The Centre for Research into Post-Communist Economies


CRCE Briefing Paper

Belarus and Russia Today

Based on a talk by Oleg Manaev, February 2007

Price for print edition:  £7.50

About the Author

Dr. Oleg Manaev is a founder and director of the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic & Political Studies - a first think tank in Belarus, founded in February 1992. In June 1997 he founded and chaired the Belarusian Think Tanks - non-government and non-profit national association which unites sixteen leading independent research and analytical centres. Dr. Manaev is also Professor in the Department of Social Communication at the Belarusian State University founded as a result of TEMPUS project led by him in mid 90s. He has edited and contributed to fifteen books and published over one hundred fifty scholarly articles on media, democracy and civil society, as well as numerous publications in mass media.

After IISEPS assisted to The Gallup Organization/Baltic Surveys in conducting exit polls during national referendum on October 17, 2004 which revealed a huge gap between official and real results, Dr. Manaev and his team faced massive pressure from the Belarusian authorities including official warnings from the Ministry of Justice, personal talks with Minister of Justice and the General Prosecutor Officer, visit of local police and night search conducted by KGB in the Institute's office, and trail at the Supreme Court. After IISEPS was shut down by the Supreme Court on April 15, 2005, Dr. Manaev got two "Official warnings on impermissibility of law violation" from the General Prosecutor Office (in December 2005 and in June 2006). The last one concludes that "in case of continuing of dissemination of unconfirmed information as well as conducting social-political surveys violated the legal demands, you will be accused according to the Law right up to Article 369-1 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus" (a new Article of the Criminal Code "Discrediting of the Republic of Belarus" came into force since January 1, 2006, and stipulated imprisonment up to two years).

However, despite all these challenges IISEPS was re-registered in Vilnius (Lithuania) and continues its mission in Belarus as a group of private scholars.  

The Constitution of the CRCE requires that its Trustees and Advisers dissociate themselves from the analysis contained in its publications, but it is hoped that readers will find this study of value and interest.

First published February 2007

© Oleg Manaev & Centre for Research into Post-Communist Economies.

All Rights Reserved

Belarus and Russia Today

Martin Dewhirst: In September 1991, Oleg Manaev and I attended a conference together in Oxford and, since then, I have kept an eye on what he has been doing. Of course, this does not compare with the attention Oleg has received from the KGB.

Oleg Manaev is a very brave and most definitely independent Belarusian sociologist. He has produced a lot of interesting work on Belarusian society, and could not have come to Britain at a more interesting time - following the recent diplomatic conflict over oil and gas between Belarus and Russia. I think, now, almost everybody in Britain knows where Belarus is.

Oleg Manaev: Thank you very much Martin. It is my pleasure to be here. I wish to talk about relations between Belarus and the West, taking into account that most of you may be interested in Russia rather than Belarus. We will consider Belarus' current and potential future relations with Russia and Europe.

First, I would like to consider a closer relationship between Belarus and Europe. My analysis draws upon data collected by the Independent Institute of Socio-Economics and Political Studies . The potential relationship between Belarus and the West is not only affected by the problems with Russia now, but also by the wider political situation. I will endeavour to conclude how, why and when Belarus can move closer to Europe in terms of values and institutions.

We can identify at least six leading actors who could affect the direction Belarus takes in relation to Europe; Lukashenko and his government; the nomenklatura (including those in various government and other powerful positions, as well as their families, in excess of 500,000 people); the electorate, made up of almost seven million people; the opposition, which, if we include activists and members of opposition parties numbers not more than 50,000 (if including members of civil and human rights groups, youth associations, independent research centres and free trades unions, ten per cent of the population would consider themselves included); finally Russia and the West.

The current hierarchy of influence could be presented as follows:

Leading Actors with potential influence on Belarus' future relationship with Europe.
The table covers attitudes to democracy and a market economy

  • a negative attitude
  • + a positive attitude
  • +− Ambivalent
Leading Actors Attitudes to Belarus' choice for: Total Rank Solutions
Enlarged EuropeDemocracyMarket Economy
Government (Lukashenko)IIReplacement

The electorate, in my opinion, is the group which will influence the future relationship between Belarus and the European Union, as any final decision will be decided by referenda or election. Next in influence is the Government and Lukashenko's regime, then the nomenklatura, then Russia followed by the West and, finally and unfortunately the opposition. The nomenklatura attitude towards Europe is ambivalent. Potential investment is considered to be economically desirable. However, the legal framework that would come with the free market is not appealing.

