The FSO on the QT: The state of sociological work and opinion polling in Russia today

Meduza has published this month a report by Andrey Pertsev and Maksim Solopov about the FSO’s secret polling. On this week’s “The Naked Pravda” podcast, the host Kevin Rothrock spoke to Margarita Zavadskaya and sociologist Denis Volkov about these secret surveys and the field in Russia generally.‬

In reporting and analysis about Russian politics, the question is ubiquitous: How does Vladimir Putin see things? While there’s no shortage of efforts to read the Russian president’s mind, a more grounded approach would be to examine the intelligence that shapes Putin’s policymaking. One of the Kremlin’s best-trusted sources of information about popular moods is the sociological work conducted by the country’s Secret Service, the Federal Protective Service (FSO).

Most Russians are unaware that the FSO, in addition to guarding top state officials, is responsible for conducting sociological surveys and monitoring popular opinion and the country’s political situation. The agency’s findings are never published, but these data inform some of President Putin’s biggest decisions. For example, fairly recently, FSO polls showing rising national discontent reportedly influenced the Putin administration’s decision to expedite the reopening of Moscow and the rollback of its coronavirus quarantine measures.

To learn more about the FSO, how Russian authorities use its polling and the problems related to it, tune in to the latest episode of “The Naked Pravda” podcast.

COVID-19 and Russians’ political sentiments

Yesterday Riddle published an article “COVID-19 and Russians’ political sentiments” written by Margarita Zavadskaya and Boris Sokolov (Senior Research Fellow, Laboratory for Comparative Social Research, HSE). Based on the ‘Values in Crisis’ survey, they have compiled original data on how the coronavirus pandemic is changing Russian society and its political moods. The results show little sign of any ‘rally round the flag’ effect.

To sum up, Russians have not ‘rallied round the flag’ in response to the epidemic, as predicted by political science theories. On the other hand, the economic situation has not yet had a very noticeable impact on political sentiments. Here, the situation can change if the recession caused by the coronavirus and authorities’ response is protracted. The subjective perception of what is happening has a stronger impact (albeit small in absolute numbers) on the attitude towards the government than direct experience of the disease or its economic consequences. Interestingly, pandemic-related concerns are conducive to a favourable rather than negative attitude to the authorities; perhaps the government is perceived as a source of some stability and social guarantees.


The most interesting result is the close link between the perception of COVID-19 as a hoax and distrust in the government and state institutions. This may indicate that the authorities are suffering the greatest reputational loss among the conservative section of society, where the share of supporters of various conspiracy theories is quite high.

The full version of the text is available in English and Russian online.

Election silence

Margarita Zavadskaya became the first expert in the new podcast “День тишины” (Election silence), created by Bedersons projects and Perm magazine Zvezda. This popular-science podcast discusses various political and social topics, and the pilot episode is devoted to the elections under authoritarian regimes. Listen to the podcast and learn why dictators might hate elections, but still adhere to them; why the opposition in authoritarian regimes constantly discusses who of them is a real deal and who is a fake; and how dictators expand their voters base? The podcast is available on all major platforms and can be found here.

Voting on the lifetime presidency for Putin?

Next week, on the 1st of July, Russian people will vote on the new constitutional amendments. While the amendments have already been approved by the Federal Assembly, this so-called “people’s vote” is of great symbolic importance for Putin. Margarita Zavadskaya provided comments about it for the Norwegian newspaper Verdens Gang (VG).

He wants to show that the Putin regime can still mobilize supporters in large numbers. It’s hard to say what’s going on inside Putin’s head, but there’s reason to believe Putin’s support will fall as a result of the economic downturn. Therefore, he wants the vote as quickly as feasible, Zavadskaya replies.

You can read the full article in Norwegian online.

Political Consequences of the COVID-19 in Russia: Another Blame Game?

Yesterday Aleksanteri Institute organised a discussion panel at Tiedekulma on COVID-19 in Russia and its effects on politics, Central Asian migrants, and prisons. The event was streamed online and consisted of three presentations by postdoctoral researchers at the Aleksanteri Institute – Margarita Zavadskaya, Sherzod Eraliev (“Covid-19 pandemic on Central Asian labour migrants in Russia”), and Olga Zeveleva (” Prisons and punishment in Russia during the COVID-19 pandemic”) and was chaired by Mikhail Nakonechnyi, also a postdoctoral researcher at the Aleksanteri Institute. After the discussion, the participants answered the questions that were sent by the audience online.

