What Belarusians Think About Their Country’s Crisis

Five key takeaways from analysing the results of a public opinion poll about Belarus following weeks of protest at the re-election of Aliaksandr Lukashenka.
Academy Associate and Belarus Initiative Director, Russia and Eurasia Programme
Рыгор Астапеня
Opposition supporters hold white-red-white flags at a Minsk protest in support of Belarusian opposition activist Maria Kolesnikova.

Photo by Natalia Fedosenko\TASS via Getty Images.
The opinion poll was conducted using the Computer Assisted Web Interview (CAWI) method and sent to a diverse grouping that corresponds to the general structure of Belarus’ urban population in gender, age, and the size of respondents’ town of residence. The survey was completed by 899 Belarus citizens and the statistical margin of error does not exceed 3.27%.
Although unlikely to be ever proven – given recent allegations of ballots being destroyed - the anecdotal evidence of vote rigging in the election is damning, especially when considering The Central Election Commission in Belarus has claimed Lukashenka secured 80.1 percent of the vote, with Tsikhanouskaya receiving only 10.1 percent.

More than 70 percent of our survey respondents say they believe the election was a sham, and only 20.6 percent of respondents said they voted for Lukashenka, while 52.2 percent cast their vote for his opponent Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, and 13.7 percent refused to reveal how they voted.

Even taking into account any potential margin of error, it seems extremely likely that Tsikhanouskaya received either more than half the vote overall - which would give her victory in a single round - or at least won enough support to necessitate a second round of voting.

1. Acknowledge the new reality
The survey shows Belarusian society is essentially split into three main clusters. The first group comprises individuals who both support the protests and voted for Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya (43.3 percent of our sample). They appear convinced the elections were rigged, and that law enforcement agencies were violent and used torture tactics against protesters.

Contrary to popular belief, this group comes from a broad spectrum of society, with its members not limited to the so-called ‘creative class’ - although they are more likely to be from Minsk and possess higher education.

The second group is ‘spectators’ (33.6 percent) with its members also being the most likely to have voted ‘none of the above’ in the recent election (39.1 percent of the group). Notably, 41.9 percent of respondents grouped as ‘spectators’ overall refused to reveal how they voted – possibly either because some feared participating in an opinion poll could result in repercussions in the event of a data leak, or simply that some were hesitant to answer the question honestly.

This group tends to be more supportive of protesters than of the regime. By and large, ‘spectators’ sympathize with the demands of protesters and believe Lukashenka should step down (64 percent of ‘spectators’ agreed with this, only four percent did not). However, they are less willing to deal with the implications of regime change, which could result in increased repression, a decline in living standards, and a deterioration of government services in the short-term.

The third group – ‘Lukashenka’s stronghold’ – contains comparatively more pensioners and individuals with only secondary education and comprises people with a negative view of the protests (23.1 percent of our sample). But their support for Lukashenka appears somewhat cynical, as demonstrated by a lack of conviction among many of them that the election was fair (only 60 percent of the group believe so). That indicates their understanding that Lukashenka has violated Belarusian law.

However, despite ostensibly appearing alike in many ways, opinions in this group are starkly divided on several topics, especially the allegations of criminal acts by the OMON force, responsible for special law enforcement. Around half within this group believe an honest investigation into acts of violence against protesters should be carried out.

2. Views on the protests are divided
Those in our sample involved in protests do not plan on giving up soon, with 83.9 percent of them saying they intend to continue protesting until their demands are met.

And the data also points to a significant use of alternative, albeit less conspicuous, forms of protest and solidarity, with 8.6 percent of all respondents claiming to have helped protesters or injured persons financially; 7.3 percent taking part in work-to-rule actions; and 5.5 percent refusing to pay their utility bills.

These insights only serve to underscore the obvious – that the scale of the current protests is unprecedented in Belarusian society. According to the survey, in August and September, one out of every five Belarusian urban adults took part in at least one street protest and this number only amounts to about half of those who have claimed to support the protests unequivocally.

3. This protest is unprecedented and unlikely to end soon
Following the presidential elections, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya announced the creation of a Coordination Council, whose goal is to put together a plan for overcoming the current political crisis. This council is currently acting as the main democratic structure in Belarus and, immediately after its creation, Lukashenka brought criminal charges against its members. Of the seven members of the presidium, three have been arrested and four have left Belarus.

Despite such hardships, the Coordination Council is perceived positively among supporters of the protests while, unsurprisingly, those respondents with a negative view of the protests also tend to hold a negative view of the Coordination Council.

But most importantly, many Belarusian ‘spectators’ do not understand its role or activities, and the average of the responses among the general population in the survey was that they see the council only as ‘somewhat representing all segments of society’, ‘somewhat trusted’, and its activities perceived as ‘somewhat effective’. The Coordination Council needs to exercise a greater degree of agency to better represent the interests of the majority of Belarusians.

4. The Coordination Council remains obscure to a large portion of the population
A significant number (41.6 percent) of respondents believe Belarus should align itself with both Russia and the EU simultaneously – which is not realistic – while 23.2 percent say it should avoid geopolitical blocks altogether. Both these answers show Belarusians do not want their country to become a focal point of wider geopolitical competition and, instead, would like to be a bridge between Russia and the EU.

However, far fewer Belarusians unequivocally support a pro-European stance – only nine percent favour EU accession – than a pro-Russian one, with 26 percent favouring a union with Russia.

But it does not follow that pro-Russian segments of the population wish to see a relationship with Russia that goes any deeper than economic integration, according to the survey. This reflects the overwhelming consensus in Belarusian society that the country should remain an independent and sovereign state.

Download a presentation with the main findings of the survey
5. No desire to choose between Russia and the EU
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