In December, the European Council adopted its fifth package of sanctions against Belarus, a move the European Union took to protest “continued human rights abuses and the instrumentalization of migrants.” The latest sanctions package imposes restrictions on 17 individuals, including judges — and 11 entities, including Belavia Airlines, tour operators and hotels that allegedly helped encourage and organize illegal border crossings at the borders to Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.
Policymakers and analysts know that sanctions on their own are unlikely to topple the regime or force Belarus’s president to behave better toward his citizens. These sanctions potentially signal to Belarusians that the E.U. is coordinating its foreign policy, taking an interest in Belarus, condemning human rights abuses and supporting democratic principles. But how do Belarusians interpret that signal?
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko responded with a six-month ban on beef and other food imports from selected E.U. countries and the United States effective Jan. 1 — denouncing the joint Dec. 2 sanctions plan from the E.U., the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.
Since October 2020, the European Union has gradually extended its sanctions against Belarus, in response to the Lukashenko regime’s rigged presidential elections in August 2020 and violent repression of opposition candidates and protesters. The E.U. imposed further sanctions after Belarus forced down an aircraft transiting its airspace last May and detained Roman Protasevich, a Belarusian dissident on board.
It’s hard to sample public opinion in authoritarian countries
So what do ordinary Belarusians think about E.U. sanctions? The Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS) in Berlin, where we both work, conducted a panel survey among 2,000 Belarusians in December 2020 and June 2021.
Ongoing government repression means that both face-to-face and telephone surveys would risk endangering respondents. Hence, we used an opt-in online survey and quota sampling to access the population aged between 16 and 64, living in towns and cities with more than 20,000 inhabitants, while also reflecting the gender breakdown of the overall population.
What this all means is that the data fall short of a representative survey of the entire population. But given the current political situation in Belarus, it’s likely as good as we can get. The data at the very least provides some insights into the development of attitudes among the target population, which represents roughly 5 million out of an overall adult population of about 7 million in Belarus.
Belarusians care about sanctions — but less than they used to
Panel surveys like this make it possible to ask the same person the same question at different points in time. This allowed us to uncover a significant shift in attitudes between the first wave of surveys in December 2020 and the second wave, conducted in June 2021.
In the June survey, 42 percent of respondents believed the E.U. sanctions to be “very” or “rather” important. This was a drop of 10 percentage points from the responses in December 2020. In June, the number of respondents who believed the sanctions are unimportant increased from 23 percent (in December 2020) to about 28 percent. People also seemed less certain about how to answer this question — the percentage of “unsure” responses went from 22 percent to about 27 percent.
People in Belarus may be growing less convinced that sanctions are important, given that the Lukashenko regime has tightened control, effectively stifling the opposition. In both sampling periods, there was a clear relationship between people’s engagement with anti-regime politics and their assessment that sanctions were important. We observed a strong correlation between caring about sanctions, voting for opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and participating in anti-government protests.
Other correlations that held true in December 2020 (that men, older people and citizens who are better off were more likely to see sanctions as important) either don’t seem significant in June 2021 or have shifted into reverse. This suggests that people’s views on sanctions are fluid, except for a small and perhaps shrinking group of politically motivated people.
It’s also important to note that people who care about sanctions don’t necessarily think they’re a good idea. Our 2021 survey revealed a clear split on E.U. sanctions: about 40 percent were opposed to them, while 36 percent expressed their support. A further 20 percent did not know how to answer the question, and about 5 percent refused to respond.
These divisions likely reflect the political fragmentation of Belarus society. There are some indications that men are more likely to think that sanctions are important, as are younger people, and those living in Minsk, the capital. But the most important indicator that someone would approve of E.U. sanctions, our surveys found, is whether the respondent voted for Tikhanovskaya — who ran against Lukashenko in the August 2020 election — and whether they participated in the protests that followed. With the latest sanctions likely to have more direct effects on the population at large, the core group of pro-sanctions supporters are clearly politically motivated.
Sanctions aim to change the calculations and dynamics within the ruling elite. But they can also influence the opinions of the local population. Our research suggests that many in Belarus may see sanctions as less important now that Belarus’s authoritarian regime appears to be have consolidated power.
Félix Krawatzek is a senior researcher at the Center for East European and International Studies (ZOiS) in Berlin and author of “Youth in Regime Crisis: Comparative Perspectives from Russia to Weimar Germany” (Oxford University Press, 2018).
Gwendolyn Sasse is the director of the Center for East European and International Studies (ZOiS) in Berlin and Einstein Professor for the Comparative Study of Democracy and Authoritarianism at the Department of Social Sciences of the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.