On myths, tolerance,
and social distance
Belarusians are often called a tolerant people — but to what extent does this correspond to reality?
Sociologist, senior research fellow at the Center For New Ideas
Henadz Korshunau
Photo by Pavel Kritchko.
Belarusians are often called a tolerant people—but to what extent does this correspond to reality? We tried to answer this question using data from new research by Chatham House.

Chatham House’s sixth wave of research examines the attitudes of Belarusians towards various ethnic, social, and political groups using the Bogardus scale of social distance, which measures the readiness of a person (or group) to interact with representatives of other groups in different situations and circumstances.

Through surveys, Chatham House compared the attitudes of protest supporters vis-à-vis outsiders with the attitudes of pro-government factions in Belarusian society. The discrepancy between the responses of these two camps was stark: those loyal to the regime tended have a much more negative view of other social and ethnic groups than democratic-leaning Belarusians.

By researching this issue, we shed light on some of the following questions:
- How tolerant and open are Belarusians towards others?
- Which are more salient—ethnic or political differences?
- Which groups seem the most distant and un-relatable to Belarusians?

These questions are especially interesting in light of the migrant crisis that unfolded on the borders of Belarus and the EU, which was a major topic in the Belarusian media landscape for several months. Migrants set up camp near ​​the Bruzgi border crossing, where hundreds of people—including women and children—were living in terrible conditions. Various opinions on the migrants themselves, how they should be treated, and what the situation revealed about Belarusians were discussed heatedly on social networks at the time.

One area of dispute was the stereotypical view of Belarusians as a tolerant people. As it turns out, “tolerance” is understood as meaning something between “kind” and “hospitable”. Where this definition came from and when it arose is not clear, but it does not really correspond to reality; the data we obtained using the Bogardus scale is unequivocal here.

This methodology, which originated as a technique used by psychologists, has proved to be effective for sociological research as well. The Bogardus scale reveals a person’s attitude towards representatives of different groups: whether he or she would be willing to consider marriage, friendship, living side-by-side, working, etc. with a representative of an “alien” group. In extreme cases, some people may not even be ready to accept outsiders as tourists. Responses are analysed in order to quantify comfortable social distance to representatives of other groups and place the overall level of openness on a scale: values from one to four indicate openness (or tolerance)—that is, willingness to include strangers in one’s community. Four and five represent isolation, which is defined as a desire to live without conflicts but also without close ties. Five and six indicate hidden xenophobia, and seven is open xenophobia, i.e. the desire to never see or have any contact with representatives of other groups.

According to the results of the Chatham House study, Belarusians can be characterised not as open or tolerant, but as striving towards isolation: the average level of social distance from other groups was 4.6.

For comparison, during the Orange Revolution (in 2004) Ukrainians’ scores ranged from 4.2 to 5.0 according to various measures. At that time, Ukrainians viewed Belarusians in much the same way as Belarusians view Ukrainians now: when asked about Belarusians, Ukrainians’ responses ranged from 3.4 to 4.1, whereas Belarusian’s responses regarding their southern neighbour averaged 3.9. Notably, the attitude of Ukrainians towards Russians was better in the past than that of Belarusians now (Ukrainians’ openness to Russians in 2004 scored between 2.5 and 3.1, compared to 3.4 for Belarusians in 2021).

The level of social distance was calculated as an average for all groups in the study; therefore, results for individual groups may vary. We examined three main blocs:
  1. Ethnic groups (Arabs, Jews, Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, French people, Romani, and Black people);
  2. Political groups (apolitical people, Lukashenka opponents/supporters); and
  3. Behavioural groups (former alcoholics, LGBTQ+ individuals).

The study revealed that political differences are just as salient for Belarusians as ethnic differences—the indicator for both blocs averaged 4.5, which qualifies as “isolationist”. Belarusians reported the greatest social distance as being between them and the third bloc, which included LGBTQ+ people.

If we take a more granular view, Belarusians reported the greatest degree of social distance between themselves and the following groups:
  • Homosexual people, with a social distance indicator of 5.5 points;
  • People who do not identify with one particular gender (also 5.5 points);
  • Romani (5.3 points); and
  • Immigrants from Arab countries (5.3 points).

The social distance indicators for these groups were quite high, although they were not as extreme as they could be. These numbers allow us to infer that members of certain groups may suffer (or are already suffering) discrimination in Belarusian society. Two more groups were only slightly below the five-point threshold: Lukashenka supporters and Black people.

In general, Belarusians are not tolerant, but closed. The social distance to various ethnic and political groups is quite high, with Belarusians perceiving LGBTQ+ people as the most distant.
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