Consensus is emerging among authorities, opposition and population about Belarusian statehood
The Belarusian society seems to have consensus emerging between the authorities, the opposition and the population about the value of independence and sovereignty for Belarus. The Belarusian authorities attempt to respond to ‘isolationist’ sentiments in Belarusian society and promote the ‘balancing foreign policy’s’ advantages. In the medium term, the supporters of Belarus’ sovereignty and non-alignment are likely to outnumber the supporters of the Eurasian and European integration.
Sociologists have marked a stable trend with ‘isolationist’ moods in the Belarusian society. Since early 2000s, supporters of the union with Russia were consistently reducing to 24.8% in March 2016 (IISEPS March 2016 poll results). In turn, popularity of the European integration depends primarily on two components - political stability and security, as well as economic development.
The example of Ukraine has probably prompted many Belarusians to abandon the integration idea, either with Russia, or with the EU. The bulk of Belarusians believe, that the crisis with Ukraine’s statehood and military confrontation in the Donbass were due to unequivocal choice of the Ukrainian society in favour of European integration. The fact, that Belarusians have started opposing European and Eurasian integration confirms this.
That said, the geopolitical balancing policy carried out by the Belarusian authorities and Belarus’ ‘peacemaker’ image, have responded to the expectations of the majority of Belarusians. And the authorities are attempting to preserve such moods in Belarusian society. President Lukashenka emphasised the pragmatic component in relations with the EU and refused to revise cooperation within the EEU, "This is our fate: we are between the two centres of power and there is nothing we can do about it. We cannot disregard one or the other. But Russians are our brothers, whether some like it or not, and we should have a corresponding relationship with them”.
Similar attitude is popular among the Belarusian population, three quarters of which consider themselves mentally closer to Russians than to Europeans. Belarusian Foreign Minister Makei at the press conference in Moscow after theCIS Summit attempted to pre-empt possible criticism by the Russian media of Belarus developing relations with Western capitals, "We are not going anywhere, Russia is our main strategic partner and ally. But this does not mean that we should not have normal relations with other countries”.
The Kremlin has to take into account the prevailing moods in Belarus regarding her sovereignty and independence. For instance, Russian Ambassador to Belarus Surikov confirmed his commitment to preserving the sovereignty of both states, "I am a supporter of the preservation of nations and peoples. I am careful about the Union State’s citizenship issue”.
Belarus’ ‘balancing foreign policy’ finds some support among the keen opponents of the Eurasian integration. For instance, curtailed repressions and detentions, as well as the opportunity to protest openly against the Russian policy at a rally on the Day of Unity of Peoples of Belarus and Russia in front of the Russian Embassy in Minsk have induced positive reactions among the opposition.
Incidentally, the Belarusian society’s demand for a change in the socio-economic policy stimulates the popularity of the European integration. For instance, especially during periods of recession in Belarus, supporters of the rapprochement with the EU were growing in number. According to independent polls by IISEPS, in 2011 - 2013, pro-European sentiments dominated over pro-Russian ones. Amid the thaw in Belarusian-European relations in 2015 and Belarus’ failure to address socio-economic challenges, pro-European attitudes are beginning to recover.
According to independent pollsters, despite the Russian propaganda, there is demand for a new agreement between Belarus and the European Union in Belarusian society. This may be due to the lack of full bilateral relations, especially on economic cooperation and visa liberalisation issues, in the view of recession in Russia.
Overall, if economic recession deepens in Belarus and Russia, pro-European moods in Belarusian society are likely to somewhat strengthen. However, the geopolitical choice of Belarusians is likely to depend on the aggressiveness of the Kremlin’s foreign policy.
The Belarusian authorities regard the Catholic conference as yet another international event to promote Minsk as a global negotiating platform. Minsk’s proposal to organise a meeting between the Roman-Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church is rather an image-making undertaking than a serious intention. However, the authorities could somewhat extend the opportunities for the Roman-Catholic Church in Belarus due to developing contacts with the Catholic world.
Minsk is attempting to lay out a mosaic from various international religious, political and sportive events to shape a positive image of Belarus for promoting the Helsinki 2.0 idea.
Belarus’ invitation to the head of the Holy See for a meeting with the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church should be regarded as a continuation of her foreign policy efforts in shaping Minsk’s peacekeeping image and enhancing Belarus’ international weight. The Belarusian authorities are aware that their initiative is unlikely to find supporters among the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. In Russia, isolationist sentiments prevail.
In addition, for domestic audiences, the authorities make up for the lack of tangible economic growth with demonstrations of growth in Minsk’s authority at international level through providing a platform for religious, sportive and other dialogues.