The number of Belarusian citizens who feel that a union with Russia would be most advantageous has decreased by one-third over the past year. According to pollster Prof. Andrei Vardomatski, pro-Russian attitudes have never slumped to this extent in 20 years of research.
For years, Vardomatski’s Belarusian Analytical Workroom has been conducting regular, bi-monthly polls of Belarusians’ geopolitical orientations, in which respondents replied to the question “In which union would Belarusians live better: the European Union, or a Union State with Russia?” According to the researcher, the mid-December poll showed significant changes in the mindset of Belarusian citizens.
From September to December 2019, the percentage in favour of a union with Russia dropped from 54.8% to 40.4%. Vardomatski believes this reduction in pro-Russian sentiment has been noticeable for two years, but the process has clearly gathered pace over the last few months. Previously, it had been gradual, and a clear trend in Belarusians’ opinions was impossible to define.
Meanwhile, over the same period, one can observe evident, yet less rapid growth of pro-EU sentiment – from 24.4% in September, to 32% in December 2019. The data also shows that this declining affinity for Russia was accompanied by a 25% growth in the number of Belarusians unable to reply to the question. The sociologist explains that respondents disappointed by integration with Russia tend to adopt a neutral stance at first.
These latest poll results show that, for the first time, less than 50% of Belarusians support integration with Russia, the sociologist emphasised.
This would be significant in the event of a referendum on increased integration with Russia as, according to the research presented, those supporting such a solution would lose.
The expert also reminds us that this relatively high percentage of respondents who still support a union with Russia (which is already in force, since Russia and Belarus are members of a Union State) does not imply a desire to be absorbed by Russia. Only 3.7% of those polled replied affirmatively when asked whether Belarus should become a subject of the Russian Federation.
The author of the research claims that the start of this falling trend coincided with a notorious statement made by former Russian premier, Dmitry Medvedev, in December 2018. He issued an ultimatum to Belarus, saying that cut-price energy would only be offered in exchange for heightened integration within the Union State of Russia and Belarus. Back then, the level of support for integration with Russia was 60.3%, but it is now a mere 40.4%.
According to Vardomatski, the cause of this process is the changing rhetoric regarding Russia presented by Belarusian state media, which became increasingly critical as Russia’s demands escalated – sometimes even on a par with the independent media, which have traditionally criticised Russia. The sociologist also noted the autonomy of Belarusian public opinion, which had remained unchanged for a long time and only “cracked” in September 2019, when the Russian newspaper Kommersant revealed that the Kremlin was planning to “swallow up” Belarus economically.
Tensions then rose again during Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s failed negotiations with Vladimir Putin, as it emerged that the Russians were also demanding the creation of joint institutions for the Union State.
Vardomatski also points out that, since early 2019, the demographic of those professing pro-European sympathies has widened for the first time. Previously, such attitudes only prevailed among the 18–24 age group but, for a year now, the majority of the 25–34 age group would also like to see Belarus as an EU member.
Another important issue is attitudes towards language. The percentage of pro-EU and pro-Russian respondents is equal only in the group which claims to be completely Belarusian-speaking, whereas the majority declare themselves pro-Russian in the two other categories (i.e. those who only speak Russian or so-called trasianka, a mixture of Russian and Belarusian; and those who speak both Russian and Belarusian). Vardomatski believes that the percentage of people who support the EU rises according to their level of education.
In the sociologist’s opinion, the research shows that Belarusian society still lacks a fully formed geopolitical identity. However, we can see a new pro-European trend crystallising, mostly influenced by the media. According to Vardomatski, the Belarusian authorities have got the message that Belarusian society is not unambiguously pro-Russian.
The latest poll concerning the geopolitical orientation of Belarusians was conducted between December 18–31, with a group of 1061 respondents interviewed directly in their places of residence, with a 3.2% margin of error.