Political society

Conducting sociological studies in Belarus is increasingly difficult – Democracy and Society

The escalation of the war between Russia and Ukraine is a serious shock for the region, which can only affect the socio-political situation in neighboring Belarus. An important point to consider is the confidence of Belarusians in the authorities and in state and non-state institutions, which has increased by 10% since the beginning of the war. According to polls published in the Belarusian Change Tracker, in October 2021 the balance between supporters and opponents of the authorities was around 38/62. In May 2022, this indicator rose to 48/52. Among opponents of the authorities, there are considerably more men, highly educated, more likely to live in Minsk with higher incomes. Among the supporters, on the contrary, there are more women. They are less educated, with a lower average income.

How is it possible? War is an extremely unpopular phenomenon among Belarusians. For example, research by Belarusian analyst Andrey Vardomatsky shows that 11% of people support Belarus going to war. Chatham House research registers only 5% of those who would like the Belarusian army to go to war on the side of Russia. At the same time, Belarusian society strongly fears being drawn into the war. In such a situation, Alexander Lukashenko’s “dovish” rhetoric about how the country resists being dragged into war finds its audience. The image of a “terrible” potential military future outweighs the deterioration of the current material situation; in this context, the present does not look like a worst-case scenario.

In Poland alone, 35,000 humanitarian visas and 40,000 visas for IT workers have been issued.

But we are not talking about a complete repetition of the 2014-2015 effect, when Alexander Lukashenko could boast of a certain consensual appreciation of his role as the country’s president.

The second explanation has to do with emigration from Belarus due to repression, disagreement with the authorities’ policies or fears of war. In Poland alone, 35,000 humanitarian visas and 40,000 IT worker visas have been issued. The people who leave are, in the overwhelming majority of cases, opponents of the Lukashenko regime. As a result, the number of people inclined to trust the authorities increases.

Data collection challenges

The question of the validity of data on political subjects in Belarus under Lukashenko is far from new. Independent research organizations have been regularly criticized for their reluctance to believe Lukashenko enjoys substantial public support in Belarus. Most often, such disbelief is explained by the fear factor: respondents’ fear of answering “political” questions. Hence the popularity of the expression: “impossibility of sociology under the conditions of the dictatorship”. It must be admitted that the fear factor influences the results of opinion polls in Belarus after the wave of repressions of 2020-2021. But still it is necessary to study the Belarusian public opinion. How can this be done?

There are three most popular ways to study public opinion through surveys: face-to-face interviews at the place of residence, telephone interviews and online surveys.

The relentless crackdowns for any anti-regime statements and likes on social media can only affect respondents’ willingness to answer a phone survey honestly, or answer the survey on such sensitive topics.

Face-to-face community interviews allow us to build a truly representative sample, but they are expensive and virtually impossible at present. Carrying out such an investigation requires a large amount of work coordinated by a network of investigators and supervisors, it cannot be kept secret and cannot be conducted entirely from outside Belarus. In addition, investigations on political subjects are prohibited in Belarus without special accreditation. No private research company will take this risk and no state-affiliated company will accept a project whose client is not the Belarusian state.

Telephone surveys may appear to be a solution to the problem: if the right methods are applied, they make it possible to constitute a representative sample. However, when it comes to telephone surveys in Belarus, there is every reason to believe that the notorious fear factor will indeed significantly skew responses to questions about the internal political conflict in Belarus. In the country, each SIM card is linked to a citizen’s passport. The relentless crackdowns for any anti-regime statements and likes on social media can only affect respondents’ willingness to answer a phone survey honestly, or answer the survey on such sensitive topics. Bearing all this in mind, it would still be possible to study the attitude of Belarusians towards the war by means of a telephone survey.

A result that will fade over time

Online panels solve to some extent the problems related to the fear factor and access to respondents, but they cannot guarantee representativeness in the strict scientific sense. The audience for online panels is different from the general population of Belarusians: people who have a keen interest, who have time for the panels and who are willing to answer the questionnaire, who have access to the Internet and who have the right skills to use the technology enroll in it. These people are more educated and socially active and live in cities. As a result, there are many more people among the online panel audience who tend not to support the regime.

The fear factor is much less pronounced in online panel studies than in telephone studies – after all, the Internet gives more confidence in anonymity than talking on a mobile phone in Belarus. At the same time, fear affects the sample — more “neutral” respondents give up. And yet, the online panel gives researchers more tools to deal with the fear factor – some techniques are extremely difficult to perform in a phone conversation. In our study, a set of 19 statements was used to measure trust in the diet, followed by a clustering of responses into the aforementioned groups. The sheer number of these statements would have had an impact on the phone interview – imagine how long it would take to read them.

Unlike in 2015, there is a significant number of people united in distrust of the regime who are not ready to accept Lukashenko’s regime in any form and for whom “not to be dragged into the war “does not outweigh all the other problems accumulated with the authorities.

Let’s go back to the question of the starting factor of those who are inclined to distrust the country’s regime. People who leave are more likely to participate in the online panel. Therefore, their departure may affect the measurement results more than in reality. At the same time, the departure of populations cannot alone explain the trend of 10% confidence in the regime.

The result is unlikely to persist in the long term: this case represents an emotional reaction that will subside over time. Only the most “plastic” part of public opinion, the neutral part of society, has suffered this effect. Unlike in 2015, there is a significant number of people united in distrust of the regime who are not ready to accept Lukashenko’s regime in any form and for whom “not to be dragged into the war “does not outweigh all the other problems accumulated with the authorities. Furthermore, the Lukashenko regime can instantly lose even this level of support if it gets involved in a war.