related pictures, emerged in the beginning of 2012. Super-popular courses of Belarusian language “Mova ci kava” started in early 2013. By the way, the courses were initiated by Katsiaryna Kibalchych, a journalist of the Russian TV; her openly pro-Russian stories and viewpoints on Ukraine resulted in a conflict with co-trainers of the courses and the eventual closure of the training courses.

So, today’s Belarusization is both a bottom- up and a top-down trend for the government, change supporters and rather neutral and passive common voters. Launched well before the Ukrainian events by civil activists and initiatives, the efforts to promote the Belarusian cultural distinctiveness were reinforced by events in Ukraine.

Conclusions:

• The Belarusian society is under a strong influence of the Russian propaganda with prevailing pro-Russian attitudes toward developments in Ukraine. The combination of traditional Belarusian passiveness and the common sense results in unwillingness of the public for any open protests, leave alone joining Ploshcha (the Belarusian version of Maidan, or the Square).

• The trend toward Belarusization, or strengthening the Belarusian national identity, will grow in the nearest years. Both the authorities and the opposition will try to use it for their own needs and for the good of the Belarusian independence and statehood.

• Neither bottom-up, nor top-down Belarusization came as a mere reaction to events in Ukraine. In both cases, its reasons are deeper. The Ukrainian crisis served as a catalyst, though very strong, of this trend and previous efforts to promote the national identity of Belarusians.