Mental democratization. Changes in the sphere of values of Belarusians


Both the regime’s repression and Russia's aggression will become a tangible proof of how dangerous governments are if they lack social control

This report is an attempt to summarize the changes in the sphere of values of Belarusians over the last decade. We will particularly focus on the changes that are relevant to the prospects for the democratization of Belarus.  

The report is being finalized at a time when Russia has openly attacked Ukraine, and the regime of Aliaksandr Lukashenka, internationally isolated and little short of being the Kremlin’s puppet, is embroiling Belarus into this war. It is difficult to predict univocally what consequences this will have for Belarus and the political system created by Lukashenka. In this situation, the sphere of values deserves all the more attention. Since values are anchored in cognitive structures, they are relatively persistent. They will play a significant role as political crisis is aggravated by Belarus’s involvement into the war—a perspective that Belarusian society has always opposed to.

The level of democracy: social parameters do not want to ‘fall’

A couple of weeks ago, The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) published a report  on the state of democracy in 165 countries in 2021.[1] The overall democracy index in Belarus was 2.41 points out of ten and has become the lowest in the last 16 years since the EIU project has been ongoing (see  Figure 1).

Figure 1. Overall Index of Democracy in Belarus (EIU)


According to Freedom House (FH), the index of political and civil freedom in Belarus in 2021 was only rated at 8 on a 100-point scale (in 2019 it was at the level of 19/100).[2]  In turn, the Varieties of Democracy Institute (V-Dem) rated the level of liberal democracy in this country in 2020 at 8/100 (in 2019 roku – 11/100).

Table 1. Index of freedom and liberal democracy in Belarus

For the convenience, the scores were converted into a 100-point scale



Place among other countries included in the ranking

 Freedom Index in 2021 (FH)


195. of 210

 Liberal Democracy Index in 2020[3] (V-Dem)


141. of 158

The picture of Belarusian democracy is different if we take into account the individual parameters by which the EIU builds the democracy index. The EIU takes into account not only the actions of the state authorities, but also the attitudes of the society. There are three parameters that reflect the situation on the side of the regime: electoral process and pluralism, the functioning of government, and civil liberties. Citizens can, of course, try to change the situation in these areas, but as long as the autocracy is consolidated, they have little influence on the situation. The assessment of these elements of democracy can therefore be treated as an ‘a behaviour grade’ for the ruling elites.

The two other parameters employed by the EIU—political participation and political culture—largely reflect citizens’ attitudes and their attempts to change their socio-political life. Since in autocracies there is always a glass ceiling for the activity of citizens, one should not expect these two parameters to be very high (in absolute terms) in such countries.  A ‘5’ for political participation or political culture in a democratic system is not the same as a ‘5’  in an autocracy. In the first case, this means that citizens probably miss opportunities to participate in political life or they do not perceive democracy as a value. In the second case, this means that citizens’ demand for democracy is high and that it is the glass ceiling of the autocracy that prevents them from engaging more fully in socio-political activities.

Since at least 2006, when the EIU launched its project, there has been a considerable divergence between the ‘regime-dependent’ and ‘society-dependent’ parameters in Belarus’s democracy. For 16 years of monitoring, none of the parameters of the former has scored more than ‘3.9’. One of them—the electoral process and pluralism—already very low in 2006, was continuously deteriorating to hit bottom in 2020, i.e. ‘0’. In 2014–2016, the functioning of government somewhat improved, but later deteriorated again. The dynamics of civil liberties was also negative.

The ‘society-dependent’ parameters are completely different. Political culture has never fallen below 4.8; at one time it was as high as 6.25. Political participation fell to a record low in 2019 and was rated at 2.8, but most of the time it remains at "3.9". It should be noted that the slight increase in the overall  democracy index in 2020 was solely due to an improvement in the 'social' parameters (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. The five parameters of democracy (EIU)



Pro-democratic vs pro-authoritarian mobilization. The difference is big

The ‘unprecedented political mobilization in 2020’ in Belarus is more than a media slogan. The expert analysis by the V-Dem Institute showed that the mobilization was record-breaking not only in the history of this country, but also on a global scale[4] (see Figures 3 and 4).

