Belarusian society affirms its demand for a strong leader
Amid conflict in south-eastern Ukraine, Belarusian society is stepping up its demand for a strong leader and President Lukashenko is growing in popularity. However, regardless of Lukashenko’s growing popularity, the Belarusian authorities are concerned about the level of population’s loyalty to the government. The Belarusian government is undertaking measures to consolidate the population around the idea of Belarus’ independence and sovereignty however, so far, the authorities’ actions were non-systemic and often contradictory.
According to recent polls by IISEPS, the president’s popularity rating is on the rise.
Since early 2014, President Lukashenko’s popularity rating has been climbing: in December 2013 only 37.7% trusted him, 45.9% in March 2014, and 49.6% - in June 2014. The president’s electoral rating has remained unchanged at 39.8% (in response to an open-end question), and even slightly increased to 48.1% in response to a closed question. Interestingly, the growth of the president’s rating does not correlate directly with the people’s welfare growth. According to the Statistics Ministry, the average salary in December 2013 was USD 620.6, slightly decreasing in May 2014 to USD 604.1. In addition, the Belarusian authorities could not demonstrate any progress in socio-economic development.GDP growth in January – April 2014 was only 1.1%.
Events in Ukraine continue to have a significant impact on voters’ preferences in Belarus. Amid the armed conflict in south-eastern Ukraine, Belarusian propaganda has been focusing on praising the safe living conditions in Belarus provided by the authorities. However, the Belarusian authorities have been unable to counteract the Kremlin’s propaganda about events in Ukraine. Despite Moscow’s numerous attempts to draw Minsk into Russo-Ukrainian confrontation, the Belarusian leadership is trying hard not to spoil relations with the Ukrainian authorities and to adhere to neutrality.
President Lukashenko has reiterated the need to preserve Ukraine’s territorial integrity numerous times and recognised the new Kiev authorities. However, according to the latest national poll by IISEPS, most Belarusians support the Kremlin’s aggression against Ukraine - 62.2% of Belarusians uphold Russia’s annexation of Crimea as restoration of historical justice. It should be noted that public opinion in Belarus was partly influenced by the contradicting messages from official Minsk during the Russo-Ukrainian tension, and largely by the Russian media, which dominate the Belarusian information space.
The Belarusian government cannot but be concerned about the influence the Russian media has in Belarus. For the first time in two decades, President Lukashenko spoke Belarusian at a public meeting devoted to the 70th anniversary of Belarus’ liberation from the Nazis (Independence Day, July 3rd). In particular, he said, “This unity saved us during the war. It gave us the wisdom and strength to build an independent Belarus in the new times. Anyone who raises a hand against the nation’s unity is the enemy of Belarus”.
Nevertheless, the government sends confusing signals to the Belarusian society. For example, the only Belarusian-language teacher who was critical of the government’s policy was recently fired from Grodno Medical University.
The Belarusian authorities will take measures to boost the population’s loyalty to the government. Due to the lack of achievements in socio-economic development, the president will focus on the anti-corruption measures and Belarusian propaganda will exploit developments in Ukraine to maintain the authorities’ rating.
President Lukashenka continues to rotate staff and rejuvenate heads of departments and universities following new appointments in regional administrations. Apparently, new Information Minister Karliukevich could somewhat relax the state policy towards the independent media and introduce technological solutions for retaining control over Belarus’ information space. New rectors could strengthen the trend for soft Belarusization in the regions and tighten the disciplinary and ideological control over the student movement in the capital.
President Lukashenka has appointed new ministers of culture and information, the new rector of the Belarusian State University and heads of three universities, assistants in the Minsk and Vitebsk regions.
The new Information Minister Karliukevich is likely to avoid controversial initiatives similar to those former Minister Ananich was famous for, however, certainly within his capacities. Nevertheless, the appointment of Belarusian-speaking writer Karliukevich could be regarded as the state’s cautious attempt to relax environment in the media field and ensure the sovereignty of national media.
The Belarusian leadership has consolidated the trend for mild Belarusization by appointing a young historian and a ‘reasonable nationalist’, Duk as the rector at the Kuleshov State University in Mogilev. Meanwhile, while choosing the head of the Belarusian State University, the president apparently had in mind the strengthening of the ideological loyalty among the teaching staff and students at the main university in order to keep the youth movement at bay. Previously, Korol was the rector of the Kupala State University in Grodno, where he held purges among the disloyal teaching staff.
The trend for the renewal of mid-ranking executives and their rejuvenation has confirmed. The age of the Culture Minister and three new rectors varies from 39 to 44 years old.