When Neighbors Expect the EU to Help Them Transform: Survey Data From Protesting Belarus

This article is part of the TRAFO series “Trajectories of Change”

By Stas Gorelik

When mass demonstrations erupted in Belarus in August 2020, following a stolen presidential election and brutal police repression, Russia supported President Alyaksandr Lukashenka with a loan of around 1.5 billion dollars and was ready to provide reinforcements to quell the protests. Meanwhile, the EU imposed new sanctions against Lukashenka and has been accepting thousands of political refugees from Belarus. Although the initial protest wave in Belarus has subsided, the regime is widely seen as illegitimate, while scattered and local demonstrations are still happening, months after the election day.

People lit torches on their mobile phones and waved a white-red-white flag during a peaceful protest in Independence Square. Minsk, 21 August 2020. Photo: Daria Buryakina, TUT.BY

Yet, the question of how international players can encourage or suppress protest mobilization has not been researched in earnest, neither in general nor in relation to the post-Soviet countries. International sanctions can help autocratic leaders boost nationalistic sentiment and organize rallies (Hellmeier, 2020), but international pressure can also make opposition believe that pro-democracy protests will be recognized worldwide (e.g., Grauvogel et al., 2017). Nevertheless, extant research on the issue does not use individual-level data, so we do not know how ordinary citizens actually evaluate international factors. Meanwhile, the 2013 Ukrainian Euromaidan protests clearly showed that popular European aspirations and concrete actions by the EU and Russia can shape protest mobilization in the Eastern Partnership region. More recently, in 2018, the leaders of Armenia’s Velvet Revolution underscored their geopolitical neutrality to avoid Russia’s involvement.

So, could the European Union invigorate a pro-democracy protest movement in Belarus and is Russian support propping up the authoritarian regime there? To answer these questions, the Belarusian organizations National Poll and Center for New Ideas have conducted an online survey – which I helped them design – in late November 2020. We anonymously and securely surveyed around 9000 respondents recruited through special announcements on social media and instant messengers; most of them had taken to streets at least once by the time of the study. The respondents received several questions about their background and protest participation, but were also randomly assigned to 9 groups. Each group was given its own scenario of how the EU and Russia could influence the Belarusian protest. In other words, the study contained a survey experiment with nine conditions. It turns out, active Belarusian citizens value support from the EU, while Russia’s assistance to the governing powers does not make the incumbent leader, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, invincible.

Most of all, we were interested in how the respondents would be willing to protest is each of the following scenarios: 1) no actions by the EU and Russia (“base case” scenario); 2) EU imposes sanctions against Belarusian authorities or 3) it imposes sanctions against key state enterprises; 4) EU provides economic support in exchange for democratic reforms in Belarus; 5) Russia supports the protest movement; 6) Russia provides economic support or 7) military support for the current Belarusian regime; 8) EU reacts to Russia’s support with sanctions against Russia or 9) with equivalent economic support in exchange for democratization in Belarus. For more details on the exact wording of scenarios and for main takeaways, see this presentation.

The respondents could answer the question about their willingness to protest by choosing one of these options: definitely willing [to protest], quite willing, quite unwilling, definitely unwilling, don’t know/no answer (DK/NA). Because this answer scale did not presuppose any increasing or descending order, we employed multinomial logistic regressions (MLR). MLR shows to what extent a specific survey answer is more likely to be chosen, as compared to another option. Our respondents’ claims about their protest intentions were, first, compared to the category “quite willing”, the most popular answer in the “base case” scenario group. That is, the main question of interest for us was whether the other eight scenarios could make respondents either definitely willing to protest or likely to remain at home.

MTZ workers on strike and people who have joined them march from the plant to the government building. Minsk, 14 August 2020. Workers demanded new elections and called for the release of all detainees. Photo: Olga Shukailo, TUT.BY

In every scenario, our study participants were even more likely to definitely protest, as compared to the “base case” scenario. More importantly, these results are almost universally statistically significant at the 0.01 level, except for the situation when Russia sends its police to Belarus. The inclusion of controls, such as respondent’s education or age, in these and other models, does not affect the findings. In fact, the respondents in the scenario of Russia’s military support were 2.8 times more likely (p<.01) to claim their absolute unwillingness to protest. Still, the respondents were very certain about taking to the streets in the situation when Russia supports the protest: 1.83 (p<.01) times more likely to choose the answer “definitely willing [to protest]”. The second highest certainty about protesting – 1.62 (p<.01) times more likely – was detected in the scenario when the EU backs international prosecution of Belarusian authorities. Importantly, more than 75% of the respondents in the EU sanctions scenario viewed it as being realistic (slide 24 in the presentation), as compared to only 33.5% in the scenario about Russian support for the protest (slide 39).

These results did not hold, however, when we simplified the answer scale to these three options: willing to protest, unwilling, DK/NA. For the simplified version, protest intentions become most pronounced in the scenario of the EU’s introduction of sanctions against Belarusian enterprises (significant at the 0.01 level), while Russia’s support for the protest has the second strongest positive effect. Yet, these factors invert when the controls are added. Finally, Russia’s military support for the Belarusian regime does not reduce the likelihood of protesting in a statistically significant way, although it reaches a barely significant level (0.044) with the controls in place. Of course, the results of this study should be viewed with caution. We organized it “on the go” to survey Belarusian protesters while demonstrations were still happening. The survey was informed by the specific Belarusian situation, so its results may not generalize to other contexts. Relatedly, the study does not show whether the EU’s passive reactions may discourage pro-democracy protesters. Nevertheless, given the tumultuous protest politics of the post-Soviet region, we hope that his study will encourage more rigorous research on the issue. Countries as diverse as Moldova and Armenia may soon see demonstrations over their foreign policy orientations, while the EU’s support for Russia’s democratic transformation may appear an important factor even in its own rising wave of mass protest.


Grauvogel, Julia, Amanda A. Licht, and Christian von Soest, “Sanctions and signals: How international sanction threats trigger domestic protest in targeted regimes”, International Studies Quarterly 61, no. 1 (2017): 86-97.

Hellmeier, Sebastian, “How foreign pressure affects mass mobilization in favor of authoritarian regimes”, European Journal of International Relations (2020): https://doi.org/1354066120934527.

Stas Gorelik. Photo by Harrison Jones / The George Washington University.

Stas Gorelik is a PhD candidate at the George Washington University and a Bucerius Fellow of the “Trajectories of Change” programme at ZEIT-Stiftung Ebelin und Gerd Bucerius, specializing in comparative politics and research methodology. His primary research focus lies in new forms of electoral manipulation in authoritarian states and pro-democracy mass protest.


Citation: Stas Gorelik, When Neighbors Expect the EU to Help Them Transform: Survey Data From Protesting Belarus, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 16.03.2021, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/27262

Further articles in this series on TRAFO:

Anna Hofmann, Trajectories of Change: New Research Projects on the European Neighbourhood, 15.02.2020

Žilvinas Švedkauskas, Constitutional Capture in and around the Contested Neighborhood, 15.12.2020

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