1. New possibilities and old hazards

It is well-know that relations with Russia is a serious factor influencing domestic situation in Belarus in general and outcome of certain political campaigns in particular. Defeat of two democratic candidates – Z. Poznyak and S. Shushkevich – at the presidential elections of 1994 serves as an example for underevaluation or even neglect of this factor. At the first sight, it may seem that this factor has become monopoly of A. Lukashenko long ago. Yet, the latest unfolding of bilateral relations proves that it is, to put it mildly, not exactly so. The new master of the Kremlin has made it clear that another era has been started and the rules, which were used in the time of B. Yeltsin, do not work today. Integration is no longer an instrument for the fight against NATO, American imperialism and so on. A. Lukashenko does look like enjoying complete support of the new Russian leadership, whose approaches are dictated by Russia’s interests not by ideological principles.

Thus, one may assume that A. Lukashenko will not be backed up by Moscow at the presidential elections. V. Putin is likely to observe the course of the elections from aside and wait for a presidential candidate, who is able to suggest the most rational schemes for development of new bilateral relations. A. Lukashenko said once that he is not afraid of anything as long as Russia does not betray him. Russia has not let him down yet but the official Moscow does not seem to consider him an ideal and irreplaceable partner for the times to come. This is the first time the Kremlin has made it ambiguously clear for interested political forces that he is ready to study alternative variants. The potential hazard lies in the fact that the opposition appears to pay little attention to the changing position of the Kremlin. In this respect, it brings about disillusion with the fact that the situation today very much resembles the year 1994. Everyone understands that during the election campaign one cannot behave and speak the terms and arguments that he/she would do at a meeting with fellow-protesters. Nevertheless, some opponents of the present authority keep going the same way. They either repeat (though rarely) political slogans like prays or pretend not to notice what is happening around. At the best, they refer to hardships and numerous problems.

Integrally, the opposition’s approach to relations with Russia may be called irrational. At least, it has not suffered serious changes after the process of integration and the referendum, in which Russian politicians a negative role. To be brief, the approach may be formulated as “Russia is, was, and will remain an empire and nothing good can be expected from them except for a small group of devoted friends, right-of-center liberals and human right activists”. At the same time, the fact that under present political set-up these friends are marginal groups, which are distanced from the authority, while the refusal to take imperialism has been voiced by V. Putin. It is necessary to admit that rigid views of the opponents of the present-day regime regarding the Russian issue, does not contribute to development the opposition’s social basis. The political course of the new Russian leadership is not merely out of 10-year old ideological cliche but is gaining more support in Belarus.

2. The tendency is obvious

The findings of our survey prove the fact that the problem really exists and needs an adequate solution. Over the last 18 months the number of those, who would vote for the unification of Russia and Belarus at a possible referendum, has increased by almost 15%. Simultaneously with that, the number of those who would vote against unification has dropped by almost the same figure (see Table 1). It goes without saying that in this case the question is raised incorrectly. However, if such a referendum should be held, the wording of the question will be none the less confusing and ambiguous, and the pollsters will interpret the answer to this question as they see fit.

Table 1. Dynamics of distribution of answers to the question: “If referendum on unification of Belarus and Russia has taken place today, how would you vote?”, %

As far as choosing the optimal variant of relations of Belarus and Russia is concerned, the situation here is just as uninspiring (see Table 2). Here the dynamics turn out well for adherents of integration, too. As a result, the general picture looks like this: over the last six months the number of ardent adherents of integration has always exceeded the number of opponents of this proposition (see Table 3). The tendency is obvious and it is impossible to ignore it.

Table 2. Dynamics of answers to the question: “Which variant of relations between Belarus and Russia seems the best to you?”, %

Table 3. Dynamics of number of convinced supporters and opponents of integration, %

In fact, the simplest explanation that is frequently heard is that adherents of integration are the same social strata, who ardently support A. Lukashenko (these are mainly elderly rural residents with a fairly low educational background – i.e. social outsiders). However, firstly, the numbers of Lukashenko’s advocates have actually reduced. Secondly, the number of integration supporters is not rising at the expense of adherents (or even opponents) of Lukashenko. As a matter of fact, a lot of adherents of integration gradually stop supporting A. Lukashenko, but continue to back up the idea of integration (see Tables 2, 4-5).

Table 4. Dynamics of answers about voting at the new presidential election, %

Table 5. Dynamics of ratio of respondents you support A. Lukashenko and integration, %

As one can see from Table 6, the best variant of integration is seen as a merger with Russia not only by 28.9% of the “don’t know” majority, but also 16.8% of staunch opponents of A. Lukashenko (let us observe that 24.4% of the latter stated in favor of a union of two independent states).