V-Dem distinguishes between pro-democratic and pro-authoritarian mobilization and measures them separately.  In 2020, the institute’s experts also recorded an unprecedented increase in pro-authoritarian mobilization in Belarus, but it was incomparably weaker than the former.  In every  authoritarian country there are pro-authoritarian activists. But in most such countries they are more belligerent and active than in Belarus.[5]  Supporters of authoritarianism in Belarus are generally passive. Their activation in 2020 was much, though not exclusively, indebted to administrative resource.  To ensure attendance, the authorities resorted to threats of dismissal, financial incentives or the involvement of military in civilian clothes.[6]

Figure 3. Pro-democratic vs pro-authoritarian mobilisation in Belarus (V-Dem)


Figure 4. Top-10 countries with the largest pro-democracy mobilization in 2020 (V-Dem)


Political mobilization, i.e., participation in protest actions is always the share of just a fraction of society. Even in very numerous demonstrations only few percent of the population take part. The rest may passively support or disapprove of the demonstrators’  demands, spread their demands in micro-conversations, or allow them to disappear from the circulation. Therefore, it is important to determine how broad the support for democracy in Belarus is and how deep it is.

Support for democracy: broad or deep?

Figure 5 will let us get a preliminary idea of the degree of public support for democracy.

Figure 5. Democracy: how good is this political system? (WVS/EVS)


However, first impressions may be inaccurate or even wrong. People sometimes react to the positive connotation of some words (and ‘democracy’ is certainly one of them) and do not necessarily express a thoughtful attitude to the phenomenon the word denotes. To better estimate the degree of support for democracy, it is worth paying attention to at least two things:

  1. How strong are the democratic predispositions in Belarusian society, namely, readiness to take individual responsibility for one’s own well-being, faith in freedom of choice, as well as perception of competition as an important element of free market economics?
  2. What is the attitude of Belarusians to alternative political systems: autocracy, stratocracy (military rule) and the rule of experts?

Comparing the data from the last wave (2018) of the World Value Survey (WVS) with the data from the previous wave (2011) allows us to see that there have been very clear changes in the area of democratic predispositions.

First, the number of staunch supporters of state paternalism has decreased almost by three times: from 36% at the beginning of the decade to 12% by the end. At the same time, the number of those who staunchly[7] support the idea that individual, not the government, is responsible for one’s wellbeing has almost quadrupled: from 7% to 27% – see Figure 6.

Figure 6. Government’s vs individual’s responsibility (WVS)


Secondly, the number of strong supporters of the thesis that the person has much freedom of choice and control over their lives has doubled.  In turn, the number of adherents of the ‘philosophy of helplessness’ has decreased—see Figure 7.

Figure 7. How much freedom of choice and control you feel you have over the way your life turns out (WVS/EVS)


Over the last decade, the average value of positive attitude towards competition in Belarus has markedly increased: from 6.01 to 6.66 (on a ten-point scale). It is worth noting that there has been a sharp increase in the percentage of those who staunchly support the ethos  of competition, i.e. those who, in response to the question about the harmfulness/usefulness of competition chose 10 or 9 to express their belief in its usefulness (Figure 8).

Figure 8. Competition—good or harmful?  (WVS/EVS)


Does the analysis of the democratic predispositions  of Belarusians confirm the initial idea of broad support for democracy? Well, a certain clarification needs to be made here. The data of Figures 6 to 8 testify to the depth and consistency of support for democracy, which is characteristic of a fraction the population. However, they do not necessarily means its being overwhelming. Note that strong predispositions (9 or 10 for the three above parameters) are characteristic of a large, but still minority part of society.

‘Enlightened authoritarianism’ and other alternatives

When we consider the attitude of Belarusians to non-democratic political systems we will have a chance of determiningthe level of their support for democracy more precisely. It is true that a positive attitude towards democracy is very widespread: in 2018, 87% considered it to be a ‘very good’ or ‘fairly good’ system (for comparison–in Poland this figure was 82%). But it is also true that, as of 2018, there were a surprisingly large number of supporters of a system, which in the questionnaire was described as follows:

A strong leader that does not need to bother with parliament or elections.[8]

If the leader does not need to bother with parliament or elections, it means that we have to do with an authoritarian ruler, so on the figure below we will label this option ‘autocracy’.  The ‘rule of experts’ (a highly theoretical option) also enjoys great support. On the other hand, the military rule, despite the relatively high level of trust in the army, is rejected by the vast majority of society.

Figure 9. To what extent are these political systems good? (WVS/EVS, 2018)


* In the questionnaire, the options were framed as follows:

[Democracy]  Democratic political system

[Autocracy]   A strong leader who does not need to bother with parliament or elections

[Military rule] Having the army rule

[Rule of experts]  Having experts, not government, make decisions according to what they think is best for the country

Moreover, the percentage of supporters of autocracy increased significantly from 47% in 2011 to 62% in 2018, and the percentage of those who were negatively disposed fell from 52% to 29%. Thus the index of support changed radically: from ‘-5’ to ‘+33’.  Support for the ‘rule of experts’ has also increased—see Table 2.

