2021.12.02 08:00

Lithuanians sceptical about confrontation with China, but support Belarus policy – survey

Ieva Žvinakytė, LRT.lt2021.12.02 08:00

Lithuanians have differing opinions about the major foreign policy questions. Almost half support Lithuania’s policy vis-à-vis Belarus, but only a third approve of its position on China, a survey commissioned by LRT suggests.

On 3-24 November, the pollster Norstat polled 1,000 people, a sample representing the country’s population. Respondents were asked to evaluate Lithuania’s foreign policy questions.

Asked if they supported Lithuania’s policy towards Belarus, 49 percent of those surveyed said they did, 37 said they did not, while 15 percent had no opinion on the issue.

Since August 2020, when Belarus' strongman leader claimed victory in a presidential election widely seen as rigged, Vilnius has been supporting the country's democratic opposition and refusing to recognise Lukashenko as a legitimate president. Lithuania has also been pushing for EU sanctions on the Lukashenko regime for its violent crackdown on anti-government protesters.

According to the survey, the most supportive of Lithuania's policy vis-à-vis Belarus were residents of Vilnius (62 percent) and Kaunas (57 percent). In Klaipėda, 51 percent of respondents expressed support for Lithuania’s position on its neighbouring country. In other cities, support was below 50 percent, while in rural areas it was 41 percent.

Among the respondents with higher education, 60 percent said they supported Lithuania's policy towards Belarus, while among those with secondary education, 35 percent approved of it.

The most supportive of Lithuania's policy towards Belarus were top or middle-level managers (61 percent) and those in specialist positions (62 percent). Support for this policy among workers was 35 percent, and 33 percent among the unemployed.

The survey has also shown a correlation between people's income and their support for Lithuania's policy towards Belarus, with those earning higher income being the most supportive of it.

The situation was different when it came to Lithuania's policy towards China and Taiwan. Vilnius has been shunning cooperation with Beijing and, to China's protestations, recently opened a Taiwanese representative office.

Only 34 percent of respondents supported Lithuania's current position on this issue, while 41 percent did not approve of it, and another 26 percent had no opinion.

Read more: China lashed out at Lithuania over Taiwan office. But will it bite?

In Vilnius, 47 percent of the population supported the policy, while in other cities support was below 40 percent. Among those with higher education, 40 percent approved of Lithuania's policy towards China and Taiwan, while among those with lower education, support was around 25 percent.

Continuous and new questions

According to Ieva Petronytė-Urbonavičienė, a political science professor at Vilnius University, the survey results were not surprising because “we can see on the social media, too, that there is both strong approval and disapproval” of Lithuania’s foreign policy.

But the public support for Lithuania’s policy towards Belarus is significant, she said.

“We have a high percentage of people who support Lithuania’s policy towards Belarus. Almost 50 percent support is very high, especially taking into account the fact that the current government is not that popular,” Petronytė-Urbonavičienė told

Political analyst Mažvydas Jastramskis said that Lithuania’s policy vis-à-vis Belarus was “continuous” and therefore less dependent on political preferences.

“The policy towards Belarus concerns not only current, but also the previous government,” Jastramskis said. “The tougher stance towards Belarus, the non-recognition of Lukashenko and the presidential election results, as well as sanctions started under the government of [former prime minister] Saulius Skvernelis and continue under the conservative government.”

“So we can expect a greater consensus among the public, because this issue transcends political camps,” he added.

But according to Jastramskis, it is difficult to evaluate the public’s opinion on Lithuanian’s policy towards Belarus, as this is a multi-faceted issue.

“A person answering a question about the policy towards Belarus may think about sanctions against Lukashenko, negotiation or non-negotiation with him, as well as about pushing migrants away from the Lithuania-Belarus border. So, it is not entirely clear which part of policy we’re talking about,” the political analyst said.

“But, of course, this is a very sensitive national security issue, so it is not surprising that there are more supporters than non-supporters of Lithuania's policy towards Belarus,” Jastramskis added

Regarding Lithuania's policy towards China and Taiwan, political analysts highlighted the high level of public indecision on the issue.

“If we asked about the [same-sex civil] partnership law, only a few percent would have no opinion. Here, 26 percent have no opinion, which is very high,” Jastramskis said.

According to the political analyst, the China-Taiwan issue is new in Lithuania's foreign policy agenda, so people are still forming their opinions about it.

“This is a new issue. Many people will have no opinion on it or will more often judge it based on secondary things, such as what they think of Eastern policy or the government in general,” Jastramskis said.

“There is no continuity between the two governments here, so people are more likely to form their opinions based on their political preferences,” he added.

According to Petronytė-Urbonavičienė, it is natural that the Lithuanian public is less resolute on the country’s policy towards China.

“This is not a common topic in Lithuania. It is a relatively new issue, and many people may not have fully grasped the situation, while those who are familiar with it might have not found their position yet,” Petronytė-Urbonavičienė said.

According to Jastramskis, different views on foreign policy questions are also due to their salience to the country’s population. The Belarusian crisis is taking place right across the Lithuanian border, while the China-Taiwan issue is much more distant.

Sociodemographic differences

According to political analysts, it is interesting that support for Lithuania’s policy towards Belarus correlated with respondents’ income.

“It seems that this is partly due to Russian propaganda which says that [policy towards Belarus] will have a negative financial impact on Lithuania,” Jastramskis said.

According to him, this means that people who earn less might be concerned about the policy’s economic consequences, while higher earners are more worried about security.

Petronytė-Urbonavičienė pointed out that age was not the main factor determining people's attitudes towards Lithuania’s foreign policy. But in terms of the country’s policy vis-a-vis Belarus, she singled out the 24-35 age group, which shared the highest approval and the lowest disapproval of this issue.

“We often see in studies that older age groups tend to have a softer attitude towards Eastern policy. Another thing is that 24–35-year-olds live in a different informational field and have less contact with Russian channels,” the political analyst said.

The largest percentage of the undecided respondent was in the 18-24 age group.

“This is natural. Some people form their opinions based on their support for certain politicians or parties, but younger people do not yet have strong political views and may be less interested in politics than middle-aged voters,” Jastramskis said.

But Petronytė-Urbonavičienė noted that among the young people who had made up their minds, there were more supporters of Lithuania's foreign policy.

“The indecisiveness of young people is natural, but on the other hand, we can see that those who have formed their opinions find Lithuania's foreign policy acceptable,” she said.

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