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Belarus votes on Sunday. Our new survey shows what young voters are thinking.

In a significant shift, 75 percent of young Belarusians distrust their president

- August 7, 2020

A week before Belarus’s Aug. 9 presidential election, tens of thousands of people gathered in the capital, Minsk, and across the country in support of opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. President Alexander Lukashenko, meanwhile, visited military training sites. State-run TV commentary affirmed the regime’s willingness to disperse future crowds of protesters to prevent a violent upheaval.

Official state media maintain that 70 percent of the population support Lukashenko, who has run the country for the past 26 years. Several nonrepresentative online polls put Tikhanovskaya’s popularity at 50 percent and more. But what about the political views of young Belarusians?

A recent survey conducted by the Berlin-based Center for East European and International Studies (ZOiS) offers some key insights. The new cross-sectional data are part of a regular monitoring of political attitudes of young people across Eastern Europe, with data collected in February 2019 and February 2020 in Belarus. The online survey was conducted from June 22 to July 4 among 2,000 respondents aged 18-34 who live in the country’s six largest cities. The quota-based sample draws on an actively managed consumer panel.

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The data show young people’s rising political interest over recent months — and lack of support for the incumbent, Lukashenko. Underlying the current political mobilization is a widespread frustration with the way Belarus has dealt with the coronavirus pandemic, contributing to a declining trust in key political institutions between the spring and summer of 2020. Opposition politicians enjoy a wide support base, and analysts see the country as increasingly politicized.

The president denied the dangers of coronavirus

Belarus was one of the few countries not to implement restrictions on public life to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Instead, the president mocked the virus, calling it a global conspiracy and suggesting that people go work in the fields as a cure. But the country’s response was actually more complex. The Health Ministry recommended that people stay at home, and several grass-roots initiatives coordinated aid for hospitals. People also started wearing masks in public, despite the president’s recommendation not to do so. With more than 68,000 official cases and a population of only 9.5 million, Belarus had more coronavirus cases, relative to its population, than any of its neighbors.

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Our survey finds that more than half of young Belarusians think the president’s decision not to implement any restrictions on public life was a mistake. Around one-third of respondents indicate the country should have gone into lockdown, even at the risk of significant economic costs. Among those who agreed with the official government policy, nearly all pointed to the importance of preventing a further economic downturn. Better-off respondents, those living outside the capital, and citizens who turn to state-controlled TV or newspapers are more likely to support the government policy. Only a small number — about 5 percent of our sample — stated that the threat of the virus was exaggerated, showing the limited reach of the presidential rhetoric.

What do young Belarusians think about the government’s coronavirus response? (Figure by Félix Krawatzek, using ZOiS survey data)
What do young Belarusians think about the government’s coronavirus response? (Figure by Félix Krawatzek, using ZOiS survey data)

Younger voters support the genuine opposition

When the survey was conducted in late June and early July, the electoral commission had not yet decided whom to admit to the presidential race. The survey thus included all potential candidates at that time. Survey respondents were most likely to back Viktar Babaryka — head of the commercial Russian bank Belgazprombank for nearly 20 years — at 45 percent and Valery Tsapkala — former ambassador to the United States and manager of the Belarus Hi-Tech Park — at 13 percent.

Both candidates were denied registration on July 14, and Tikhanovskaya was allowed as the only genuine opposition candidate. Lukashenko has frequently mocked female politicians, and she might have appeared to be the weakest of the opposition candidates. However, spokespeople for Babaryka and Tsapkala — Maria Kalesnikava and Veranika Tsapkala — have since started campaigning for Tikhanovskaya.

Support for the opposition candidate has been growing over the past weeks, and rallies have taken place across the entire country, including small cities and villages. Illustrating his concerns about that challenge, Lukashenko even suggested a change to the constitution to prevent women from becoming president.

The trio of women has mounted the most serious challenge to the incumbent president ever. Support for the opposition is particularly high among younger respondents living in the capital and those who are interested in politics. However, interestingly, neither level of education, wealth nor gender are correlated with such views. Belarus’s opposition candidate therefore manages to bring together the interests of rather different people. The large and diverse crowds turning out at support rallies speak to this finding.

In our survey, support for Lukashenko among young people is around 10 percent. The figure is slightly higher among respondents age 25 and above, those who have little political interest and those who rely on state media.

The survey of young Belarusians includes all potential candidates in early July, in advance of the official election ballot. (Figure by Félix Krawatzek, using ZOiS survey data)
The survey of young Belarusians includes all potential candidates in early July, in advance of the official election ballot. (Figure by Félix Krawatzek, using ZOiS survey data)

Eroding trust in key state institutions

A third takeaway from the survey data is the evidence of a general decline in trust in key state institutions. In February 2020, the president had largely neutral trust ratings, but the more recent survey indicates 75 percent of young people say they do not trust him, a highly significant shift. A similar decline in trust for the security forces and the police can be observed.

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Trust in the president is low among all kinds of young people, irrespective of income, religious beliefs or level of education. But it is particularly low among those who follow politics more carefully and who kept a closer eye on the spread of the coronavirus. Downplaying the threat of a global pandemic appears to have been a costly mistake to Belarus’s autocratic leader, at least among the young.

Ahead of the presidential election, Belarus seems to be in uncharted territory. The government appears determined to prevent the possibility of an upset victory by the opposition candidate. Opposition rallies have been forbidden before the elections, although Tikhanovskaya and her team started to turn up during the presidential events. Younger voters, in particular, seem genuinely frustrated with the existing political regime. Even if Sunday’s elections — which are not monitored by any independent body — are a victory for Lukashenko, the recent politicization of society and the distrust toward key state institutions cannot easily be reverted.

Félix Krawatzek is a senior researcher at the Center for East European and International Studies (ZOiS) in Berlin, an associate member of Nuffield College, and author of “Youth in Regime Crisis: Comparative Perspectives from Russia to Weimar Germany” (Oxford University Press, 2018).