Does public opinion exist in Belarus?

Public opinion is a mechanism that ensures the existence of representative democracy, and the political practices of the Western countries pay a lot of attention to this. The whole industry of research, PR, political technologies and media deal with the formation and study of public opinion – or using it in interests of different groups, societal or corporate. Public opinion is a well-established mechanism in Western democracies, ingrown and integral for their public and political systems. In Belarus, the existence of public opinion as such can be questioned.

Public opinion is not characteristic of a society by definition; we cannot judge that public opinion exists just because polls and sociological surveys are being conducted and there are decades worth of databases of the results.

Public opinion is often compared to a mirror that reflects reality. But there is a second part of the process; this reflection is supposed to affect the reality it reflects as well; correct and change it. A society that looks into a mirror of public opinion does not just admire its own beauty or despises its ugliness, but also can improves its “looks” — just like a person can correct their make-up, straighten their tie or even decide to undergo a plastic surgery.

Before we try to understand how this mirror works in Belarus let us consider several basic issues that define public opinion as such.

The first notion is an object of public opinion, i.e. issues or areas public has opinions on. Not any issue can become such an object; it only applies to problems that can arouse discussions and represent an issue of public interest. This public interest does not exist itself; it is formed as a certain political agenda that is important for a society. The question is who set sets this agenda and how it is set. In a democratic society it is set in intellectuals’ discussions, political debates, public campaigns. They formulate questions that require an attitude or an opinion from a wider community.

But the mere existence of these questions does not lead to formation of public opinion on them; it has to be inspired and formed. Methods of formation of public opinion vary from elections and political campaigns to the daily work of mass media, public discussions, opinion polls. All these institutions work to transform formulated questions into the societally important ones that require the public to respond or take a stance on.

And here comes a question, the answer to which seems so obvious that almost no one bothers to ask it in the 21st century: who is the subject of public opinion? The obvious answer is “the public” or “society”. The real question is how we define a society that can have “public opinion”. Pierre Bourdieu, a French sociologist, anthropologist, and philosopher, seriously questioned an ability of every individual member of a society to have a relevant opinion. [Baring this in mind, it is difficult to think that a society as a set of all individuals can be a subject of “public opinion”.

Thus, the subject of public opinion can be a part of a society that is capable of competent political judgement about a public agenda. The opinion of this part of a society reflects results of intellectual battles, discussions, social innovations and political programmes. Desire for inclusion of all population of a society in this “subject” is a true democratic ideal to aspire to; but this ideal is rather utopian. So, there is a clear difference between a society as a simple aggregate of all individuals affected by a joint public agenda – and a society as a subject of public opinion. However restrictive and undemocratic it may sound, we have to take this difference into consideration, as well as the fact that when this discrepancy reaches a certain level, public opinion as a social institute ceases to function.

There are various forms and channels of expression of public opinion and they correspond to the methods of formation of public opinion we mentioned above. Election campaigns inspire public opinion on a direction of development of a country; referenda make people formulate their opinions on issues in question; their results finalise these processes. Media play a dual role; on the one hand they are an instrument of formation of public opinion, on the other hand, they are a platform of an open public debate that allows various arguments to be presented. Opinion polls represent a range of views and suggest reference points for politicians, public figures and a society. All these channels allow public opinion to influence the agenda, the content of discussions among politicians and intellectuals, and decision-making in the end.

We have described a rather ideal or theoretical type of functioning of public opinion. It shows that the “mirror metaphor” over-simplifies its understanding; it is rather a complicated system of mirrors that reflect and distort each other’s signals, and create quite a sophisticated image as a result.

Now let us have a look at the situation in Belarus through such a notion of public opinion. The space of public politics in Belarus is absent as such; the space of intellectual discussions is shrinking. Despite these facts the agenda of the most vital issues that must be in focus of public opinion is quite obvious. The country is stuck in uncertainty as it has not answered some basic questions any development is impossible without – from the problem of geopolitical choice (or “the choice of the future”) to the issues of historical memory (or “the choice of the past”, if you like).

