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Belarusian Review

Thoughts and Observations

Is Lukashenka Winning Back Hearts and Minds?

The popularity of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has been a phenomenon that has demoralized most of his opponents since the beginning of his rule. His skill to win the hearts and minds of Belarusians seemingly came to an end after the last presidential elections, in which he lost nearly half of his social base. However, Lukashenka once again demonstrates his ability to reclaim it.

A September poll conducted by the Minsk-based Independent Institute for Socioeconomic and Political Studies (NISEPI) shows that his approval rating has rebounded to 31.7 percent of the electorate, up from 26.2 percent in March-April. Remarkably, for most of this period Lukashenka was engaged in a battle with the Kremlin over the conditions of the Russia-Belarus Union, which he seems to have lost. Nevertheless, Lukashenka may have had a point when declaring to the Russian media in July that the keys to his power are in Minsk and not in Moscow.
Regardless, the new boost to his rating confirms that external pressures are used by Lukashenka to his domestic political advantage, and Russia has only replaced the West as a major external threat against which he now mobilizes his supporters. Overall, however, three factors contributing to yet another boost to Lukashenka's popularity should be considered.
The first factor is the appraisal of life conditions. Thus, there is a considerable increase in the number of those who believe that Belarus is moving in the right direction (30 percent against 22 percent in March-April). The percentage of those thinking otherwise dropped from 62 percent to 48 percent. There is also a growing expectation that life conditions will improve soon (19 percent versus 8 percent in March-April). Such social optimism does not reflect any real-life boost to the economy but stems rather from the ability of the regime not to worsen life conditions any further as compared to the previous winter, when hikes in utility prices seriously hampered living standards. If so, Lukashenka's revived popularity may be short lived and it could witness another downturn this winter with a new increase in the gas bills.
The second factor is the lack of political alternative. This fall, NISEPI asked respondents for the first time, whether they would vote for someone new who, in their opinion, would be a credible contender against Lukashenka. In a head-to-head battle, such a hypothetical alternative candidate would win 56 percent of the vote against only 22 percent for Lukashenka. At the same time, 83 percent declared that they knew nobody who could play this role. The existing opposition personalities and parties still do not spark public enthusiasm. When asked to chose in a hypothetical race between Lukashenka and Valery Fralou, one of the leaders of the opposition Respublika group in the Chamber of Representatives, 34 percent chose Lukashenka and only 17 percent Fralou. Unfortunately, no other potential candidate was put in the running, which partly reflects NISEPI?s own effort to promote Fralou and the pro-Russian Respublika as the only realistic alternative to Lukashenka. Overall, the absence of a prominent contender considerably affects the political attitudes of those voters who are by now ready to shop for alternatives. Having none in sight, many of them once again turn their sights to Lukashenka. The president, in the meantime, makes every effort to make sure that such an alternative will not emerge.
The third, and perhaps most unexpected factor, is Lukashenka's successful reincarnation into some sort of nationalist and a defender of political independence, which, contrary to observers? expectations, was welcomed by the electorate. For almost a decade, Lukashenka was firmly associated with the Russia-Belarus Union project, which in a way epitomized his personal political mission. When his popularity took its first serious slump 18 months ago, alongside growing public support for the union with Russia, some questioned the validity of the poll data. Sociologists attributed this paradox to the rising popularity of Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose rating is several times higher in Belarus than Lukashenka's own. Hence, if the trend continued, the public war of words between the two leaders should have strengthened pro-Russian sentiments and brought forth a further decline in Lukashenka?s popularity, opening the way for the Kremlin to move against the Belarusian leader. Ironically, exactly the opposite trend can be observed now.
Recent disagreements between Lukashenka and the Kremlin over details of the union project (including privatization, a joint currency, and the union's proposed constitution) have pushed the Belarusian leader into a dramatic shift in favor of a pro-independence stance in his official rhetoric. This has not only boosted his public image, but also pro-Russian sentiments in Belarusian society appear to be steadily waning. Thus, the percentage of those in favor of a Russia-Belarus federation declined from 25 percent to 18.5 percent since the previous poll. Among Lukashenka's supporters, the popularity of a federal union has declined from 38 percent to 23 percent, whereas no similar change of opinion can be noted among his opponents.
Hence, the growing support for independence was fully absorbed by Lukashenka and not the opposition. The introduction of the Russian ruble in Belarus is approved of by less than half of the population (44 percent). Only 10 percent agrees that Russian business is the best potential buyer for Belarusian assets. (Even Western corporations fare more favorably, with 15 percent of respondents approving their participation in privatization.) Finally, when asked to make a hard choice between either Russia or the European Union, 47 percent of respondents chose the Eastern neighbor versus 36 percent in favor of European integration. (At the same time, as much as 60 percent of the population declared their support for joining the EU - however, around a quarter of the population believe that it is possible to integrate into Russia and Europe simultaneously.)
Even though a considerable part of the population remains strongly pro-Russian, there is a clear sign that recent rifts in the Russia-Belarus Union have caused many Belarusians to think about different strategic options for their country's future. Moreover, the 36 percent in favor of the EU may be considered a large number, given the fact that public debate about Belarus-EU relations is virtually nonexistent. European integration is publicly ruled out as a feasible option not only by the regime but also by a large section of the opposition elite.
Hypothetically, integration with Europe could be used as a platform for consolidating the anti-Lukashenka opposition. However, a stereotype that no platform other than support for a union with Russia (read - Putin) could exist for the opposition if it wants to successfully challenge Lukashenka, has been enforced for the last few years by independent media and research centers. The opposition has thus found itself split over whether it should manipulate such stereotypes and accept a more pro-Russian position.
Independent analysts and opposition politicians favoring this shift have frequently justified their position by the belief that Lukashenka's switch to support of independence would only damage him politically, as pro-Russian aspirations presumably had reached the point of no return.
However, Lukashenka himself not only managed to turn the trend around, but has also reclaimed societal territory from his opponents. This may finally bring a serious identity crisis in the opposition camp and leave it chasing support without a clear message and a sense of direction.

Vital Silitski is a Minsk-based freelance researcher.
Source: RFE/RL Poland, Belarus and Ukraine Report, October 21, 2003

This article appeared in
Belarusian Review, Vol. 15, No 4
Copyright 2003 Belarusian Review
All rights reserved.

Vital Silitski

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