Staunton, September 7 – The anti-Lukashenka protests in Belarus have eclipsed the coronavirus pandemic as a focus of concern among Russians, Denis Volkov says discussions with focus groups show, because for Russians, Belarus is a not so distant mirror of their own situation now or at least in the near future.
“Belarus,” the deputy director of the Levada Center continues, “is a special country for Russian public opinion.” They routinely view it as Russia’s closest ally and support the further development of economic cooperation, even if they divide on unification of the two countries (forbes.ru/obshchestvo/408391-belorusskoe-zerkalo-pochemu-sobytiya-v-minske-vyzvali-ostruyu-reakciyu-v-rossii).
For older Russians, Belarus is especially attractive because it has maintained many features of the Soviet past. They view it as “a country of victorious socialism.” Younger Russians are less impressed by this and are more likely to focus on the repressive nature of Lukashenka’s regime and other shortcomings.
Both groups say they did not expect the protests to have broken out, with the older asking “why protest when things are going so well?” and the younger enquiring “why protest when you know you won’t succeed?” The two groups of Russians also divide in their explanations for what has happened, Volkov says.
Older Russians follow Moscow television and view the demonstrations as the work of outside forces like the CIA. Younger Russians in contrast who rely on the Internet sympathize with the protesters and feel that the Belarusians in the streets are fed up with Lukashenka’s authoritarianism, restrictions, and complete falsification of the elections.
As Volkov points out, this is hardly the first time these two groups of Russians have diverged and diverged according to whether they rely on television or on the Internet, divide on whether they believe change will work for them and on whether keeping the devil you know in power is good or bad – older Russians do while younger ones don’t.
Focus group participants, Volkov says, “noted the similarity between Lukashenka and Putin.” The former has been in power longer than the latter, but now Putin may catch up. Some participants say both began well but have deteriorated. But most divide over what they believe will happen when the incumbent leaves office, with the old expressing fear and the young hope.
“For supporters of the status quo, the longer the current president remains in power, the better.” For those who want change, the opposite is true, the sociologist continues. But even those who want change do not think the Belarusians will achieve it. They fear there will be a crackdown and Lukashenka will survive.
They make the same assumption about protests in Russia, including at Khabarovsk, Volkov says. No Russian believes protests there will succeed, and that attitude raises an interesting possibility: If the protesters in Belarus do succeed, that alone “could show Russians the possibility of another scenario” in their own country as well.
“But it is still too soon to speak about that turn of events,” the Levada Center expert says.