Authorities tighten control over sociologists
The Belarusian authorities prepare preventive measures for cases when sociological services coordinated form abroad become active in Belarus. Most likely, these actions have less to do with the activities of the political opposition, and more with the growing risk of Belarus’ Eurasian integration.
According to Narodnaya Volya newspaper, on June 14 a draft law amending Administrative Code was submitted to the House of Representatives. Drafted by the Presidential Administration, it envisages a penalty for carrying out sociological polls without accreditation.
The initiative of the President’s Administration is obviously a safety preemptive measure against foreign sociological services. Sociological services officially registered in Belarus have a long established formal and informal framework and do not pose any significant threat to the authorities.
In particular, since 2002, carrying out of opinion polls needs to be formally approved by a special commission at the Belarusian Academy of Sciences and informal recommendations clearly regulate issues which could or could not be a subject for a public opinion study. In turn, informal links between some sociological services (Information and Analysis Center under the Administration of the President or the Ecoom centre) and the authorities allow the latter to censor the data, and thus control the public opinion.
Therefore, the Belarusian authorities attempt to insure against a possible “invasion” by foreign - mainly Russian - sociological services of the Belarusian political sphere. The precedent occurred in 2010 when a Russian sociological agency Inside, regardless of the lack of accreditation carried out exit-polls during the Presidential elections on December 19 and was the first to report about an extremely low support to a candidate Alexander Lukashenko.
Apart from the uncontrolled electoral sociology threat, the authorities may be wary of a greater penetration of Russian companies in the Belarusian public opinion research market.
With the development of the Eurasian integration project, the Belarusian leadership’s needs to refer to “people’s opinion” will increase, in particular, when dealing with controversial privatization issues, single currency introduction, and other political and economic issues. Therefore the vitality of control over sociological poll results is increasing.
If adopted, the amendment to the Administrative Code will increase the risks for carrying out unauthorized public opinion polls. Envisaged penalty for an individual will be a fine of Br 2 to 5 million, and for an organization – Br 20 million.
The Belarusian authorities could to step up the opposition representation in local councils, should party members demonstrate potency. The Belarusian leadership is unlikely to have the resources to ensure 100 percent pro-government candidates in the local elections. The authorities have exhausted the grassroot support and have no funds to pay for the loyalty.
The Belarusian Central Election Commission has proposed to hold the elections to the local Councils of Deputies on February 18th, 2018.
The president has repeatedly emphasised the importance of the local councils in the power system and the state machine always tried to ensure the necessary local election results. Candidates have been decreasing in number with each elections and the authorities dealt with that by reducing the deputy corps. That said, during the rule of President Lukashenka, his electoral base has changed substantially. Over the past decade, most Belarusians have moved to cities and lost their local roots. The rural population is ready to support the president, but rural residents are constantly decreasing in number.
The Belarusian leadership is likely to permit broad participation in the election campaign and an increase in alternative representatives in the local councils. However, the opposition would have to boost its activity, so as so far it has been passive in defending its interests. In addition, the authorities, while determining the date for the local elections, have taken into account the fact that the opposition is usually the least active in the winter time.
Overall, both, the opposition and the local authorities have exhausted their grassroot support, however new local leaders may still come on political stage, although the party opposition has not yet shown sufficient aspirations.