Table 2. Index* of support for different regimes (%)




Army rule

The rule of experts


























* Calculated in the following way:

([very good] + [rather good]) - ([rather bad] + [very bad])

Calculation based on WVS/EVS data.

The increase in support for the ‘iron fist’ rule was influenced by two factors. The first was the events in Ukraine in 2013-2014, which the majority of Belarusians perceived through Russian or Belarusian state-run media. In these media, the events in Ukraine were presented as, on the one hand, a festival of anarchy and chaos, on the other—the outbreak of a Russophobic fascism.

The second factor was economic liberalization. In November 2017, Lukashenka signed the decree ‘On the development of entrepreneurship’, which significantly reduced the degree of government’s interference in the activities of business.  In December of the same year, the decree ‘On the development of digital economy’ was signed, which in turn liberalized the conditions for doing business in the field of information technology. In August 2018, Siarhei Rumas, pro-market economy official, was appointed prime minister. According the World Bank’s Doing Business ranking, in 2017-2019, Belarus performed even better than some Western countries. For example, in 2019 it was in 37th place, while Belgium—in the 45th, Italy—in the 51st, and Cyprus—in the 57th.  For Belarus, this was a clear development success, given that only five years earlier it occupied the 63rd place, and ten years earlier—the 110th place.  At that time, Lukashenka was being compared to Lee Kuan Yew or Syngman Rhee, the authoritarian leaders of Singapore and South Korea (respectively), who, thanks to balanced economic policies and good relations with the West, strengthened the independence of their countries and set them on the path of economic development.

These two factors—the propagandist picture of anarchy in post-Maidan Ukraine and the belief in ‘enlightened authoritarianism’—have caused support for the authoritarian option to grow.  At the same time, support for the theoretical option of the ‘rule of experts’ also increased.  This was probably due to the fact that, despite the rationalization of economic policy, in the eyes of many Lukashenka’s emotional and arrogant management did not fit the image of an ‘enlightened autocrat’ very well.

The increase in support for the ‘rule of experts’ is a partial explanation for the phenomenon of Viktar Babaryka,[9] who, since declaring his intention to run for the office of president in May 2020, has become the leader of the political ranking in Belarus. Even his disappearance from the public space as a result of imprisonment (from June 18, 2020) did not prevent him from remaining the leader of the rankings.[10] This experienced banker, in the eyes of an ever-growing middle class, has just become an icon of a professional with a completely different management culture, who could fit the image of both a good democrat and an ‘enlightened autocrat’.

What has changed after the 2020 protests?

Finally, it is necessary to ask the question of how much the attitude to democracy and non-democracy could have changed after the protests of 2020. Unfortunately, we do not have survey data that would be comparable to WVS/EVS ones. However, there is at least one survey from the post-election period that dealt with the topic of democracy and autocracy. It was carried out by the German Centre for Eastern European Studies (ZOiS) in December 2020 using the CAWI method.[11]  During the survey, respondents could not assess a particular political system separately, and had to decide within one question whether they supported democracy unreservedly or they allowed for the authoritarian rule in certain situations.  In Figure 10, you can see how the answers were distributed.

Figure 10. Which sentence do you agree with the most? (%, ZOIS, December 2020)


Thus, we can see that with such framing of the issue, a huge number of respondents preferred to remain reserved and chose the option ‘I do not know,’ ‘It does not matter’ or even refused to answer. Those who uncompromisingly opted for democracy were 42%. This figure roughly corresponds to the number of respondents with strong democratic predispositions in 2018.

It is more difficult to compare pro-authoritarian attitudes. Leaving aside the issue of the difference in the metod, it should be noted that in the ZOiS questionnaire the word ‘authoritarian’ appeared, while in the WVS/EVS used a descriptive sentence. Given that ‘authoritarian’ has a rather negative connotation, some potential supporters of governments that are de facto undemocratic may have resorted to the ‘I don’t know’ and ‘It doesn’t matter’ options.  One thing is certain: at least 13% of the population consciously acknowledge that a authoritarian rule is sometimes more preferable  than a democratic one.


