Belarus has become a case of authoritarian survival despite mass mobilization against the regime.
Using repression, an inner circle of loyal elites, and support from Russia, Alexander Lukashenko has been able to cling to power.
Having secured—for now—his position internally, he began to step up the confrontation with the EU by attracting migrants from the Middle East and Africa and facilitating their illegal entry into Lithuania and Poland.
Local resentment against the influx of migrants is part of Lukashenko’s calculation, as it could undermine the support of neighboring countries for the Belarusian opposition.
The EU countries bordering Belarus and the union as a whole have to manage this migration crisis. Further EU sanctions aimed at Belarusian airlines transporting migrants to Belarus and responsible individuals like the Belarusian foreign minister are currently being considered in Brussels.
Amid these dramatic events, Belarusian society is increasingly disappearing from view. What do Belarusian citizens think, expect, and want?
Almost a year after the beginning of the protests following the rigged presidential elections of August 2020, the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS) conducted a second online survey among 2,000 Belarusians aged sixteen to sixty-four living in settlements above 20,000 inhabitants, based on quota sampling reflecting the population’s structure in terms of gender, age, and place of residence.
This second survey, conducted in June 2021, is part of a panel study re-interviewing the same people as in December 2020. It therefore allows for the tracing of potential shifts in attitudes more directly than surveys capturing only one moment in time.*
Overall, on a wide range of questions, societal attitudes have remained rather stable over the six-month period between the two surveys. Stable attitudes in this context refer to the continued politicization of society, but also to persisting divisions.
A clear majority of about 55 percent of the respondents do not trust Lukashenko (41 percent “not at all” and 14 percent “rather not”), compared to just below 25 percent “fully” or “rather” trusting him, and nearly 20 percent not knowing how to answer the question in mid-2021.
Trust in institutions and individual politicians remains generally low. This also holds for Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the leading opposition candidate now active in exile, and her team. In 2021, about 47 percent of the respondents said they did not trust Tikhanovskaya’s team (“not at all” and “rather not”), while about 30 percent “rather” or “fully” trusted the team, and 23 percent did not know how to answer the question.
The 2021 survey also allowed respondents to assess the overall importance of the protests since the presidential elections.
The picture is mixed. A majority thinks that the protests were important: for about 31 percent they were “very important” while for 17 percent they were “rather important.” However, 19 percent considered the protests “not important” and 9 percent thought of them as “rather not important”. The fact that an additional 20 percent were not sure how to judge the events reflects a general sense of uncertainty.
In mid-2021, close to 14 percent of the respondents stated their readiness to participate in new protests (“definitely” and “rather yes”), compared to just below 67 percent stating they would “definitely not” or “rather not” participate in new protests. About 16 percent were undecided and close to 4 percent refused to answer this question.
At first glance, current protest readiness seems to be low, but, in fact, this is almost exactly the share of respondents who report having participated in the 2020 protests. Participation in 2020 was high in comparison to other protests around the world.
The statistical analysis reveals that readiness to protest again in the future strongly correlates with protest participation in 2020, political interest, and trust in Tikhanovskaya’s team. Interestingly, a higher age makes protest readiness somewhat more likely, while gender and education do not play a significant role.
One of the few topics on which there has been a greater shift in attitudes is that of EU sanctions against Belarus.
When asked to judge the importance of these sanctions in mid-2021, 42 percent of the respondents thought of them as “very” or “rather” important—a drop of 10 percentage points compared to December 2020.
These 10 percent have boosted the number of those who deem EU sanctions unimportant (up from 23 to about 28 percent) and those who do not know how to answer this question (up from 22 to about 27 percent).
In 2021, the survey additionally asked about personal support for EU sanctions and found respondents almost evenly split: about 40 percent voiced their opposition to the sanctions and about 36 percent expressed their support. A further 20 percent did not know how to answer the question, and 5 percent refused to respond.
While it is not surprising that support for sanctions varies significantly, as it is influenced by concerns about the price paid for them by individuals, the perceived importance and effectiveness of EU sanctions is clearly decreasing.
In its current discussions about extending the sanctions regime, the EU should take these trends seriously. It should stay informed about societal attitudes in Belarus that could have an influence in shaping the bloc’s strategy toward the country.
Gwendolyn Sasse is a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and director of the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS) in Berlin.
*The first round of the survey in December 2020, referred to here as a comparative reference point, was funded by the German Federal Foreign Office. The second survey in June 2021 was funded by ZOiS.