Updated at 13:33,29-11-2021

Should the Belarusian opposition turn to the “New Majority“?


On 15 February 2013 the founder of the most popular Belarusian website TUT.by Juriy Zisser and Natalya Radina, the chief-editor of a popular oppositional website Charter97.org publicly quarrelled in Vienna. That has revealed much deeper split in Belarusian society than many in the West think.

A substantial part of the population appears to be equally averse to both the ruling regime and to the radical opposition. But Lukashenka's opponents show little capacity to attract these people.

New Political Borderlines

The conflict occurred on 15 February 2013 during the OSCE Conference on Internet freedom in Vienna. The delegates from Belarus included Natalya Radina (from oppositional media), Juriy Zisser (from civil society) and Vladimir Ryabovolov (from the Presidential Administration).

Everybody waited for a huge wrangle between the governmental envoy and other participants, but real the fighters turned to be the non-government delegates. They burst out into allegations of corruption and threats of imprisonment.

Another conflict of this kind had stirred up the Belarusian internet just two days before. The founder of another top-rated independent Belarusian website Onliner.by Denis Blishch in his twitter rudely insulted all the radical oppositional activists who are sometimes depreciatingly called "zmahary" (Bel. – "fighters”).

It was a reaction on the story told by one of such activists Dmitry Galko in his blog about Blishch refusing him a journalist job because of his political activity. Website owner insisted that he is out of politics and that true journalists must also be above political disputes.

These conflicts reflect much deeper division in Belarusian society. Both founders of the two popular web-sites – Blishch and Zisser – are famous entrepreneurs, who made their start-ups super-profitable. They are the representatives of the modern IT-elite, well-educated and critical to the Belarusian government.

At the same time, these successful and independent businessmen not only refuse to associate themselves with political opposition, but instead actively criticise and even resist it.

Moderates and Radicals

This relative division on "moderates" and "radicals" also exists in other separate spheres of social life: among NGOs and journalists.

Around 50 Belarusian NGOs, gathered under the aegis of Civil Forum of the EU Eastern Partnership, have recently united in the association called "National Platform of Civil Society". Drafting its basic guiding document – the Conception – resulted in a series of disagreements among the members.

The draft proposed by several organisations implied fostering of centralisation of civil society groups and enlarged the powers of the National Platform. Some experts and NGO’s were afraid of upcoming politicisation of civil society which seemed inadmissible to them. The reason was rather plain: NGO’s must be independent and not bound by anyone’s decisions.

Hence, they tried to oppose the proposed draft Conception, but the majority of the National Platform members backed it. This split has echoed in numerous online quarrels and resulted in certain reputation damage to the National Platform. As a consequence one of the most famous NGOs – Movement "For Freedom" – postponed its joining to the Platform.

The same split becomes evident among the independent journalists. They disagree whether a professional journalist must be truly independent and unprejudiced or he must fight for his ideals using media as a tool.

Some opposition media, such as Charter97, predominantly promote the latter view. Others disagree with the usage of independent media as counter-propaganda even launched a web-project – mediakritika.by. They set as their goal promotion of standards of pure professional journalism without politics involved.

Opinion Polls Show Distrust

The December 2012 opinion polls held by Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS) indicated several figures and trends that should become a wake-up call for the political opposition. Although the support rate of the Belarusian ruler got stuck at 30%, the level of trust to his opponents is immensely lower.

For instance, two most popular oppositional leaders, Vladimir Neklyaev and Andrey Sannikov have the support rate of 4,6% and 4,8% respectively. The overall level of trust to the opposition is 20%, while 55,8% of the respondents distrust it.

The same concerns the endorsement of the radical methods of political resistance. Only 3,1% think that opposition should resort to "armed uprising or revolution", while the most popular answer is "to propose a dialog to the government" (35% of respondents). And 20% think that Belarusian opposition should fight for abolition of the western sanctions instead of lobbying them.

Meanwhile, 46,1% are sure that the country develops in a wrong direction, 49,1% do not trust Aleksander Lukashenka, and half of the respondents consider the concentration of powers in one hands to be harmful for the country’s future.

All in all, sociologists come to conclusion that besides Lukashenka supporters (30%) and his firm opponents (20-25%) there is a significant social group (from 25% to 40% by different assessments) who are critical to both the government and the opposition. They stand for evolutionary reforms and dialogue instead of political confrontation and revolutions.

Some commentators have already called this group "the new majority".

Hard Tasks for the Opposition

Apparently, "the new majority" can play crucial role in future democratisation of the country. And the opposition in order to succeed should bet on attracting these people instead of confronting them.

"The new majority" waits for constructive, ready to compromise force, a real alternative to the existing government. So, all the relative radicalism performed by current political opposition is a direct obstacle on the way to uniting all the dissatisfied Belarusians.

Some far-sighted politicians seem to understand this need for change. Soon after the conflict between the oppositionist Dmitry Galko and the owner of a popular web-site Denis Blishch a wide discussion about this fight broke out. One regional political activist, Piotr Kuznetsou proposed his sudden idea: "opposition must please people like Blishch".

Kuznetsou explained that successful businessmen, who are disappointed in current situation, are the most desirable target group for the opposition. It means that such people are modern, pro-democratic, open-minded, entrepreneurial and active. Therefore, if the opposition cannot attract even them, it is doomed in the wider scale, concluded Kuznetsou.

Giving up certain ideas such as rejecting a dialogue with the regime until political prisoners are released or calling for sanctions against human rights violators, may be morally difficult for many in the opposition. But without some tactical concessions and flexibility the opposition support rate in the divided Belarusian society will hardly increase.