Belarusian authoritarianism has lived for more than a quarter of a century. Its consolidation took place in 1996–2000, when the third wave of democratization, after unprecedented successes, began to fall, and the processes of autocratization began to prevail over the processes of democratization.[12]  The complicated process of Russia’s post-Soviet transformation under Boris Yeltsin and the rise to power of KGB official Vladimir Putin by no means encouraged democratization of Belarus.

During the first decade of the twenty-first century, Belarusian authoritarianism had a powerful advantage both in relations with society and in the international arena. For seven years, 2001–2008,  Belarus’s GDP increased almost fivefold. The regime also enjoyed this advantage later, as after a short turbulence in 2009-2010, economic growth resumed and lasted until 2014.  For a long time, the social contract was based on a very simple principle: we (the authorities) provide you with the wellbeing, you (society) give up civil and political freedoms.

The economic recession of 2015-2016 forced a revision of the social contract. The basic part—wellbeing—remained roughly the same, but the way it is realized has changed. The earlier maxim We provide you with wellbeing changed into something to the effect: We allow you to take care of your own wellbeing. And indeed, the liberalization of economic life, the rapprochement the West, the improvement of the country’s image (which translated into  investment prospects) opened up huge opportunities for independent care of one’s own wellbeing. It seemed that the transformation of the social contract had succeeded and that both sides were satisfied.

The new formula of the social contract, however, had a serious by-product. As the citizens became economically independent, the philosophy of life changed. In place of what Babaryka once called ‘learned helplessness,’  there was a belief in one’s own power, a sense of independence from the state, and fears of competition turned into the wish just to have transparent rules of competition.

A positive response to the word ‘democracy’ has always been characteristic of vast majority of Belarusians. Another thing is the emergence of deep democratic predispositions. It was in the second half of the second decade that they emerged.

Democracy as a system with transparent rules of participation in political life is a good with delayed gratification. Free market, the ethos of competition or the rule of law are other examples of such a good. Delayed gratification, as the name suggests, is something that does not bring immediate satisfaction.  Goods with delayed gratification are almost never the objects of desire of all members of society. They are also rarely the object of desire of the majority of society.

The analysis in this report showed that there are less than 50% consistent supporters of democracy in Belarus, but most likely they are not less than 30%.  It is not a little at all, on the contrary—it is a lot. Democracy as such, let us repeat, is a delayed good, and it is impossible to expect that its consistent support will be characteristic of absolute majority. What is important here is that over the past decade there has been mental democratization in Belarus, and that it has been sealed at the behavioural level—in the form of a record-breaking political mobilization in 2020.

The repression in Belarus and Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, into which the weakening Lukashenka regime is being embroiled, will leave a painful impression on Belarusian society.  It is highly likely that a group with deep mental democratization will crystallize a pro-democratic attitude. In the eyes of many, the regime’s repression and Russia's aggression may become a tangible proof of how dangerous governments without social control can be.


[*] This report was prepared within the research project ‘A Decade of axiological changes in Belarus: 2010–2020’, which was co-financnawaed by the Polish National Agency for Academic Exchange within “Solidarity with scientists Initiative”. Some issues of this analysis were discussed during a Webinar hosted by the Institute of Central Europe (in Polish)



[1] The Economist Intelligence Unit, Democracy Index 2021. The China challenge, February 2022

[2] Freedom House, The Global Expansion of Authoritarian Rule. Freedom in the World 2022, February 2022,

[3] Here and further V-Dem data are quoted according to:

[4] V-Dem monitors 158 countries.

[5] For example, in Cuba in 2021 or in Turkey in 2013.

[6] Граждан Беларуси заставляют ехать на митинг в поддержку Лукашенко, AFN. BY, 16 августа 2020,

[7] Here and further by ‘staunch’ I mean those who, having at their disposal a scale from 1 to 10, chose the top two (9 or 10) or two bottom (1 or 2) options.

[8] In the language of the survey interview it sounded as follows: Сильный лидер, которого не ограничивает ни парламент, ни выборы.

[9] A Belarusian banker and philanthropist who intended to become a candidate in 2020 Belarusian presidential election. Since June 18, 2020 in jail, formally for ‘illegal [financial] activities’, in fact for political reasons.

[10] Despite the de facto ban on polls on political issues to be conducted by entities independent of the state, we can conclude about the popularity of politicians from online surveys by Chatham House and leaks from Russian VCIOM.

[11] Computer Assisted Web Interview, which means that only Internet users could be surveyed. The structure of the sample, however, corresponded to the structure of the urban population of Belarus in terms of gender, age, city size and level of education.

[12] V-Dem reports show that it happened around 1998.