Staunton, October 14 – Opinion leaders in Belarus whether they support Alyaksandr Lukashenka or oppose him are overwhelmingly against the closer integration or union of their country and the Russian Federation, and it is their opinions that are picked up by sociologists in that repressive country, Mikhail Petrovsky says.
But the Rosbalt commentator continues, the so-called “deep people” of that country, and especially those in the eastern portions of Belarus, are overwhelmingly in favor of having the two countries re-combined even though their views at odds with the regime and the opinion leaders are rarely recorded by pollsters (rosbalt.ru/world/2019/10/14/1807243.html).
Anyone who has a chance to listen to these “most simple people who are simply afraid to discuss politics openly,” Petrovsky argues, will quickly come to see that “a significant mass associate themselves with the position that ‘unless we are with Russia, no one needs us.’”
The Rosbalt commentator says he recently had the chance to overhear a conversation of two such people right in the center of Minsk. One asked when all the talk will end and Belarus become part of Russia, to which the other responded: “It’s long past time. We should be like Tatarstan and live much better. In Russia, wages are twice as high.”
Belarusian politicians who keep their ears to the ground confirm this: Alena Anisim, a deputy of the Belarusian parliament, said recently that “global problems like the threat of losing independence don’t agitate them a great deal. They want to know about inflation or talk about their children. What will be between Minsk and Moscow is a matter of indifference.”
And Grigory Kostusev, a member of the Belarusian Popular Front says, that ever more Belarusians are placing their hopes in Putin, “especially in the eastern regions. People hope that Putin will come and save them and impose order. And such opinions are to be found not only among the ordinary people but among the regional bureaucrats and siloviki.”
“People hope that with the coming of Russia, their wages will go up,” Kostushev adds. They watch Russian television and they want to be within Russia “in order to be proud of the greatness of that country with its nuclear weapons,” he says; and they approve that he “took Crimea away from the Yukes.”
To be sure, Petrovsky continues, “not everyone” even among “the deep people” think that way. Some continue to hope to be part of Europe and certainly don’t view Moscow as the center of the universe. But the number who don’t care about geopolitics and only want higher wages and the basis for pride is larger than polls report.
That is because of the nature of sociological polling in authoritarian Belarus, the commentator continues. If opinion leaders for and against Lukashenka are ready to denounce any union with Russia, that is because supporting unity with Moscow is “not comme il faut” and they are ready to talk. But “the deep people” are in a different situation.
“Just try to take an interview with the man on the streets of Minsk if you are not a journalist with state media,” Petrovsky says. “You will be lucky if one in ten people will agree to speak on issues connected with politics. And you may not even get a chance to ask this ‘tenth’ because before you can, a militiaman will approach and ask who gave you permission to ask?”
What this means is that those who want to engage in independent polling are in fact driven back to using focus groups, and in those, the Rosbalt commentator says, the opinion leader types, the intelligentsia dominate, even though in the society as a whole, they are a tiny minority.
Petrovsky may be overstating the situation from the opposite side most commentators focus on, but his words are important for two reasons: On the one hand, there is a tendency among those who want to hear that Belarusians support the independence of their country to accept polls without asking about the nature of the society in which they have been taken.
And on the other, what he says about regional divisions within Belarus as far as ordinary people are concerned suggest that Moscow might be tempted to use a Donbass strategy either as a threat to get Minsk to cave in on its resistance to Russian dominance or as a policy option to be seriously deployed if Lukashenka continues to oppose unification.