Q&A: Belarusian Opposition Gaining Speed but No Revolution in Sight


From the Council on Foreign Relations, March 16, 2006

All signs indicate Alexander Lukashenka will win Belarus' March 19 presidential election, amid concerns in the West about his authoritarian rule. Yet there may be cracks in his consolidation of power. Independent polls have shown his popularity slipping, however slightly. There are also signs the opposition--historically disorganized--is united and able to organize itself, abetted by various civil society groups and youth movements. But Belarusians do not expect the election to be free or fair. Members of opposition groups who hold rallies or post flyers continue to be arrested or beaten. Sarah Glacel, project manager for InterMedia, a Washington-based international media and polling firm, says a new opinion survey signals Lukashenka's grip on the public may be slipping but there is little indication Belarus will experience the revolutionary fervor of Georgia or Ukraine after fraudulent presidential elections there. InterMedia conducted a survey of public attitudes and political preferences of 1,085 adults in Belarus from February 28 to March 4.

What did the data from your polls reveal?

The results are not surprising if you've been looking at other polls that have come out recently, with about 50 percent [of Belarusians] for Lukashenka. The exact number is 52.9 percent.

That low?

Yes. And of all the other candidates, the highest is [Alexander] Milinkevich with 6 percent. What's particularly interesting is the number of people--17.4 percent--who said they didn't know, and 10.4 percent refused to answer the question. And so, you have to look at that number and think: While some of these people really do not know, a good number have an idea of which [candidate] they would vote for but have this kind of fear and don't necessarily want to say. When asked if they'll vote, 86 percent of people are planning to vote, while 5.4 percent say they're not, and everybody else either does not know or refuses to answer.

What issues are important to Belarusian voters? Do they vote with their wallets?

Well, I think that in a lot of ways they vote with their wallets. If you look over the past five years from 2000, we see that in answer to the question, "How do you view the next twelve months?" people have a lot more hope for the coming year. The last time we asked this was in September 2005, and 47.6 percent said they look at the next twelve months with hope. If you compare that to five years ago, in 2000, only 31.9 percent were saying that. So obviously they're feeling better about what's going on in the country. One of the reasons for this is economics. If you ask Belarusians what they think about their own standard of living, the number of those who answer "very satisfied" has gone from 1.3 percent in 2000 to 4.6 percent in 2005. But even more significant is those who are "somewhat satisfied," which went from 13.8 percent [in 2000] to 30.1 percent in 2005. So people are obviously feeling better about their economic situation and about where their lives are going.

Is there a sense of who votes in Belarus? In other words, do older people who might rely on pensions vote more than, say, younger people?

Back in September, we asked the question, "To which political personality do you feel closest?" And if we looked at that by age and by education, not surprisingly, younger people are less likely to feel close to Lukashenka, as are people with better educations. People who use the Internet are less likely to feel close to Lukashenka. This is also because people who use the Internet are also young and better educated, but they also have more access to information. People who read independent newspapers are much less likely to feel close to Lukashenka.

Also, when you ask people if they think human rights is a problem, if they think rule of law is a problem, or lack of rule of law is a problem, and if you ask if people think lack of a free press is a problem, those who do not support Lukashenka are more likely to say these are problems [that] are critical. On the other hand, when you look at things like unemployment, housing, etc., the people who think those are more serious problems are usually more likely to support Lukashenka.

How many Belarusians have access to satellite radio or television and can actually listen to outside or independent broadcasts?

It's very small. Only 2.7 percent have access to satellite television.

But there's a fair amount of Internet penetration there, correct?

There's a fair amount, slightly lower than Russia's. Weekly use of the Internet is 9.7 percent. That means, when asked the last time they used the Internet, 9.7 percent report using it in the last week.

And how much of the Internet is censored?

We do qualitative research with Internet users and focus groups where we get four groups of eight in a room and talk to them about their Internet use. They report they don't necessarily have problems getting to the independent sites, whether it's independent international broadcasters, or [opposition news agency] Charter 97. They do report problems around important political events, for example, before the [October 2004] referendum [to extend presidential term limits]. It's not clear whether it was because the government was doing something to jam them. At the same time, they do admit it could also be because so many people were trying to get on some sites to find out information.