Language, social and economic setup, Western or Eastern way of development, law-based or social state – here are just some of the questions there are at least two contradicting answers to in Belarus. And neither of the two camps have significant influence or a comprehensive programme of work with public opinion on these issues.

The authorities of the country don’t have such a programme. It may sound a bit paradoxical, but Belarusian authorities don’t have any strong influence on public opinion either – just because they don’t deal with the subject of public opinion, they only deal with “people” or “a population” they try to control with the help of a system of social and economic balances.

Political opposition has been losing its influence on public opinion during the past decade, and at the moment it has lost it almost completely. The opposition has lost support among civil society and intellectuals as well; thus they have started going down the same road of “dealing with people” as the authorities do. The proof is a growing appeal of the idea of populism among the oppositional forces. So, instead of elaboration of strategies and programmes to address the vital issues for the Belarusian society, the opposition try to address people and “gather their wishes”. The problem is there are no mechanisms to make those wishes come true.

The alternative political agenda in Belarus has been concentrated more and more in civil society and cultural underground; but as subjects of public opinion themselves, they don’t have enough potential to inspire massive processes of formation of public opinion on significant issues. This has to do more with peculiarities of self-identification of civil society, rather than with conditions of work or organisational weaknesses.

In such a situation media and opinion polls find themselves in quite an ambiguous position. Let’s leave the state media that function as propaganda tools alone. Independent media have to be guided by their own understanding of “general democratic values” and audience needs – because there are no other clearly identified public agenda setters. Thus, it is difficult to be a platform for sensible public debate. It results in a situation where the public opinion-setting work of the media cannot be effective as there is nobody to take note of it and use its results, if there are any.

Sociologists find themselves in a similar position. In fact they have to combine the roles of an “agenda setter” or a “public customer” – and of a researcher. The absence of a real public request for surveying and measurement of public opinion – as well as actual space for implementing their results – make any poll, however deep, mass-scale and methodologically perfect, quite useless.

Thus, the whole system that should ensure a functioning public opinion in Belarus is perverted. If we recall the “mirror metaphor”, all spaces or mirrors in it exist in parallel realities and create a “labyrinth of reflections”, where the subject of public opinion seems to be completely lost. Unfortunately, Belarus cannot boast of a large number of people who are capable of formulating a responsible political opinion that have a potential of influencing the situation in any area. The number of these people is decreasing rather than growing.

The only chance for a change is to alter the positions of mirrors.

A harmful precedent


By Ronald Dworkin

The Gulf War is already a mythic event. President Bush said that it washed the stain of Vietnam from America’s shield, and America and the other nations that participated, including Britain, are justifiably proud of what their soldiers have done. But there is a great risk that the war’s spectacular military success, and its consequent enormous popularity, will be taken somehow to have vindicated every aspect of it, including the serious and unjustifiable extension of military censorship that this issue of Index explores (Volume 20, Issue 4).

The greatest risk, I believe, is that a particular argument for justifying censorship, which became widely accepted among politicians and the public over the last several months, will now be thought legitimate. I mean the argument that government may properly manipulate public opinion in order to prevent the public from criticising the war or its conduct. Censorship with that aim is defended not of course on the ground that officials are entitled to protect their own political positions, a proposition no one would defend, but on the more insidious ground that a pleased and supportive public is a great military advantage, that a nation can pursue a war more effectively, win it more quickly, and with fewer of its own soldiers dead and wounded, when the public is on its side.

That argument has always been popular, but its premise is now more widely accepted than ever before. As Phillip Knightley reports here, it is now orthodox Pentagon thinking that America lost the Vietnam War because television said that the generals were liars, that the war could not be won, and that American forces burne innocent civilians. In 1984 Caspar Weinberger, then Secretary of Defense, laid down the policy: ‘Before the US commits combat forces abroad, there must be some reasonable assurance we will have the support of the American people and their representative in Congress.’

