Belarusians’ openness to changes leaves much to be desired

According to the sociological study conducted by the EP Directorate-General for External Policies, the Belarusians have lost their confidence in the authorities but they are still not able to put themselves together. European experts has made an attempt to ascertain sentiments of the public before the parliamentary elections in Belarus.

Polls reveal that a radical turn around in public opinion occurred in 2011, notably during the summer months. Hit hard by the currency crisis, the devaluation of the Belarusian rouble (by 56 % in May) and their aftermaths (hyperinflation, falling purchasing power and growing unemployment), people lost faith in the “Belarusian economic miracle”.

A majority thinks policy changes are necessary: in December 67 % believed that ‘market reforms are needed’ (only 16,5 % did not) whereas 57,7 % wished for ‘cardinal changes in domestic and foreign policy in the coming years’. However almost 2/3 think that changes are impossible or improbable, or would not fight for them anyway.

“Washed brains”

The Belarusians have been brainwashed by state propaganda for 17 years. Weeding it out is a huge challenge for the EU to advocate democratic change and enhance its own profile. Most Belarusians misunderstand the purpose of sanctions because propaganda systematically distorts the EU’s messages so as to turn the country itself (not its leadership) into a victim of ostracism. The West lacks channels for explaining what universal democratic values mean and why the Belarusian ‘model’, as such, violates them, the sociological study on the composition of the Belarusian Society reads.

Moreover, the proverbial fragmentation of the Belarusian opposition has long been pointed out to explain the failure of a democratic alternative to consolidate in Belarus. Yet lack of unity is not the central problem anymore: lack of coordination and lack of alternative programs are, the experts believe.

What is democracy in the Belarusian style?

One ‘trick’ for maintaining Belarusians undemanding of universal human rights and fundamental freedoms is to systematically distort the very definition of democracy: for Lukashenka, democracy is the right to have a job, earn a living and feed one’s family, the study says. Personal safety and social order are better secured, he argues, by authoritarian means, especially in Belarus where inexperienced people would not be able to do anything good of their freedom. By the same token, freedom (of entrepreneurship, of speech, of conscience, of association and assembly, etc.) is depicted negatively, as it would necessarily bring about anarchy, inequality, wild capitalism and so on.

All these woes are said to come from the West of course, making it easier for Lukashenka to discard external attempts at dictating him democratic and market reforms. At the same time, a permanent conflict with the West through well-orchestrated diplomatic scandals provides a useful outside enemy to emulate patriotism and demonise domestic opposition.

According to the researchers, Lukashenka is holding the country thanks to an alleged ‘social contract’ with his population, whereby Belarusians would be voluntarily giving up their freedom in exchange for his protection. Through anti-intellectualism, infantilisation and brainwashing he managed to depoliticise society. Popular wisdom and peasant values are idealised as the essence of true Belarusianness, which are best embodied in the President himself

Recommendations for the Europeans

The study contains a number of recommendations for the European Union. One of them is “to ignore Lukashenka: refrain from attending his masquerades” because “dictators like to be in the spotlight.” Hence refusing to attend their ‘masquerades’ (an election farce, a politically-laden sports event or some other authoritarian propaganda ritual) is the best way for Western officials to signify them their disdain.

In the sociologists’ opinion, the EU should not expect the upcoming legislative elections to comply with democratic standards. Therefore, the best strategy for the EU would be to condition the deployment of electoral observers upon the prior satisfaction of the request that roundtables be held, resulting in the formal engagement of the regime to let opposition candidates run. Warned against any short-term tactics from the regime, the EU should make it clear that it steps out of the vicious circle and not commit itself to sending election observers to Belarus next September unless there are irreversible guarantees that the voting process will be fair and transparent.


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