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A Societal Split

A woman casts her ballot during early voting in Minsk in mid-December.
A woman casts her ballot during early voting in Minsk in mid-December.
Anybody who's interested in politics in Belarus today (and the politicization of society is currently quite high) is concerned with one simple question: What percentage of the electorate actually supported Lukashenka?

Alas, since all independent mechanisms of gauging political opinion had been switched off, there is no conclusive answer to such a query. There were no reliable sociological surveys conducted prior to the vote, and there were no legitimate by-the-rules exit polls. Only at some polling stations were independent observers successful in tallying the votes cast on 19 December, and the numbers at such stations were unimpressive for Lukashenka -- somewhere around 35 percent. But was this isolated indicator enough to give an electoral snapshot of -- if not the whole country -- at least that of the capital? In all likelihood, the answer is no.

Yet the roadblocks erected by the Belarusian government (shutting down the independent sociological survey group Novak, for example) were only partly responsible for the information vacuum. In contrast to earlier years, for instance, this time there also seemed to be a marked indifference to the Belarusian vote on the part of foreign structures. Whereas once funds from abroad could always be counted on to finance independent sociological surveys during important electoral campaigns, this time neither the West nor the East seemed particularly interest. But that's a question for another essay...

Anyway, the upshot is that now political analysts and other experts have to draw their conclusions in the absence of any real data.

For instance, here's one thing we know: There was a massive street protest on election night that culminated in a bloody crackdown by Belarus riot forces against the demonstrators.

What was the public's overall response to that event? Which side tends to enjoy greater public sympathy? To what extent has society split with regard to those questions? Does the democratic segment of the electorate support radicalized tactics on the part of the opposition?

There are no hard answers to any of those questions, and conclusions have to be drawn obliquely.

The unprecedented expressions of solidarity for the detainees -- including aid initiatives mushrooming on their behalf -- appear to indicate that the authorities' double-whammy of unfairness outraged society. Not only did the Central Election Commission declare almost 80 percent of the vote in Lukashenka's favor; it also meted out a paltry 1-2 percent for each of the alternative candidates. Neither result seemed plausible -- especially in the wake of a relatively free, robust, and pluralistic political campaign two months prior to the vote. The long lines of supporters queuing up to add their signatures to the cause of this or that alternative candidate were still vivid in people's memories, as were conversations at work and at home about how people intended to vote. So even that segment of the population that may have been skeptical of opposition assertions concerning government rigging of the results was given pause by the election commission's astronomical figures for the incumbent and miniscule ones for the challengers.

To add injury to insult, as it were, this state of affairs was followed by the physical assault of the security services on the demonstrators on Independence Square in Minsk. Furthermore, the swift subsequent arrest of five (but initially seven) opposition candidates looks like nothing more than vengeance for their having had the audacity to challenge the dictator in the first place. (Front-running challenger) Uladzimer Nyaklyaeu, for instance, never even made it to Independence Square; he took no physical part in the events for which he was later arrested, brutally smuggled out of his hospital room by a team of security officers.

If chatter on the Internet can be a reflection of the prevailing mood, the authorities now find themselves in a state of moral isolation.

But might not that conclusion be simply a symptom of myopism on the part of web devotees? Perhaps other interpretations of the current situation are equally feasible. For instance, that the government showed its power and the people are impressed. Because a society that has lost its values and moral compass can really be made to pay attention to only one thing -- and that is brute force. Consider for example the numerous pieces of evidence the Internet offered of compulsory early voting. But was there a single story about collective resistance to this tactic? No. There were reports about individuals who balked, but never organized groups.

And then there is this: Never before have we witnessed a whole succession of key players suddenly repudiating their actions and expressing contrition. Particularly striking in this regard is the statement by the chairman of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Hramada), Anatol Lyaukovich, published in the main state newspaper "Sovietskaja Belarusija" on 21 December. Basically, here we have a case of one of Belarus's leading opposition parties doing a total political about-face and crossing over to the government's side. (Or at least we've not heard any protests from fellow party members to Lyaukovich's statement.) This type of occurrence is decidedly uncommon.

One indisputable conclusion is that the events of 19-20 December have sharply divided society -- and that division seems to be widening. There is a quiet, invisible civil war developing in the country. So far, this is the most important result of the presidential election.

-- Valer Karbalevich