Going back to the polling data: Does the opposition appear to be surging?

From our surveys alone, it is difficult to tell. In our last survey in October, we didn't ask about Milinkevich simply because it wasn't clear he was going to be the opposition candidate. We did ask about [Anatoly] Lebedko, who Milinkevich just barely beat out as the opposition candidate, who had 1.7 percent [popularity approval] then. If you think because they're a united opposition group of candidates and are probably going to have somewhat similar numbers, it does look like it has increased. But then you'd have to keep in mind that the question was asked differently. It wasn't asked, "Who would you vote for in a presidential election?" It was asked, "Which political personality do you feel closest to?" And the other thing is, obviously back in October, because we didn't know who the candidates were going to be, there was a much greater choice. What is interesting to note back in October was that although Lukashenka was in first place, "none," and "don't know" were in second and third places.

The magic number, of course, is the 50 percent necessary to avoid a runoff vote. Is there a sense that a marginally close result might force a runoff? Some experts have told me there's no chance Lukashenka will let it go below 70 percent, regardless of the actual outcome.

I would agree with that. When we asked Belarusians whether they think the elections are going to be free and fair, only 48.8 percent said they did. And so half of the population is probably expecting a situation where Lukashenka will report receiving a higher percentage of votes than he actually did or there will be other forms of fraud.

Is there a sense from your study how many would actually take to the streets in protest afterward? Moreover, what's the general feeling in Belarus on neighboring countries where they have been so-called color revolutions?

That is a question we did ask, whether people think what occurred in Ukraine and Georgia was a positive or a negative thing, and it's mostly negative. First of all, we could not ask the question, "Will you go out and protest if there's election fraud?" because of the current political situation in which people are unlikely to answer. But if you ask them whether they think the Rose Revolution resulted in positive changes, only 9 percent either agree strongly or agree somewhat. Granted, you have to look again at the "don't know" and "refuse [to answer]" numbers, which combined are 35.6 percent. So the number of those who view the Rose Revolution positively could actually be much higher, but only 9 percent will admit to the fact they think it brought positive changes in Georgia. In Ukraine, together it was 10.8 percent who agreed strongly and agreed somewhat that it brought positive changes. The "don't know" and "refuse" were a little smaller there: 17.7 for "don't know" and 6.4 for "refuse." So people aren't sure.

What about the view of Russia among Belarusians? Is Russia seen as a positive influence in Belarus?

Yes, 82.3 percent of people are very favorable or somewhat favorable toward Russia. However, if you ask if people want to form a union with [Russia], there's some contradiction. I think people are either not really aware of what's going on or what they think. We have two questions that asked how much they agree with the following statements: "Belarus should remain a sovereign and independent nation," and the second is, "Belarus should merge with the Russian Federation." Some 63 percent of people who strongly agree that Belarus should merge with the Russian Federation also strongly agree that Belarus should remain a sovereign and independent nation. So, I'm not sure if that's a result of people not really understanding what the merger is or not being well informed.

What about general attitudes and impressions of the United States?

[Favorable] feelings for the U.S. are very low compared to that of other Western countries. It's 32.5 percent.

What about Belarusians' views of nongovernmental organizations [NGOs], which work in civil society, and pro-democracy groups? Are they viewed as just arms of the U.S. government?

When asked about international NGOs, 22.4 percent of people are favorable. But for all the questions on domestic and international NGOs and organizations like the IMF [International Monetary Fund] and the World Bank and the OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe], people really don't know a lot about them or don't have an opinion about the matter.

What kind of trend line can you point to, if any, from looking at data from [the last presidential election in] 2001 versus looking at this year?

s I mentioned, people are more comfortable with their standard of living and more comfortable with where the country is going. We've only asked the [question of which] politician you're closest to for the last three years, and Lukashenka went from 30 percent in 2003 to 46.6 percent in 2005. I think where we see some differences are the feelings of younger, more educated people, who eventually--if we look at Georgia and Ukraine--are the groups that are going to make the difference, and especially if they're able to get more information. What's scary is that they're not; they're having problems getting information right now. Those groups are the ones that can spur change on and that really feel a problem with the current situation. My own personal opinion is that it's not going to happen after this election, but if they can continue to kind of gain speed then it may happen in the future over the next couple of years.