The factual case for that policy is strong. Regional war is not, as Vietnam proved, all or nothing. A divided and shocked public produces a climate of compromise in which military action is not cancelled or abandoned altogether, but is rather pursued half-heartedly, with (as President Bush several times put it) ‘one hand tied behind our back’. The military danger of adverse public opinion was even greater in the Gulf than it had been in Vietnam, moreover, because the generals had to fear the impact of bad news or horrifying images not just in America or Britain but in the streets of Cairo and other cities of the Arab coalition. They might well have thought that protecting their troops meant protecting them from bad notices in the press as well as from Saddam’s guns and poisons.

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But if that understandable view is taken to license censorship of information about troop morale or military mistakes or civilian casualties or, what is equally dangerous, if it is taken to require self censorship of such information by the media themselves — then the range of censorship justified on strictly military grounds is very greatly expanded.


Of course General Schwartzkopf was right to prevent television crews from filming the swing of his troops far to the left of the Iraqi defences, a manoeuvre the Iraqis, without air power, could not see for themselves. But it became clear, in the course of this war, that the military justification was being used for censorship of much more than operational information.

The nerve of the censorship scheme was the pool system of reporting described in Peter Schmeisser’s article, which gave the army control not only over what was written but of who wrote it, and therefore a crucial way to punish media whose reports it did not like. R.W. Apple, a distinguished journalist “who acted as bureau chief for the New York Times in the desert, was livid at the discrimination against his influential paper. Geoff Meade’s article reports that he was forbidden to film Kuwaiti teenagers playing football because the army feared Americans with relatives fighting in the Gulf might be resentful, and Nan Levinson reports a blanket prohibition against coverage of medical treatment for wounded soldiers after their return to the US. Richard O’Mara’s article puts it well: the purpose of censorship was not just to keep the Iraqis ignorant, but to give the military time and control over unpleasing outcomes to process the information in such a way as to reduce its impact when it becomes known on the home front’.

Substantial sections of the home front were ready, even anxious, to be manipulated. Truth may be the first casualty of war, but some people’s desire to be told the truth is a close second. One of he most depressing of the phenomena described in this issue is the speed with which irresponsible and frightened editors and politicians began to paint honest’ reporting as a kind of treason. Peter Arnett, for instance, reporting as best he could for CNN out of Baghdad, was called a Lord Haw Haw because he passed on Iraqi claims about civilian destruction and indicated how far the evidence he was allowed to see — he scrupulously described the constraints on his own coverage — seemed to support them. In this issue, Matthew d’Ancona and Richard Norton Taylor describe the patterns of media deference and fear that allowed censorship easy victories, and Matthew Hoffman reminds us how quickly the equation of honesty with treason caught on with parts of the public itself.

The military victory was so swift and comprehensive that censorship designed to control public opinion was probably irrelevant in this case. But the precedent is a harmful one, because it expresses the same attitude that also produced the terrible violations of the civil rights of Palestinians and Iraqis living in Britain described by Abbas Shiblak and Ursula Ruston: the attitude that in war even a notional benefit to military efficiency justifies any invasion of traditional freedoms.

When the generals control the press in order to control public opinion, they are by definition cheating on democracy. The people have a right to make up their own minds whether they should be impatient or tired or dissatisfied or frightened or appalled by a war, or whether it is tolerable that their armies should risk bombing innocent civilians in air raid shelters, and that is no less true when part of the public wants to be shot of the responsibility. If the government believes that strategy justifies risking substantial civilian deaths, then it should make its case and take its chances with opinion polls and parliamentary attacks and peace demonstrations and postmortem elections.

No doubt even a just war, and certainly an unjust one, can be prosecuted more efficiently and with fewer losses if government does not have to worry about such opposition while the war is on. But unless survival is at stake, war cannot trump democracy. We are no democrats if we trust the people only when the stakes are sufficiently low.

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/3″][vc_column_text]The winter 2017 Index on Censorship magazine explores 1968 – the year the world took to the streets – to discover whether our rights to protest are endangered today.

With: Ariel Dorfman, Anuradha Roy, Micah White

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