Why Belarusian authorities fear public opinion
On 29 June the lower chamber of the Belarusian parliament – the House of Representatives – approved in a first reading amendments which introduce harsher administrative liability for non-licensed public opinion surveys.
The bill further restricts possibilities for independent research of the social and political processes in Belarusian society. As a result, the quality of such research will suffer a new blow. And it is the government itself that is the biggest loser in this situation.
The Belarusian authorities began their struggle against independent pollsters in the early 2000s. In 2002 the Council of Ministers adopted a decree that established a special order for surveying public opinion in Belarus.
To conduct research related to elections, referenda and the overall social and political situation in the country an organisation had to register with the newly founded Commission for Public Opinion Surveys under the National Academy of Sciences. The decree established that the Commission would ensure the high quality of all surveys and make sure that their results were objective and correct.
The Commission got the mandate to issue licenses for pollsters and double-check the results of their surveys. If, in the opinion of the Commission, a surveying organisation published incorrect sociological data, the Commission could withdraw its license.
According to sociologist Vasily Korf of the Liberal Club in Minsk, in 2002 the state decided to do away with independent researchers whose work the authorities deemed suspicious and unreliable. What the Belarusian authorities fear is any public information that contradicts their own propaganda. And independent surveys make it far more difficult to manipulate public opinion.
Take the example of the presidential elections in 2010. Officially, Alexander Lukashenka received 79,65% of the total vote. But the several independent exit-polls and surveys produced significantly less overwhelming figures - from 35% to 58%. The authorities, of course, did not want the public to hear all those "alternative" figures.
What do the Latest Amendments Add?
The amendments that the House of Representatives passed on 29 June make the punishment for unlicensed surveys more severe. Previously, the violators of the law would get either an official notice or a fine of up to 15 base rates (about $190). The newly introduced amendments make the law harsher on unlicensed pollsters. Individual pollsters will now have to pay up to 20 base rates (about $240) if they break the law. And legal entities without a proper incense for conducting public opinion surveys will pay a fine of up to 100 base rates (about $1,200).
If the same person or organisation infringes the law for a second time during a year the fine will grow even bigger. An individual recidivist will have to pay between 10 and 50 base rates (about $125 – $625). And a legal unity will be charged a sum between 20 and 200 base rates (about $240 – $2,400).
These sums, of course, are not lethal. But for small independent research groups they are unbearable.
Few Want to Survey in Belarus
As a result of such repressive measures against individual and organisational pollsters, the number of independent institutions that conduct public opinion surveys related to elections, referenda and the overall sociopolitical situation are very few in Belarus. Actually, only one research group does it on a regular basis – the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS).
Since its foundation in 1992 the IISEPS has had numerous problems with the Belarusian authorities. In 2005 the Supreme Court of Belarus liquidated IISEPS for not abiding by the law on public opinion surveys. The Institute then moved to Lithuania where it got an official registration under the same name and continued its research. But its problems in Belarus did not cease there.
In October 2011 the police detained the founder of the IISEPS Professor Oleg Manaev in the centre of Minsk. Manaev was on his way to present the results of the latest nation-wide survey that revealed that the popularity of Alexander Lukashenka was at its historical minimum. While the official propaganda claimed that about 70-80% of the Belarusians supported the president at that time, according to the IISEPS, Lukashenka's electoral rating equalled 20.5%. Oleg Manaev was released several hours later but the presentation of the survey results had to be postponed.
Other independent or commercial institutions conduct politics-oriented surveys of public opinion in Belarus only sporadically. Interestingly, even in the so-called "pro-government camp" surveying organisations that deal with political issues are very few. The Information and Analytical Centre under the Administration of the President is the only institution there that carries out regular surveys.
Impact on the Quality of Research
The unfavourable attitude of the state towards independent surveying of public opinion has a clear negative impact on the quality of sociological research in Belarus.
First, researchers have to work almost underground. Needless to say that under such circumstances it is often too problematic to strictly adhere to academic research methodologies and standards.
Second, it is very difficult for researchers to stay politically impartial when the authorities permanently treat them as an oppositional "fifth column" and even crack down on them from time to time.
Third, as there are only few institutions that survey public opinion on political issues there is hardly any competition between these few institutions. And, as we know, competition is generally the best mechanism to ensure quality.
Finally, because of the authoritarian realities in the country the majority of the Belarusian population fear to answer political questions in public. As a consequence, many respondents who agree to talk to pollsters either abstain from giving definite answers or tend to say presumably safe things like "I support the president".
The Government Itself is the Biggest Loser
Ironically, in this whole situation the government is the biggest loser. Restricting the work of research groups that survey public opinion the authorities deprive themselves of credible sources of information about the real sociopolitical processes in Belarus.
The state institutions that are supposed to provide such information (like the Information and Analytical Centre under the Administration of the President) are part of the state machine and cannot be independent. As numerous examples have shown, survey findings of such institutions often reflect bureaucratic rationale rather than impartial research standards.
Thus, the state and the whole of society would definitely benefit if Belarus had a well-functioning network of independent organisations to survey public opinion. Unfortunately, there is little hope that the understanding of this simple fact will prevail in the heads of the incumbent political leadership over fears of truth.