ElMaRB project leader, Margarita Zavadskaya gave a talk titled “Political Consequences of the COVID-19 in Russia: Another Blame Game? “. The talk in many ways reflected what Margarita was exploring within the “Politics and Pandemics” special series that we started at the beginning of April in our blog. Margarita discussed how Russia is dealing with the pandemic, and what are the economic and political consequences of it.

Dr. Zavadskaya pointed out some interesting features of the political support dynamics in Russia. For instance, from social studies, we know that events like natural disasters, external threats usually provide rallying around leader effect. However, we do not observe it in Russia. Even state-sponsored pollsters report stable figures around 67% (i.e. no rise). According to the independent pollster Levada Center, political support for V. Putin reached its historical low of 59% in May. Moreover, before April, Levada registered a rise in support for regional governors.

Second, there is a rise of mass concerns with the economic situation, purchasing capacity, and employment prospects, especially among the vulnerable groups of the population, small business, and medical workers. The Russian economy has been experiencing problems before the pandemic – it was hit hard by the drop of oil prices on March 8th and earlier decrease in trade with China. The pandemic and subsequent lockdown aka ‘non-working days’ or even sometimes referred to as ‘holidays’ lead to an immediate rise in official unemployment, bankruptcies, and an overall slowdown of economic activities. As we know, people tend to “punish” their governments for a deteriorating economy and hold them accountable for the economic grievances. Thus, in Russia, we can observe two warring tendencies – the expected rallying effect and blaming the authorities for the declining economy.

What can be expected from all this? The experts generally agree that the implemented by the government supportive measures fell short of the Russians’ expectations. The official statistics number may show that the support of the government and the president is still relatively high, but actually, even the so-called pro-Putin loyal majority is unsatisfied with the current situation and the social contract has eroded. At the same time, there are no channels for Russians to express their discontent – while people in electoral democracies can just throw the rascals out with voting, Russian elections do not allow voters to punish the executive for the ‘bad governance’. Protest – another form of expressing political discontent – also seems costly under repressive regimes due to various restrictions on the public gatherings (especially during the pandemic), even solitary pickets. Besides that, people don’t tend to protest when the economic situation is hard. Therefore, all the grievances will be just accumulating for a while.

To finalise, the COVID-19 helped the regime to experiment with a new toolkit of manipulations and repressive measures – new restrictions on gatherings, new forms of voting. There are grounds to believe that the vote on constitutional amendments is better to take place as soon as possible because political support is not expected to remain high. On the other hand, this time the regime attacked its loyal voters. Loyal majority kept voting for the regime, but when the state was most needed, it backed down from its ‘duties’. Ironically, excessive regulatory intervention of the state in business and non-commercial sectors turned out to be a laisser-faire strategy when it was most needed. Thus, Russia will remain about the same, but poorer and more repressive.

The full recording of the panel discussion is available below:

Neither Referendum, nor Vote: How COVID-19 Helps V. Putin to Maintain Political Power

On Monday, 1st of June, President Putin signed the executive order on setting the date for the nationwide vote on amendments to the Constitution of the Russian Federation. The vote was originally scheduled for the 22nd of April, but it was postponed until further notice in late March due to the spread of the coronavirus in Russia. According to the executive order, the nationwide vote will take place on the 1st of July. The vote will start after the postponed to 24th of June Victory Parade and will end before the start of first school graduation exams, which were also postponed. All Russian regional legislatures and the Federal Assembly have already approved the amendments in March. After that, on 14th of March, Putin signed a bill according to which the amendments will be effective after Russian population approves them through the national vote. Amendments will be passed if more than half of the voters support them, and there is no requirement for a voter turnout percentage for voting to be eligible. This week, in our ninth post of the “Politics and Pandemics” special series, Margarita Zavadskaya and Elena Gorbacheva comment on the national vote and how the ongoing pandemic will and already is affecting it.


Voting on constitutional amendments is heavily loaded with symbolic value for the current regime and most importantly aims at extending V. Putin’s presidential terms. All this comes in a single package with extravagant textual novelties such as support for ‘traditional family’ to shift the attention and to lure conservative and unsophisticated electorate. Usually, natural and health disasters boost political support thereby spurring the rallying effect in the population. On the other hand, the economic situation is getting grimmer and there is a large consensus among observers that the existing policy measures to support citizens, vulnerable groups, and business are ill-designed, insufficient, and untimely. So far, political responsibility has been shared in a way that the president delivered ‘the good news’, while dealing with unpleasant practicalities was delegated to the government agencies and regions. The question is whether the regime is attempting to catch the wave of national rallying around the leader in the times of the pandemic? 