The last column of the preceding table describes how we can and must deal with the various groups in order to promote free market and democratic ideas. Those of us who desire change in Belarus should work with the nomenklatura and the electorate, and attempt to change their attitudes through dialogue and education.

The consequences for Europe if negative attitudes (−) prevail could include:

  • The strengthening of negative attitudes in Russia and other CIS countries (a rise of "New Russian conservatism"), potentially seeing Belarus used as a "detonator" for post-Communist revenge. On 24th January, two leaders of ex-communist countries visited Lukashenko. They discussed, amongst other things, ways to influence a leadership change in Russia. It is significant that this meeting took place in Minsk
  • Unreliability of gas and oil transportation from Russia to Europe. We have recently seen that a dispute between Russia and Belarus can prevent petrochemical products reaching Europe from Russia
  • An increase in the number of immigrants in the EU

However, there are potential benefits if the attitudes towards Europe become more positive (+):

  • The strengthening of positive attitudes in Russia and other CIS countries (to benefit from Eastern Europe and globalisation)
  • A creation of a reliable bridge between Eastern Europe and Russia and other CIS countries

Belarus' choice is especially important as, in CIS countries, public opinion for and against forming closer ties with an enlarged Europe is still very finely balanced. It is the European life values (enlarged Europe, democracy, and a market economy) that should be of greatest importance in this decision, and not the membership of European institutions. These values, and the advantages of their acceptance, should be made visible to the citizens of new (and potential future) EU members. Public interest and attitude is always a major driving force for any political change.

I talk of values and attitudes simply because I am a sociologist. The history of analysis of Russian reforms in the 1990's proves, very clearly, that reforms without public support are destined to fail. President Yeltsin and Prime Minister Gaidar introduced good economic and political reforms at institutional level. Less than five years later, it became evident that these reforms were insufficient. Tens of millions of Russians, who were not interested in institutional reform and constitutional changes, still had the same system of value. This demonstrates that institutional change does not necessarily lead to changes in attitudes.

If we consider the long-term (ten - twenty years) perspective for Belarus, a pro-Europe choice is not as obvious now, both in a geopolitical sense and the strategic perspectives of the country and people, as it was ten years ago. Let us consider security. For example, security strongly influenced the policy of most new member countries, which joined first NATO and only then the EU. People received protection before considering economic and other aspects of membership. Increasingly, Belarusians have begun to think about negative aspects of the EU security policy, and the probable consequences. The EU is coming to be seen as being more concerned about stability than ideals.

These negative aspects include the Eastern European policy of the EU as well as wider geopolitical issues, including its reactions to:

  • The Belarus-Russia gas and oil disputes in February 2004 and January 2007: The EU did not criticise Lukashenko over this issue, but suggested that Russia should continue supplying oil and gas. This was widely interpreted as an indication that the EU's main interest was stability
  • The Ukraine–Russia gas and oil dispute in January 2006
  • The North European Gas Transit Project: Again, this was interpreted as the EU being more interested in ensuring secure energy supplies than in encouraging better policy in Belarus and Ukraine
  • Evolution of EU-Russian relations: The EU appears not to consider encouraging alternative political forces to develop in Russia worth the potential risks
  • Immigration from Eastern Europe and former USSR: The negative image of the Polish plumber in Western Europe has represented the fear of competition from new workers migrating from the Eastern Bloc
  • Political Islam: The reaction has been seen as concessionary and weak
  • International terrorism: Particularly Spain's willingness to resume talks with ETA, and the failure of this policy
  • War in Iraq: The majority of Western leaders did not support the executions of Saddam Hussein and his deputies
  • Middle east conflict (Gaza sector, Second Lebanon war): Belarus was surprised when Chancellor Merkel sent troops, rather than following a typical policy of avoiding such risky political moves
  • North Korean and Iranian nuclear programmes

It is likely that the positions of "Euro-centrists" in both new EU member states and CIS member states could weaken, while the positions of Leftists and Nationalists strengthen. This has been seen in Poland and Hungary recently and, in the last general election in Russia, not one democrat was elected to the Duna, not just because of tricks by the Kremlin, but also because many voters were unhappy with the situation. We could also see the position of "Euro-Belarusians" (opinion polls suggest this group is between a half and a third of the population) in Belarus weaken, and that of "Soviet Belarusians" strengthening. This could lead either to strengthening of self-isolation (a better case) or to complete integration with Russia (a worse case).

