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March 2016: BELARUS – THE EU: A THAW, NOT A SUMMER

Normalization of relations between the official Minsk and the EU, cancellation of European sanctions, and softening of the anti-Western tone of Belarusian officials led to a certain increase of pro-European moods in Belarus. In particular, this was registered in the answers to the standard IISEPS question about Belarus hypothetically joining the EU (Table 1).

Table 1. Dynamics of answering the question: “If there was a referendum on Belarus joining the EU, how would you vote?”, %

Variant of answer 09’08 03’09 03’10 03’11 12’12 12’13 09’14 09’15 12’15 03’16
For 26.7 34.9 36.2 48.6 38.9 35.9 25.0 27.5 19.8 23.4
Against 51.9 36.3 37.2 30.5 37.6 34.6 50.3 51.9 56.1 53.9

However, this is only a slight improvement in comparison with the “disastrous” long-term low registered in December 2015. Current level of pro-European moods remains very low. However, previous experience of normalization of relations in 2008-2010 doesn’t exclude hope for a quick growth of these moods.

Their positive dynamics are confirmed by the answers to the following question, where geopolitical choice is represented as an alternative (Table 2).

Table 2. Dynamics of answering the question: “If you had to choose between integration with Russia and joining the European Union, what choice would you make?”, %

Variant of answer 12’08 12’09 12’10 12’11 12’12 12’13 12’14 12’15 03’16
Integration with the RF 46.0 42.3 38.1 41.4 37.7 36.6 44.9 53.5 48.0
Joining the EU 30.1 42.1 38.0 39.1 43.4 44.6 34.2 25.1 31.2
DA/NA 23.9 15.6 23.9 19.5 18.9 18.8 20.9 24.1 20.8

Table 2 results testify on a decrease of record-high level of pro-Russian moods, registered three months ago. It is possible that this isn’t a new trend (increase of pro-European moods and decrease of pro-Russian moods), but only a correction: the figures are going back to their balanced state after a dramatic change registered in the end of 2015.

Dynamics of answering the question about integration with Russia also confirm a slight decrease of pro-Russian moods (Table 3).

Table 3. Dynamics of answering the question: “If a referendum on the integration of Belarus and Russia was held today, what would be your choice?”, %

Variant of answer 12’08 03’09 03’10 12’11 12’12 12’13 12’14 12’15 03’16
For 35.7 33.1 32.1 29.0 28.7 23.9 23.9 29.7 24.8
Against 38.8 43.2 44.5 42.9 47.5 51.4 58.4 51.5 52.4

The 2nd of April 2016 is the 20th anniversary of the first treaty about union between Belarus and Russia. To a certain extent formulation of questions Tables 2 and 3 are a tribute to political context existing in Belarusian-Russian relations in the second half of the nineties, when the question of real integration of Belarus and Russia was topical, at least, rhetorically. Today no one discusses it even theoretically. However, mass consciousness perceives the term “integration” not as a strict legal formula of consolidation of two states into one, but as a deepening of union.

Returning to the topic of the Belarusian-European “thaw” on the level of capitals, political elites, and public consciousness, it should be noted that majority of respondents approved of cancellation of sanctions against Belarusian officials (Table 4).

Table 4. Distribution of answers to the question: “Recently there was thaw in relations between Belarusian power and the European Union. In February the EU canceled majority of sanctions against Belarus. There are different opinions about this move. Which one do you share?”

Variant of answer %
The EU made the right decision; they should respect the choice of Belarusian people and cooperate with the power which enjoys people’ support 39.3
The EU made the right decision, because no matter what the power in Belarus is, the most important is to weaken the dependency of Belarus on Russia 18.1
The EU abandoned their own principles playing ball with Belarusian power 17.7
The EU made the wrong decision, because they try to split Belarus and Russia 10.5
DA 16.6

Respondents could choose their answer while positioning themselves relative to two notional axes: axis of attitude to the current power (“authoritarianism – democracy”) and axis of attitude to Russia (“for – against”). It’s curious to see that the present power (authoritarianism) wins over democracy (39.3% vs. 17.7%), but Russia loses (10.5% vs. 18.1%). And this is despite the quite high level of sympathy towards Russia (Tables 2 and 3).

The matter is that mentioned axes are not independent, and part of pro-Russian and pro-authoritarian respondents evaluated the decision of the EU based on their home policy setups: the power is satisfied, we support the power, thus the decision is right, even if Russia doesn’t like it.

However, Belarusian society doesn’t demonstrate readiness for a deep institutional rapprochement with the West. As it was demonstrated above (Tables 1 and 2), the number of people wanting Belarus to join the EU isn’t particularly high. We should also remember that all countries of Central Europe, before joining the EU, joined NATO – organization, guarantying military security. Fervent breath of the “Russian World”, noticeable in the Crimea and Donbass, could potentially increase the desire to hide under the “security umbrella” of North-Atlantic Alliance. But results are opposite: over 10 years the share of people opposing Belarus entering NATO significantly grew (Table 5).