As long as the decision to extend V. Putin’s presidential terms by means of the constitutional vote had taken place before the COVID-19 emergency, further postponement of the vote is utterly undesirable as the economic conditions will worsen. This is not to say that Russian voters would immediately withdraw their support from the president – usually, under non-democratic regimes, political support has significant inertia and may remain high even under dramatic economic downturns – however, this increases the uncertainty and may give more leverage to the opposition. At the meeting with Vladimir Putin on 1st of June,  co-chair of the working group to draft proposals on amending the Constitution Taliya Khabriyeva stated, that the relevance of the amendments was highlighted during the pandemic, as, in Khabriyeva words, the breakthrough in COVID-19 treatment is not possible without proper legal regulation of science, which is not possible under the current Constitution. Thus, the timing is of utmost importance to have the mission accomplished. 

How the vote is going to look like given the alarming situation with the COVID-19 in Russia? Chair of the Central Election Commission Ella Pamfilova promised that all people participating in the voting will be equipped with face masks, gloves, and single-use pens, and there will also be hand disinfectants at place. All members of election commissions will be tested on coronavirus, and voters’ temperature will be checked. Additionally, Pamfilova suggested that the voting would be taking place for 6 days before the official date on the 1st of July so that fewer people would be present at polling stations. Voting at home opportunities will be also enhanced for those who cannot come to the designated stations, and online voting might be organised in 2-3 regions. Pamfilova also mentioned that Russia reflects on the experience of other states who held elections during the pandemic, and said that Russian procedures will be even more efficient. For example, Russia will not use voting by post, as this procedure, according to Pamfilova, cannot be efficiently controlled neither in a sanitary sense nor under considerations of election observation. Vote by post was, however, enabled on the 13th of May this year.

Restrictions due to coronavirus are still largely intact in Russia: in Moscow, for example, the citizens are still obliged to wear masks and gloves on the street, and from June they are allowed to go on walks 3 times a week according to their house schedule. Besides, chief sanitary doctor of St. Petersburg Natalya Bashketova said this Tuesday that the city is absolutely not ready for the lifting of restrictions. The daily increase of registered coronavirus infections is still more than 8.000 cases in the whole country.

Figure 1. Expected Turnout on the National Vote on the 1st of July, 2020, Russia

Source: Levada-Center, Survey of 22-24.05, N=1623 aged older than 18; CATI & RDD sampling procedure.


How many Russians plan to participate given the pandemic restrictions and how their attitudes towards the amendments changed throughout this Spring? So far, the number of those who intend to participate in the constitutional vote has increased since March 2020 from 33% to 45%: those who were undecided in early Spring have been ‘activated’. While the number of those who decided to refrain from vote remains stable – 21% (see Figure 1).  The share of people who are in favour of the amendments has somewhat increased – from 40% in March to 44% in late May. The share of oppositionists has slightly dropped from 34% to 32% (see Figure 2). More than 20% of respondents do not have a strong opinion. Figure 3 vividly shows that most of the supporters plan to turn out at the polls, while non-supporters will stay home – 58% of non-participants express negative views on the proposed amendments. All in all, loyalists tend to be more active, while the opposition seems to ignore the very event. There is little doubt that the amendments will pass, however, it will leave more than one-third of Russians unsatisfied, not taking into account that the share of those with no clear opinion is also high – 24% (Figure 3). To argue that there is a consensus behind the new constitutional terms would be a strong exaggeration.

Figure 2. Support for the Constitutional Amendments from March to May

Source: Levada-Center, Survey of 22-24.05, N=1623 aged older than 18; CATI & RDD sampling procedure.


Figure 3. Support for Constitutional Amendments by Expected Turnout

Source: Levada-Center, Survey of 22-24.05, N=1623 aged older than 18; CATI & RDD sampling procedure.


The forthcoming vote has a number of issues from the legal viewpoint: 1) the vote does not qualify as a referendum as it did not pass all the necessary requirements according to the federal law on referendums¹; 2) unclear legal criteria to define if the voters supported the cause (is absolute majority enough?); 3) as long as it does not fall under the existing electoral legislature, requirements for voters’ identification, the secrecy of vote and public campaigning are loosened. As the experts from the independent observer organization “Golos” argue, ‘such decisions – carrying out of ‘the vote-that-is-not-a-referendum’  – undermines the law’ and it shows that ‘any legal prohibition may pass through the invention of new extra-legal mechanisms’. Legal experts claim that it is unacceptable to pass constitutional amendments as ‘a package’ not united by a common subject.