In the most pessimistic future scenario, Russia - leading all post-Communist forces disappointed by the EU - could create an alliance with anti-Western forces at a global level (political Islam or "Non-alignment movement", China?) and could side with the non-Christian world in a future war. This is an extreme scenario, but one that may be considered. "Euro-Centrists" in both the new EU member-states of Central and Eastern Europe and CIS member-states will side with the US as the only reliable guarantor of European/Christian values. This geo-political orientation could develop strategic, including military, forms, with the eventual creation of a "United Euro American States", and an alternative to entering the EU. Belarusian democrats are now more pro-American than five years ago.

In conclusion, future EU members, mostly from former Soviet Bloc, could become not young and poor "brothers and sisters" (or, in the opinion of many people in "old" EU member countries, just unwanted members), but new blood that will return Europe to its former strategic power.

We are not yet seeing a growth in anti-Russian attitudes in Belarus, excepting recent events. It has been Russian policy to support Lukashenko's regime. We are, however, seeing a reduction in pro-Russian attitudes. Following the most recent oil dispute, I expect data to show steady or even increased approval ratings for Lukashenko, and decreased perception of Russia as a reliable and natural partner. Data from Russia have shown a decrease in affection towards Belarus over the last decade. Russian opinion of Lukashenko has also worsened - a third of people surveyed said they felt him to be devious.

Lukashenko's strong response to Russian pressure to pay more for petrochemicals has, in the short term, improved the public's perception of him. He has presented himself as a protector of national interests, of sovereignty and stability. But two or three years on, expect to see his position weakened, as he has no strategic base in the West. Having spoken with British Members of Parliament, I do not believe that the West is likely to take seriously Lukashenko's offers of developing democracy. This could lead to one of two situations. The first would be isolationism, where Lukashenko would try to block any outside influences – information, culture, and politics – in order to protect his authority. I do not believe he could maintain this authority for more than two or three years as the Belarusian economy would become more damaged over time. The second, gloomier situation would see Belarus returning to the Kremlin's orbit, and accepting its demands. The Kremlin believes that Russia is owed a debt for support over the last decades. President Putin publicly claimed that the annual value of aid, increased payments for Belarusian imports and favourable prices for exports has been between five and six billion dollars per annum. If Lukashenko does have to return to Russia's sphere, he will have to accept not only economic demands, but also political demands. This would include a single currency, and a referendum for a union with strong powers for Russia. The number of Russian military bases in Belarus – there are currently two – would be likely to increase. If this happened, some elements of democracy and market economy would be exported to Belarus from Russia, but the reverse would also be true. Elements of the dictatorial system would be exported to Russia. Putin, in this sense, follows Lukashenko with a gap of several years. This has been seen in limitations on the press, increasing management of democracy – for example appointing government members rather than electing them, and controlling private businesses. Integration in this form would negatively affect the geopolitical situation, and would lead to new problems between Russia and the EU.

I am sorry to provide such a gloomy scenario. It is not in the immediate future, and our task is to work to prevent such developments and give life to more optimistic outlooks.

Martin Dewhirst: Thank you very much indeed Oleg. I found that a very worrying and sober outlook. For the benefit of Belarusian patriots, there is an English saying, "The tail wags the dog". They may feel very pleased that Putin is following Lukashenko rather than the other way round.

I did not hear you mention Turkey when talking about the EU. When, at the end of 2004, I visited Ukraine and Belarus, I found quite a lot of Ukrainians felt angry that Turkey would be in the EU before them.

I will now open the floor to questions.

Audience Member: I would also like to ask about Alexander Milinkevich, and his popularity as a leader of the Opposition.

