There is only/still six months to the next Eastern Partnership summit In Vilnius. Alexander Łukaszenka was not invited to the last one taking place in Warsaw in 2011 due to his presence on the EU ban list. The situation in Belarus hasn’t improved since then. There are still political prisoners in the country and the rule of law does not exist. But the problem with supporting democracy there is not just a lack of money or the political regime that blocks any activities. We, in the European Union, still assess the situation much more in our European (read: democratic, wealthy) way. In the end neither do we address the needs of local NGOs, nor do we promote the idea of the Eastern Partnership among citizens. And the opposition in Belarus does not always make things easier, thus comleting a vicious circle.
Let’s try to summarize some of the facts.
As of March 2013 one third supported Alexander Lukaszenka. Even though this makes an increase since the crisis year 2011 when in September support had fallen to 20%, is far from level of support from December 2010 (around 55%). So, theoretically, the potential for pro-democratic movements could be high. Even more so, since 40% of those asked, see the situation in Belarus developing in the wrong direction.
At the same time even not one fifth of Belarusians (17%, March 2013) consider themselves as part of the opposition to the current regime. In December 2012 this group counted 21%. And the public support for opposition is statistically low. When in December 2012 only every fifth Belarusian claimed to trust political opposition parties, this number decreased in March 2013 to 13%. This low support, for our Western European standards, however, is quite easy to explain. The main topics that make the opposition visible and so important to us in the EU, are the fight for democracy and human rights. The local population still, though, is much more focused on their economic situation, rather than broken laws and imprisoned leaders. The oppositionists usually do not address these purely social needs. And if they do, they are perceived more as social activists more than as politicians. Which, on the other hand, neither brings them support in their opposition role nor lets them be effective as pro-democratic activists. Vicious circle…
What’s more, the opposition is much divided. While one part of it rejects any contact with the regime, including taking part in elections organized by it, the other part wants to use any possibility to show up and so fight with the current rulers. There is also no common voice how to develop the Eastern Partnership strategy regarding how to help Belarus and the relations EU-Belarus. It should come as no surprise then that the number of candidates in the presidential elections 2010 was so high that no one had really chances to win or even attain a higher percentage of votes. These divisions and quarrels among the opposition are, as usual, eagerly used by the media making people distrust their leaders. In this case Lukaszenka’s comment that he is happy to have such opposition is more than just understandable.
Some other numbers say that around 60% of the society claim they want reforms. Still the reforms started by the regime are far from those needed. Even though the number of civil servants has been reduced by 25%, these cuts have not included people from the Presidential Palace and security services. Also modernization as implemented by Lukaszenka means something much different from what we understand under this word. The president means technological changes and renovations in old buildings. Although there are still no detailed plans made public regarding what should be done.
Belarusian people have, however, come to understand that it is not possible to aim for closer integration both with Russia and the EU. While for many years long they claimed such a deal would be profitable for them, today 30% prefer an independent Belarus.
These mixed feelings and problems among the Belarusian opposition are not, however, anything surprising. Even more measures to support democratic changes in this country are needed. However, the aims and subjects that the European Union has formulated for its activities in Belarus are the best example of a totally wrong approach. At the time when people need a playground built and general poverty addressed, the EU programmes are devoted to the environment and equal rights for men and women, something that is not so interesting for the local citizens at this moment. It should not surprise us then that among them an understanding of European integration and advantages of closer ties to the EU are generally not noticed.
The question what to do in this case to support democracy in Belarus seems, however, to be more difficult to answer, than one would suppose. Even Belarusian experts and the opposition do not have a clear opinion on that. For sure one recommendation is undisputable – the EU – from its institutions, through national authorities to European NGOs must listen to the representatives of democratic Belarus and support the activities that they find useful. Collecting money and assigning them to projects supporting Western standards is much to little.
The quoted data come from the studies of the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (biss). The margin of error shouldn’t be more than 5% of the research (in Western Europe it is normally up to 3%).
More on the situation on Belarus you can find on the web page of BISS http://www.belinstitute.eu/en
BISS is as the Institute of Public Affairs a member of a network of think tank PASOS www.pasos.org