To make a long story short, it is not a referendum. The vote’s ‘extra-legal status opens up a wider range of tools to compromise electoral integrity and to use most of the options from ‘the manipulation menu’ (Schedler 2002): turning a blind eye to the violations that aim to support the cause and sanctioning selectively the attempts to protest, to mobilize against, or even to observe the voting process. This is why, this is neither a referendum nor an expression of voters’ preferences in a strict sense of the term. What we are dealing with is a sort of ‘electoral event’ with a dubious legal status.

The impact of COVID-19 on electoral innovations turns out ambiguous as well. The pandemic helped to justify a number of innovations that, at first sight, may even look progressive, but in reality will serve to lower the costs of rigging elections. These innovations include 1) extension of the voting period; 2) online voting²; 3) restrictions on mass gatherings. The online vote was used for the first time at the Moscow city elections in 2019 and proved to favor loyal candidates – in all competitive districts with electronic vote loyal candidates won. Mobile voting strongly correlates with the vote for the incumbent (see Saikkonen and White 2020), so voting online will operate in a very similar way and will make voting less transparent. An extended number of polling days will provide more information on how the vote proceeds and facilitate technical adjustments. However, it is not the expected violations and how to prevent them that pose a challenge for the Russian opposition, but rather the very status of the vote. The opposition faces a dilemma whether to focus on procedural legitimacy and technicalities of a legally ambiguous event or to challenge the core of it – the nullification of the terms served by the current and former presidents of the Russian Federation.

¹ At the same time, according to the Russian legislation, the chapters of the Сonstitution that are being changed do not require any referendum in order to be amended.

² The possibility to cast the ballot online will be available in a maximum of 3 regions.


Our “Politics and pandemics” special series continues, and this week we are going to take a look at what changes did COVID-19 bring into the political life of Hungary. This week’s blog post is written by Katalin Miklóssy, University Lecturer, Discipline coordinator in Eastern European and Balkan Studies at the Aleksanteri Institute.

The struggle against the COVID-19-epidemic forced the democratic states to take on extra measures. In this upside-down world, we got quickly used to new manners of political speech where government officials wondered if people were trustworthy enough to behave responsibly. In this frightening new normality, we grouped up around strong leadership and obeyed without protesting when our freedom, livelihood, and constitutional rights were restricted. Transparency of decision-making processes became fuzzy – but we accepted it because crises demand quick solutions. We admired power-holders who talked to us as we were children, explaining repeatedly and clearly enunciating what we are supposed to know in their opinion. Borders became sealed around and within our countries, justified in the name of the national interest. While this modus operandi of the ‘people-power’ relationship relies on stable democracies with strong parliamentary institutions, this extraordinary situation gave ammunition to countries with authoritarian tendencies.

Authoritarian backsliding of some Eastern members of the European Union, Hungary in particular, have acquired increasing public attention. The erosion of the rule of law, high degree of corruption, expansion of government functions, overconcentration of administration, limitations on media, and civil freedoms have openly challenged the common values of the EU. Hence, developing a discursive strategy was necessary to come to terms with growing Western criticism and discontent that could endanger these countries’ budgetary interests in EU-funds. In the center of this strategy is the practice of doublespeak, which has been in good use ever since the 1950s, invented to show the Soviet satellites’ ideological obedience to the Kremlin while driving national interests and using a language on the home front that actually meant something. This well-tested practice was transplanted into the EU-context. By cultivating the required EU-liturgy the countries were able to maintain leverage vis-a-vis the EU and the national interpretations of the EU-intentions ensured domestic popularity at the same time.

The new steps towards a more dictatorial regime were justified by the global pandemic and the following events where also Hungary’s Western critiques started to apply crisis legislation and a more centralized method of governance. This provided the means and the opportunity to take full advantage of the global situation where it was not difficult to find versatile references from various international examples.