Oleg Manaev: Milinkevich's popularity started growing rapidly after his election for a sole presidential candidate at the Congress of Democratic Forces on 2 October 2005. On the day of the presidential election, Milinkevich's real rating (i.e. how members of the electorate actually voted) and potential rating (i.e. how they would vote again) were almost equal. This means his popularity and authority at that time corresponded to the role of "a sole democratic leader of Belarus". After the election the gap between his real and potential ratings started increasing very rapidly, so his popularity and authority no longer corresponded to this role.

Audience Member: I was very struck by the rhetoric that Lukashenko has used over the last few days. He said, "Belarusian policy has had only one wing for some time". He praised not only Sweden but also Poland – a country he has demonised in the past, as positive economic models. Suddenly he has changed his tone very dramatically. As an opinion pollster, what do you think the effect of this will be on the loyal supporters of Lukashenko, who have supported all he has said over the last ten years, including his pan-Slavism, his xenophobia and his attempts to make the world a very threatening place?

Oleg Manaev: Lukashenko has fewer supporters than election results suggest. Polls indicate that he received about 60% of the vote (approximately 36% of the population), more than twice any opposition candidate. This does not mean that all these are convinced supporters. Those who will follow him regardless – represent 25-33% of the population. The change in rhetoric will not have a significant influence on these core supporters. For them, Lukashenko is a symbol of the opportunity to return to their golden past. Their support has not been due to improvements in the economic situation or the signing of a pact with Yeltsin, but far more philosophical. He has made other significant policy changes in the past, both towards Russia and Europe, and has retained support from loyal voters.

There are some people, particularly in rural areas, where Russia will always be a symbol of sisterhood. This culture goes back hundreds of years, and includes many wars fought for a common cause. If Lukashenko explains that he is not against Russian people, and that his policy is targeted against incompetent rulers and oligarchs, people will hear this. Remember, the Government controls 90% of the Belarusian media.

Audience Member: If you take someone like Mr. Novikov, who appears on anti-western programmes and is, in many ways, a caricature Soviet propagandist and very amusing to watch, it must be very difficult for him, having pushed this line for such a long time, to say it is all wrong.

Oleg Manaev: No. Do you remember T.S. Elliott's poem, "The Hollow Man"? This provides a very good demonstration of the character of Novikov, and people like him. Novikov served voluntarily under the Soviet regime, before the collapse of the Union, and was fighting against Lukashenko when he was competing with the Prime Minister in 1993-1994. After Lukashenko won, he accepted the situation. I have no doubt that he, and many others, will adapt and continue to serve.

Audience Member: I wonder if we are not, sadly, just talking about an episode on the way to integration, which you suggested as a possibility. I will demonstrate this by drawing on an example close to me. Unlike President Tito of Yugoslavia who, in 1948-1949, quarrelled with the Kremlin, Lukashenko does not have the West to support him. Tito had a chance for success with this support, and succeeded quite brilliantly for many years. What are the chances in today's Europe, for anybody picking up Lukashenko? Could you see any other parties coming to his aid?

Oleg Manaev: Generally speaking, you are right. It is quite probable that integration with Russia will occur, but it is not certain. Approximately a third of the population who would like to have European values. Lukashenko has tried to make us invisible, but we are still there. Another factor is international interest, including the USA and the EU, in the developing situation with the Kremlin. If the Kremlin decides to remove Lukashenko, they will simply select a man around him to become president, without significant changes in policy.

Alexander Rarr, a German-based Russian analyst interviewed Lukashenko last week. This interview was published in Die Welt. Lukashenko made several precise offers - more precise than when addressing internal audiences. Rarr had previously kept his distance from Lukashenko, but recently travelled to Belarus twice. There are two explanations as to why. One is that the West is trying to gain advantages by developing this relationship. But there is another theory that it could be part of a plan to deceive Lukashenko. The title of the interview was "Lukashenko Betrayed Russia", which could be an attempt to distance Lukashenko from the Kremlin permanently. There are many well-trained analysts and decision-makers in the West who could make this approach.

Audience Member: Looking at the methods you suggest could be used to change the attitudes of the six main players in influencing the future direction taken by Belarus, I understand how to replace or reorganize the government and the nomenklatura, but how do you reconstruct the electorate?

