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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury

BELARUS NOTES #4: THE OPPOSITION & THE EU

Updated: Oct 14, 2023

Open Democracy published a ‘rebuttal’ to my recent article for them. I knew that a response was coming and I welcome the challenge to the argument I made. I usually think that it redounds to the merits or significance of a text when someone feels the need to respond to it, even if it is usually controversial arguments that draw such responses. There is plenty in the response that I agree with, but other points that I think are weaker. I shall allow myself to elaborate on a few points.


On polls: At the edge of the evidence


I certainly agree with Victoria Leukavets that polling in Belarus is problematic. Any poll is subject to errors, though in Belarus it is particularly challenging owing to the repressive political environment. There are two kinds of errors that polling falls prey to: sampling errors and measurement errors. In the case of the Chatham House polls that I relied on in my article, I acknowledge that both kinds of error are likely to affect the findings.


The sample of the Chatham House polls is not properly representative. I agree fully with the rebuttal in that respect. The methodology excludes people in rural areas and those who do not have internet access, which is most likely the elderly. The wisest thing to say is that we do not know what these people think about politics because they have not been asked. I have opinions about this unreached quota’s views, stemming from historical polling that did reach such groups and which leads me to think they are inclined to support Alyaksandr Lukashenka, but I acknowledge that there is no contemporary evidence to support or refute opinions either way. We are over the evidence's edge.


Likewise, there are probably significant measurement errors, by which I mean a disparity between what is recorded and the respondents' true views or behaviours. Fear is an issue in Belarus today, sadly, and I agree with Leukavets that ‘self-censorship’ affects some polling results. People may give responses according to what they perceive to be the regime’s ‘desirability’, particularly on politically sensitive issues; the question – which is difficult to answer – is the scale of any distortion in the polling data.


Ryhor Astapenia, the director of Chatham House's 'Belarus Initiative', argues fairly persuasively that the methods used compensate for this and, consequently, that 'the fear effect' is not overly significant in the polling he oversees. (Since different methods are used for different questions, it requires more information for me to draw authoritative conclusions.) The polling uses one method that is widely used by political scientists to poll on sensitive issues: in short, respondents are not asked to give a direct answer, rather they are given a list of several items and asked not which items they agree with but how many. This allows them to truthfully respond without expressing an objectionable or risky opinion to either the researcher or anyone else. Statistical analysis then allows the researcher to estimate the rate of agreement with the sensitive item.


It is at least arguable that there may be some distortion in the other (pro--opposition) direction, as well: I’m not sure if the respondents to the cited surveys know they are answering for Chatham House, but that might influence their answers. ‘Social desirability bias’ -- respondents saying what they think makes them look good -- plagues polling, too, regardless of supposed anonymity. Generally, however, I think this was a bigger problem with surveys conducted in the heady weeks after the August 2020 vote, when people who voted for Lukashenka might be tempted to fib as a salve to their own consciences. I'm less convinced that the methodology, including the 'item-count technique' just described, can compensate for this tendency. The temptation to deliberately 'miscount' the number of items for the sake of one's conscience is very unlike the fear of being discovered to hold an undesirable view, and the item-count method only seeks to address the latter. Again, the wisest thing to say is we don't know for sure the scale of the measurement errors.


These details notwithstanding, the Chatham House polls remain among the best source of quantitative information we have on public opinion inside Belarus. I can’t help but note that Tsikhanouskaya’s office claims from its own research that ‘most Belarusians’ support her initiatives to tighten 'partnerships for the inclusion of Belarusians into European integration'. Her evidence? An ‘anonymous online survey’ conducted by her office in July. She has also referred to the Chatham House polling on other issues to support her claims (e.g. in this speech).


Since I do not have a political agenda, I am not picking and choosing when I use polling data: in the absence of anything more helpful I use it – but with significant caveats, which admittedly I could not include in the Open Democracy article due to the word limit. The polling has limitations and it is helpful to have that point repeated, not that it changes my mind in this case.