Table 6. Attitude to A. Lukashenko depending on choice of the best form of relations with Russia, %

Table 7 shows that a third of the “don’t know” category of respondents are not satisfied with President Lukashenko’s management of the country. This is another proof of the fact that rows of adherents of moderate integration are composed not only of ardent “lukashists”.

Table 7. Attitude towards integration with Russia depending on attitude towards A. Lukashenko’s six-year rule, % >

Moreover, around 30% of pro-integration activist do not want A. Lukashenko to get re-elected for another presidential term and 38.9% of the “don’t know” respondents also think so (see Table 8).

Table 8. Attitude towards integration with Russia depending on attitude towards A. Lukahsneko’s another term of presidency, %

When it comes to vote counts at the possible referendum on integration, the situation is similar. 36% of those who do not want A. Lukashenko to rule the country for another five years would vote for integration, with 43.3% against (see Table 9). Besides, 34.6% of those who support the idea of a union of two sovereign states and 27.9% of respondents who prefer a merger do not want A. Lukashenko to be president a second time (see Table 10).

Table 9. Voting at a possible referendum on unification of Russia and Belarus depending on attitude towards A. Lukashenko’s second term of presidency, %

Table 10. Attitude towards A. Lukashenko’s second term of presidency depending on choice of the best variant of relations with Russia, %

Table 11. Distribution of experts’ answers (01’01) to the question: “What future for you consider the best for Belarus?”, %

However, absolutely different sentiments are common in the Belarusian elite. In reply to the question about the best future for their country, none of the experts mentioned its entry into Russia. 21.6% of respondents stated in favor of a union with Russia, in which Belarus would remain a sovereign state. Please, compare: 52.7% supported the idea of entering the European Union and 36.5% were advocates of a neutral non-bloc stand for Belarus (see Table 11). In the meantime, this deep contradiction in the beliefs of the elite and regular electorate has been on the increase recently. For a start, maybe it would be worthwhile deciding on which is more important at this stage – a victory over A. Lukashenko or “resisting Russian imperialism” and also think in what measure the latter contributes to the former. It is not a secret that the hesitating majority requires different methods of persuasion; street marches and the traditional activities involved would do much to persuade these people. Besides, it is worth to remember that the attitude of citizens of Belarus to Russia is also irrational in many respects. And, if Lukashenko’s ardent adherents view integration as a return to the USSR, then the approach to this issue of the hesitating group is less ideologically-loaded and more pragmatic. For them integration means the preservation of normal links without borders and customs checkpoints, warm houses and busy industrial enterprises.

3. Reasons behind popularity of integration

What is the reason why the idea of integration appeals to people? In our opinion, it is worth mentioning two points here. First of all, we should point out that Vladimir Putin’s sudden ascension to the heights of power and popularity has drastically changed the political situation not only Russia, but in Belarus, too. The Belarusians have chosen a new idol – a strong leader, who possesses publicly-appreciated qualities. Such qualities comprise force, rigidity, exactingness, strictness on the one hand, and erudition, intellectuality and intelligence on the other. So what we get here is home-bred enlightened authoritarianism. As a result of this, A. Lukashenko started yielding his positions to the Russian leader “in his own game”, where he had had no competitors. Findings of IISEPS public opinion polls show that since November 1997 he has been firmly holding onto leadership among his foreign counterparts as an ideal politician and a possible runner for Belarus-Russia Union’s president. The picture was much like presidential ratings of Belarusian politicians: A. Luka-shenko was far ahead of his rivals.

However, already in November 1999 Putin’s rating as a runner for president at hypothetical Belarus-Russia union presidential elections was only twice as low as that of A. Lukashenko. In April 2000 V. Putin took the lead. Further on his advantage has been slowly but constantly on the rise.

It is not a secret that Belarusian public consciousness does not fully differentiates between Belarusian and Russian political fields, and this is why V. Putin had contrived to gradually “press” A. Lukashenko in his own political game. Contrary to all expectations, public attitude to V. Putin has remained basically unassociated with respondents’ attitude to the second Chechen war, which many bind together with the name of the new Russian leader. Findings of Russian sociological surveys show that public attitude to V. Putin was substantially undermined neither by the explosion in the Moscow underground pedestrian passage nor by the death of “Kursk” nuclear-powered submarine. We see the same in respect of Putin’s rating in Belarus.