Oleg Manaev: In December, we held interviews with the nomenklatura asking "In your opinion, what is the reason for the Russian generosity towards Belarus?" Nearly three quarters believed it was the personal interests of Russian and Belarusian officials and oligarchs. Those who could be persuaded that a movement towards accepting European values would be in their interest could then be persuaded to support the process in various fora, including private meetings.

As you suggest, the process of persuading the electorate requires a different tactic. We must have an effective information campaign, which clearly explains the advantages that the people would accept. We have regularly asked, "Would you like to restore the Soviet Union?" In 1993, 55.5% of Belarusians said yes, 22% were against. In 2006, 26% said yes, and 64% no. There have been shifts in public expectations. We asked a series of questions last year whether people would like to have access to travel and education in the West. Up to two-thirds did. However, the same survey showed a majority of people supporting Lukashenko's policies in general.

Audience Member: The opposition seems, in many ways to be very fragmented, and I understand they are not connected with institutions like yours. Please elaborate on how the opposition is structured, and comment on the likelihood of their having the ability to form a representative government in the near future.

Oleg Manaev: This is a difficult question. The opposition, generally speaking, is not very strong. From 2004, since the anti-constitutional referendum, we worked to consolidate the efforts of opposition forces, including political parties and some NGOs. After the election of Milinkevich, in October 2005, most signed a declaration agreeing to follow him. Now we face some complicated developments inside the opposition. The second Congress of the Democratic Forces is scheduled to take place in March 2007. The agenda will focus on developing a new strategy not only to gain power, but also to implement reforms. Most expect to elect a collective leadership from several political parties. With Milinkevich, this leadership will oversee the process. Outside co-operation could have a very significant influence on the effectiveness of the election. We should not yet discount the opposition, and the final success will depend on all of us. Do not expect an "Orange Revolution" in the next year or two. It is interesting to note Lukashenko refers to the "Orange Disease".

Audience Member: Why do you feel the attempt at a "coloured revolution" failed, and what could bring about future success?

Oleg Manaev: The Orange, Rose and Tulip Revolutions have all had positive and negative effects on Belarus. These events inspired many people in Belarus who were dreaming of change. Thousands of activists spent weeks assisting in these revolutions, which could have encouraged opposition parties to elect Milinkevich as their single leader. Lukashenko was scared by the revolutions, and this explains his brutal reaction to the October Square protests after his re-election. Up to 1,000 people were arrested, many beaten, and there have been suggestions that a few were killed, although without proof. Lukashenko strengthened his security structure because of this fear. Another negative effect was that the Kremlin cut off contacts with democrats in Belarus.

Audience Member: I think that you ought to come here to update us after the next presidential elections in Russia. The whole configuration could change depending on whom, if anyone, succeeds Putin.

I would like to raise a second point, and call me an unreconstructed reactionary if you will. I cannot understand why you want to reform and re-educate the five per cent of your population you refer to as the nomenklatura. If, in 1945, the top Nazi leaders had been re-educated, could you see a successful Germany led by those men? Wherever you look in Eastern Europe, the former communist nomenklatura has remained in positions of power and responsibility. Trouble has been the only result.

Oleg Manaev: I agree that a change of guard in the Kremlin will change the prospects of Belarus. It is difficult to predict precisely how. Based on the current trends, I am afraid we should not be very optimistic. It would be my pleasure to update you after this, if I am free to do so. I have asked myself questions about re-educating the nomenklatura for at least two decades. A decade ago, I was Chairman of the Belarus Soros Foundation. Soros' philosophy was to try to re-educate the ruling elite, not just to cultivate a new one. He invested a large amount of money on re-educating former public prosecutors, KGB agents, national bankers, and so on. In most cases, these schemes failed and, as Chairman, I argued against these programmes, based mostly on moral rather than political grounds. But, in Belarus we must be pragmatic. If we find ourselves in the position where we can reform, without Lukashenko, how do we do so? To introduce legal reforms, we shall need thousands of well-trained lawyers. To change the fiscal systems, local government and media, it is evident we will have to deal, over a transitional period, with the current people – of course removing those involved in crime and corruption. Where else could we find this expertise? It is better to consider this situation and begin re-educating these people now. This is why I finally voted in favour of some of these projects, in spite of moral reservations.

