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Kiryl Kascian, Belarusian Review, July 3, 2012 (Belarus)

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Simple Mathematics

I remember a math problem from my school years: how much time would it take Z to get from point A to point C, traveling through point B? This was quite a simple task, but one has to correctly consider the conditions given in order to get the proper answer. In other words, the correct answer depends on the configuration of points A, B, and C, the speed and other characteristics of Z, as well as other relevant factors. 

This association comes to mind when I see texts on the geopolitical choices of Belarus, attempting to discuss the apparent preferences of the Belarusian population and to measure pro-European sentiment in Belarus. All these studies are based on the traditional public opinion poll that has been produced by the IISEPS for at least eight years. The question of this poll is formulated as follows: “If you had to choose between integration with Russia and joining the European Union, what choice would you make?” This question has three possible answers – integration with Russia, joining the EU, and don’t know/no answer. Accordingly, the apparent respondent is being pushed to make a choice between Russia and the EU. The third variant of the possible answer – don’t know/no answer – rather implies that the apparent respondent is either unaware of her/his preferences or is not ready to make a choice. It all seems convincing and creates an apparently solid basis for further analyses, but is it really so and how relevant is the school mathematics course in this case?

In order to verify the apparent solidness of the poll, let us try analyzing this opinion poll and its answers from a mathematical perspective. Let us imagine that Z is Belarus in the eyes of any participating respondents and B is the current place of Belarus in her/his eyes. A and C are then Russia and the EU, respectively. The variants of the answers provide quite a settled framework so that we can place it into an isosceles triangle (see the graph below).

IISEPS opinion poll scenario

Let us look at the options offered to Z within the conditions of the opinion poll. If Z doesn’t know or has no answer, he/she remains at point B. If he/she prefers Russia or the EU, he/she moves accordingly to  A or C. Since Z is pushed to choose between A and C, i.e. between Russia or the EU, he/she has to follow an imaginary path which in each case is equal in length which explains why the triangle in the scheme is isosceles. Thus, the formula implies a simple choice “either/or” between two options (Russia and the EU) with equal characteristics. Moreover, acceptance of one option means exclusion of the other. However, such conditions are available in a laboratory vacuum but not in real life. In order to prove that, two scenarios would have to be available, one of which is in a vaccuum while the other one is real.

The framework for this scenario is the same as in the initial opinion poll, i.e. B is the current place of Belarus in the eyes of a respondent, while A is Russia and C is the EU. It seems that an attempt to push a respondent to choose between Russia and the EU is based on the premise of Belarus’ location between these two global players. But what if one introduces an additional variant of the answer, i.e. keeping neutrality in a Swiss or Norwegian manner? This variant comes along the above-mentioned logic of the opinion poll’s initiators and rather provides an additional scenario: how Belarus could act between these two players. Moreover, this and only one additional variant seems sufficient,  since any other model of development (Singapore, Israel, Venezuela, or any other state) seems irrelevant as it does not fit the realities of Belarus’ geopolitical location. Thus, we can place this scenario into an isosceles triangle (see the graph below).

IISEPS opinion poll

So, if Z doesn’t know or has no answer, he/she remains at point B. If he/she prefers Russia or the EU, he/she moves accordingly to  A or C. But if Z states that he/she opts for keeping neutrality in a Swiss or Norwegian manner, then he/she moves to H. The choice of a location H is based on the assumption of the above-mentioned neutrality. In any case, it means that if Z makes this choice, the distance between Belarus and Russia on one hand and Belarus and the EU on the other hand, remains equal. Moreover, this answer does not imply a simple choice “either/or” between two options as in the initial opinion poll and does not mean the exclusion of other options. In other words, such a choice implies good neighborliness with both the EU and Russia so that Belarus can balance between these actors,  pursuing its own interests — at least to some extent. Moreover, such an option enables Belarus to act as a subject of politics but not as its object as implied by the set of answers to the initial opinion poll. It seems also that the realization of this scenario is based purely on the fact of Belarus’ location between the EU and Russia, and it does not seem relevant whether the country is led by Lukašenka or someone else. It is also quite clear that the existence of this “neutrality” option would probably considerably change the results of opinion polls on the geopolitical preferences of Belarusians.

Now let’s leave the laboratory vacuum and return to reality. Political relations between Belarus and Russia are largely determined by the same political culture of the Belarusian and Russian leadership, which makes it easier for them to understand each other’s needs and put up a brave front even when it seems that hardly any solution may be found. Moreover, the enormous presence of Russian media and mass culture in Belarus brings the Russian option closer to Belarusian society. Additionally, the actual absence of border controls between the two countries provides Belarusians with opportunities to see Russia with their own eyes without complicated bureaucratic procedures. Finally, the integration processes — either virtual or real — between Belarus and Russia are taking place in political, economic, military and other dimensions. Allegorically speaking, these factors bring Russia to the minds of ordinary Belarusians and work for their pro-Russian choice when asked to choose either Russia or the EU.

As far as the EU is concerned, the very option of “joining the EU” as formulated in the opinion poll remains rather imaginary for such countries as Georgia or Ukraine who declared it as one of their aspired political goals. Additionally, as a result of Belarus-EU political antagonism, Belarusian pro-EU civic society remains subject to repression and is used as a scapegoat for the regime’s political propaganda. Finally, quite complicated bureaucratic visa procedures do not contribute to a massive discovery of EU by ordinary Belarusians. Even though the EU option might be attractive for a considerable part of the Belarusian population, it is not on the political agenda either in Belarus or the EU; it is questionable whether this issue would be raised at all in the mid-term future.

In other words, the opinion poll on the geopolitical choice of Belarus compares real integration with Russia, which is ready to work here and now,  with the virtual process of  Belarus joining the EU, which might occur sometime in the future, if at all, if the EU were to decide that Belarus deserves to become a new member. And this reality is somewhat difficult to explain with mathematics. If we imagine this as a triangle, it will definitely be deformed by the different conditions described above; it is questionable whether this deformation is reversible.

Thus, it seems that all these opinion polls on the geopolitical choice of Belarus as well as texts based on them, intending to measure pro-European sentiment in Belarus, seem to be at least very questionable since they try to compare two situations: a real and a virtual one. And the virtuality of the latter is only indirectly related to the Lukašenka regime. The experience of the EaP countries most advanced in their integration process with the EU has not been positive;  none of the relevant EU documents have so far clearly indicated these countries’ prospective membership in the Union. In other words, even if the political regime in Belarus were to change, the issue of the country’s accession to the EU would remain virtual at least in the mid-term future.

This article appeared in Belarusian Review, Vol. 24, No. 2, section Editorial.
© 2012 The_Point Journal/Belarusian Review

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