The second point is probably less significant, but it also exists. Here we refer to some improvement in the economic situation in Russia. The contract is really vivid if one compares two near-border districts of both states. If earlier cheaper foodstuffs were exported from Belarus, now, it is Belarusian people that carry not only essential commodities, but even bread, in the reverse direction. It is not really important that the cause of what is going on is the favorable economic situation on the market (high oil prices, etc.), which may change tomorrow. For the majority of Belarusian people these are very lofty matters to consider – it is the fact that counts.

4. The choice is limited

Let us try to answer the question “Which is more important – ideological principles, sanctity of party programs or winning the election?” If the opposition shares the viewpoint, according to which it would be better if A. Lukashenko became president a second time rather than a pro-Russia-oriented democrat, then everything is clear as a day. However, if winning the election is nevertheless important, then one should answer another question – a purely technological one: what moves is Russia supported to make in order to order to attract the electorate and win? Actually, there is not much here to choose from. Today there exists a certain “corridor” of values for the majority of the electorate. This, of course, has to do with their attitude to Russia, too. One may treat these values as he or she likes, but it is impossible to ignore their existence. In order to get the candidates to vote for some particular candidate, he will have to offer some optimal program within the “corridor” in question, however, by no means should he defend views and values beyond the aforementioned corridor.

If someone is not happy with the existing “corridor”, this is his or her own personal problem – one should have more actively cultivated public mind in order to change it to one’s own benefit, rather than blame people for immaturity. It is clear that the chance of winning the presidential election is higher in a candidate with a transparent and attractive program of building up relations with Russia, rather than in one, who will not come up with a program like that. The required minimum of such a program is to be realistic and appealing to the electorate.

Unfortunately, we must admit that so far Belarus does not have any normal strategy for building up relations with Russia. Instead, there is ideologically motivated going from one extreme to the other. It is either “unification of Slav peoples”, which veils the wish to use Moscow’s resources without any control or compensation, or the burning of flags and accusations of imperial inclinations. Today, there is hardly anyone to argue the statement that an anti-Russia-oriented politician has a very slight chance of becoming president. This implies that the one who will be able to intelligibly and comprehensibly explain to the electorate what are actual national interests of Belarus and which are the ways to realize them, may count on support of the hesitating electorate, whose votes are of decisive importance. It is not just abstract words about the firmness of sovereignty that is required (A. Lukashenko says he is all for sovereignty, too), and we will surely hear a lot of such talks, but a comprehensive and clear model, in which everything is described in detail. Besides being intelligible, this model must be to the benefit of both countries and must not contradict views and expectations of Belarusian citizens.

Thus, we arrive at the following conclusions. First of all, there is a tendency in the Belarusian society at the moment, showing that the number of adherents of integration with Russia in on the rise. There are two main reasons behind it: Putin’s popularity and relative economic progress in Russia. These two factors have attracted representatives of new social strata to the ranks of integration supporters. Last summer an important “barrier” was surmounted – among “integrationists” the number of those who support A. Lukashenko has become less than 50%. New “integrationists” are no longer pro-Lukashenko social outsiders, but supporters of V. Putin. Among them there is a considerable part of young people, townspeople and educated citizens, who used to support neither integration nor A. Lukashenko. Putin’s performance of authoritarianism appeals to them much more them than Lukashenko’s, especially for those whom we refer to as the hesitating electorate.

Secondly, A. Lukashenko is quickly losing a powerful pre-election trump card – the right to being the exclusive partner of Russia. It is unlikely that the Kremlin will render him any support at the elections (notably, the so-much-talked-about $ 30m stabilization loan has not been granted yet). Russia is now waiting; it is ready to consider alternatives to the present Belarusian leader. If democratic forces fail to come up with such alternatives, one can surely expect such proposals from Belarusian apparatchiks (bureaucrats).

Thirdly, the chance of winning the presidential election of an anti-Russia oriented candidate is much lower than that of an “integrationist”, as the overall number of those who adhere to the various forms of integration, both tough and moderate ones, is not only a simple majority, but an overwhelming majority. This does not at all mean that one must go to Moscow and kneel down begging for a new “princedom warrant”. However, this does mean that today the opposition’s former policy in respect of Russia, which brought its notorious results, may do harm to any democratic candidate. Seemingly, he, whoever it might be, will have to work out an ideology-free pragmatic model of Russia-Belarusian relations, which is simultaneously acceptable for the Kremlin and the Belarusian people and which poses no threat to the sovereignty of the country.