Audience Member: Between 1945-1948, when the communists took over Eastern Europe, they did not consider this problem. They killed all the ruling elite.

Oleg Manaev: I had the opportunity to meet former President Aleksander Kwasniewski of Poland. He led the transition to democracy, and yet had grown up in a typical communist elite family. After meeting him, my fears over re-education were reduced.

Audience Member: The great dilemma that has faced all post-Communist countries since 1989 has been choosing between different undesirable outcomes. It sticks in my throat to praise Kwasniewski, and I can quite see why the current government is attempting to clean things up. But he did achieve some good successes, and was perhaps a much better president for Poland than his successor – arguably a much more morally desirable person. Before the change, you should build a group of people who will be useful after the change. It was striking to see Estonia, in 1989-1990; they were training diplomats at a time when an independent state seemed fanciful.

Oleg Manaev: This has been part of the mission of my institute. I suspect one of the reasons we were closed down in Minsk by the Supreme Court, along with many other think tanks, was exactly because of this. Lukashenko and his team finally understood that small groups were succeeding, over time, in establishing networks between these useful people. There are people who would be in a position to implement reforms in certain areas of governance.

Audience Member: I visited Belarus in 2005, to visit the Belarusian Children's' Hospice in Minsk. One of the very few political conversations I had was with a member of staff at this hospice. She stated that Belarus is nonsense in its present form and, from an economic perspective, the only thing to do would be to join the Russian Federation. What opinion do you have of that, and do you think it could be politically acceptable for Belarus to join the Russian Federation?

Oleg Manaev: The electorate, after various disputes between Russia and Belarus since 2002 is split on this issue. The way many people would vote in a referendum would depend on the formula of integration. The proportion that would vote in favour of integration with Russia is comparable to the proportion that would vote to join the EU. I do not think the lady you spoke with in the hospice is right. In 2006, more than 60% of GDP came from exports, the highest proportion in Europe. More than 50% of exports are to EU countries, 33% to Russia and 8% to other CIS countries. Of course, the vast bulk of exports to EU countries is of refined Russian oil. Belarus has a significant economic interest in Europe. These figures were not made public until after the latest dispute, and now they can be read on the front pages of the newspapers.

Martin Dewhirst: I wonder if that lady was in a similar position to very many people I have met in Minsk, with close relations living in Russia. Do you know how many Belarusians have relations living in Russia?

Oleg Manaev: I do not know the proportion, but I do know that our data show that more than 50% of people visit the Russian Federation each year. That is 3-4 million people. 33% visit the EU, 25% visit Poland.

Audience Member: After the collapse of the Soviet Union, popular opinion was that Belarus was more pro-Russian than any other state. Some suggested this was related to the Chernobyl catastrophe, which so significantly reduced the human and agricultural resources of the country. Do you agree with this?

Oleg Manaev: Chernobyl was, and still is, a significant factor on developments in Belarus, but to a lesser extent on attitudes to Russia. It has a great influence on attitudes to authority and the state. According to all polls, regardless of the issue, we see people living in areas affected by Chernobyl (24% of territory was contaminated, where 2.2 million people live) expressing much more conservative attitudes. They expect that someone above will provide for them.

Audience Member: You suggested that integration with Russia is the most negative scenario. Why is this worse than other outcomes?

Oleg Manaev: Imagine you gained your independence after centuries of being ruled. We gained independence in 1991. Before then, we had to travel to Moscow to queue for days to be granted visas. We now have embassies in Minsk. We now feel self-sufficient. 70% feel Belarus has become a truly independent state. 50% feel they have benefited, only 15% feel they are worse off. To return to Russia, even if it was a truly democratic country, would be an extremely unhappy situation.

Martin Dewhirst: One advantage is that you do your compulsory military service closer to home.

I would like to thank Professor Manaev for an extraordinarily interesting and stimulating, if depressing, talk. As someone who rather likes Belarus and Belarusians, I get rather offended when Belarus is referred to as part of Russia's "back-yard". I feel it is part of Russia's "front-yard", as Russia is facing west at least slightly more than it is east. Belarus is part of the vanguard of Russia's drift westward.