The effects of propaganda


Similarly, I certainly agree with the rebuttal that propaganda and state media shape public opinion. But it is public opinion that I am interested in! I was not making an argument about what people would think in a different world without state propaganda.


I also agree that ties to the EU ‘can change perceptions’. But the ‘can’ in this sentence gives the game away: it’s an aspirational or normative claim. I agree with it because we saw it in the past. Between 2014 and 2020, when the EU and other ‘western’ states engaged with the Belarusian state under Lukashenka, public opinion towards the EU grew more favourable. Polling from a Belarusian organisation, the Independent Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS), had already recorded a significant increase in support for Belarus joining the EU in the early 2010s and support for being in ‘a union with Russia’ declined as a corollary. Support for being in the EU climbed to just over 40% in the last polls (sadly, the pollster was forced to end its operations in 2016 – replete with state media denouncing its work).


Civil society in Belarus benefitted from a thaw in relations with the EU in those years and the two sides concluded work on a ‘visa facilitation and readmission agreement’. Behind the technical language, the agreement made it easier for Belarusians to travel to the EU in principle, which could be expected to enhance Belarusian citizens’ perceptions of the bloc. That agreement came into force in summer 2020, shortly before the disputed election, and with time it could well have further enhanced perceptions of the EU among Belarusians. The EU’s Vice-President for Promoting our European Way of Life (there really was such a job!) was right to say that the visa agreement marked ‘a concrete step that will bring Europeans [sic] and Belarusians closer together.’


Further development of Belarus-EU ties was, alas, thwarted. Of course, no one need doubt that the Lukashenka regime’s brutal actions prompted the EU to impose restrictive measures (sanctions) against Belarus and reduce cooperation. But Lukashenka and his cronies are hardly affected by them directly, and it is still reasonable to point out that the EU has therefore dampened Belarusians’ views of Europe through its own policies.


First, nothing has been done since that ‘concrete step’ of the visa agreement, indeed it has only been rolled back slightly, and the cost of a Schengen visa to a Belarusian citizen is a pricey €80 (the average monthly wage is about €600). Then, following the Lukashenka regime’s forced diversion and landing of a Ryanair jet to arrest a dissident on board, the EU banned Belarusian airlines from entering its airspace. The EU made it harder for Belarusians to visit the EU, which, coupled with the state’s own tightened border and travel policies, make it easy to imagine many simply don’t bother to try.


None of these EU policies has helped to improve perceptions of the EU. And, unfortunately, I cannot see Belarusian public opinion being shaped extensively by Tsikhanouskaya's efforts, sterling though they may be, from her base in Lithuania. She will continue to try and, all the while, Russification inside Belarus will be ongoing. Recently pro-Russia activists called for school textbooks and teaching to be brought into line with Russian narratives on the war and the regime is responding by updating its education policies.


I don’t think anyone who knows Belarus can deny the considerable extent of Russian influence in the information space. Indeed, the extent of Russian influence brings me to the final problem.


By what mechanisms?


I fully agree with Leukavets that ‘minimising’ Russia’s influence in Belarus will weaken Lukashenka's position. It is far less clear to me how the exiled opposition's work to cultivate ties with the EU in the current context will help to realise this goal. Specifying this is the urgent task necessary to persuade me that there is meaning in the latest ambitions from Tsikhanouskaya’s office.


The nub of the problem, as I see it, is as follows: Why would the EU engage the Belarusian opposition in this respect? The EU has enough problems with Russian influence to contend with already; the role of Russia in Bulgaria, Slovakia and Hungary makes EU partners uneasy. Regrettably, entertaining the idea of Belarus as a future member is not going to be a priority for a long while. The EU has its work cut out satisfying its pledges made to Ukraine, where the demand for ‘a European future’ is far more obvious.


In conclusion, I am flattered that Leukavets responded to my article. She is an excellent analyst of Belarusian politics although her article hasn’t really persuaded me that my original argument was mistaken. Time will tell whether the EU path unifies or divides Lukashenka’s opponents, but we can all hope that positive change will come to Belarus regardless.

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