Table 5. Dynamics of answering the question: “If there was a referendum on whether Belarus should enter NATO, and you could vote “for”, “against”, or abstain from voting, what would be your choice?”, %

Variant of answer 04’06 03’16
Against 46.2 55.8
For 14.4 13.3
I wouldn’t vote 22.6 21.4
DA/NA 16.8 9.5

It is possible that the attitude to Europe could have improved even more noticeably, if not for the additional factor of migration crisis. December 2015 survey of IISEPS has already shown that majority of Belarusians do not support the approach practiced in many European countries, especially in Germany. This approach means readiness to admit majority of refugees in (Table 6). It is not a problem for Belarus (at least, not yet), but EU policy in this question provokes negative or perplexed reaction even among people who are not involved into it directly, for example the Minister of External Affairs V. Makey or the BPF Party. Dramatic events in Cologne and other European cities on New Year night have likely added some fuel to the fire of these reactions.

Table 6. Dynamics of answering the question: “During the last months there is a crisis in the EU countries caused by a stream of migrants from African and Asian countries. What opinion do you share on this crisis?”, %

Variant of answer 12’15 03’16
Refugees should be sent back and not allowed in, because they don’t belong to Europe 52.2 59.8
These people should be accepted, because they flee wars and poverty and need help 32.6 26.8
DA/NA 15.2 13.4

In other words, there is a lot of barriers on the way to Europe. And Europe is hard to understand. Russia is closer and more understandable. For many years over two thirds of respondents, answering the question, who is closer to them in cultural sense, chose Russians, and only one quarter of respondents chose Europe.

However, it doesn’t mean that Belarusians are ready to support all unexpected changes in Russian policy, especially if these changes affect their own country and themselves.

Thus, only a minor part of respondents thinks that Minsk should take Russia’s position in the serious conflict between Russia and Turkey. The number of those who advocated real steps in this direction is even lower (Table 7).

Table 7. Distribution of answers to the question: “Relations between Russia and Turkey seriously aggravated after Turkish air defense shot down Russian military plane. Russia has introduced a number of sanctions against Turkey. What should Belarusian politics be like in relation to this conflict?”

Variant of answer %
Belarus should support Russia, denounce Turkey and introduce the same sanctions as Russia 16.3
Belarus should support Russia and denounce Turkey, but do not introduce any sanctions 22.8
Belarus should not take any side in the conflict 53.8
DA/NA 7.1

Balance of public opinion’s evaluations of the prospect of Russian military airbase in Belarus was never in favor of this idea. But since the end of the previous year negative attitude to these planes only increased, and today its opponents almost constitute an absolute majority (Table 8).

Table 8. Dynamics of answering the question: “Russia suggests that there should be a Russian military airbase in Belarus. What’s your opinion on this?”, %

Variant of answer 06’13* 12’15 03’16
Positive 19.8 27.0 22.0
Indifferent 35.6 31.2 28.8
Negative 36.0 33.9 42.9
DA/NA 8.6 7.9 6.3

* In June 2013 this question was formulated as follows: “Recently during a meeting with A. Lukashenko, Russian Minister of Defense S. Shoygu announce the possibility of placing a Russian airbase in Belarus. According to him, there would be a wing there. Some people are positive about, some people are negative, and some people don’t care. What is your attitude?”

Belarusians aren’t also unanimous about the confrontation with the West, which the head of Russian government has recently called the new cold war (Table 9).

Table 9. Distribution of answers to the question: “Recently Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said that Russia and the West “returned to the times of the cold war”. Who is responsible for it in your opinion?”

Variant of answer %
Russia 12.8
The West 44.6
Russia and the West 30.4
Other 0.5
DA/NA 11.7

Current rapprochement between Belarus and the EU can only cause careful optimism. A thaw is not a summer; after a thaw can come a hard frost caused by Russian pressure or internal political reasons. How far can Belarus go in this rapprochement doesn’t depend only on the will of the official Minsk, whose political nature is far from the western values, but also from the position of Belarusian society. Significant majority of this society is even further from these values than the power itself. Belarusians doesn’t equal themselves to Russians, but tight connections, cultural, economic and historic, are evident. Europe doesn’t impose the “either-or” choice, but it seems that extents of rapprochement with Russia and the EU are mutually dependent in a negative sense, i.e. a condition of a close rapprochement with Europe would be a weakening of connections to Russia.

It’s possible that it is still too early to talk about a close rapprochement with Europe. Experience of 2008-2010 demonstrates, that long enough period of normalization can change society’s attitude to Europe. These changes of social opinion, in their turn, can become a foundation for an institutional rapprochement.