The people also had to be prepared for new ways of ‘crisis-management’ by informing them extensively of death tolls in other countries and of the fact that the disease was dragged in from abroad, by foreigners – and as it happened the first two registered patients were Iranian students. This was an important development from the two perspectives. On the one hand, the government emphasized that they were right to block immigration since immigrants were obvious virus-centrifuges. So, all higher education institutions were closed in early March because of the danger that international students’ cause to their Hungarian colleagues. They also abolished the transit-zones of refugees, the target of frequent EU-criticism, but the refugees were now to apply for asylum in Hungarian embassies instead, far away from Hungary. More importantly, however, this was a textbook example of what the Copenhagen school called in the late 1990s ‘securitization’. The concept, introduced by the seminal work of Barry Buzan, Ole Weaver, and Jaap de Wilde (1997), indicated that crisis rhetoric is always a powerful political instrument by which politicians appeal to people’s insecurities and acquire exceptional entitlements for their mandates. This was seemingly happening around the world and also in Hungary.

The focal point of the Hungarian crisis management became known as the Enabling Act’, issued at the end of March, with the blessing of the parliamentary majority. The law would be in force as long as ‘crisis and its consequences’ would demand it, depending on how the government assessed the situation, without any predeclared time boundaries. The administration got free hands to govern by statutes, and besides it immediately forbade all assemblies or voting, it also recalibrated the Criminal Code. Rumours and disinformation on the crisis or the way it is handled would be punished by up to 5 years of imprisonment – in the times when the courts of law did not function because of the limitation on assembly. This was an effective way to bring back communist-time memories of self-censorship and not only for the journalists. By mid-May, it became obvious that this was an excellent means to strike against civil society, independent local governments, healthcare professionals, and even ordinary citizens active in social media. All critical voices could be silenced by a simple redefinition of the public space.

Crisis legislation already existed in the Constitution and various codices in the Hungarian legal system, so the Enabling Act was not inevitable. In addition, at the time the virus arrived in early March, the Hungarian administration in fact did not need the extra Covid19-assistance to acquire new constraints on the residual space of democracy. The governing Fidesz-party had it all: with its two-thirds parliamentary majority, it could pass even a new Constitution by itself if it wished so, without any checks and balances on its overwhelming power. And yet, the Fidesz could not help leaping at the chance. The question is why did they need it? This is even more puzzling since the PM Viktor Orbán declared that the Enabling Act will be renounced in June.

The answer lies in the magician’s trick. The audience’s attention is caught by the more visible smoke-screening hand in front of them whereas the other, unnoticed hand actually does the magic. The smokescreen in the Hungarian case was the securitization discourse under the flag of the Enabling Act, which induced growing EU-pressure. But in reality, it has been a medium of introducing new regulations in a number of fields and while the administration can easily give up the Act itself – other statutes stay in power. The real magic is taking place in a field that the EU did not monitor because of the legislative smokescreen, and it was economics.   

The administration declared that in the fight against the epidemic, it paid special attention to strategically important enterprises, some of which, like a carton-firm, were simply taken over. There are over 100 businesses on the list. The government also established special economic areas where the taxes and revenues are taken away from the local governments’ jurisdiction and concentrated into government-controlled larger units, one could add in China-style. Furthermore, since the last local elections in 2019 brought considerable victory in many regions for the opposition forces, now as part of the crisis management agenda, the main income sources, various forms of local taxes were withdrawn from these independent local authorities. The concentration of media companies is growing and now over 500 firms are transferred under a state-controlled media holding. This is not only a showcase of state intervention in the market, altering competition and rules of the game for business; it also represents primarily a foundation of a new more controlled era. The independent media sector is shrinking fast and the change of the criminal code is punishing ‘disinformation’ thereby strengthening self-censorship and accelerating authoritarian consolidation.

As a result, the popularity of the ruling Fidesz party is growing, due to the very successful communication in the handling of the crisis and the concentrated media landscape. The Copenhagen school-type of securitization was, however, not necessary in the domestic arena because all the major cards of the magician were already on the table. Securitization was instead a very useful instrument to direct international attention away from the real deal. People group up around strong leadership actually regardless of the crisis, taking into consideration that the Fidesz has not lost any elections since 2010. It is seemingly important for them that the problems are explained in a language that they understand  and they value the emphasis on the ‘nation comes first’ discursive strategy. 

Rendering the voting uncontrollable

This eventful Spring also had several important changes for the Russian state. After in late March, Vladimir Putin had to postpone the “referendum” on the new constitutional amendments, on the 13th of May State Duma passed a fastly drafted bill, which allows conducting elections and referendums of all levels by post or through the Internet. ElMaRB project leader Margarita Zavadskaya was asked to comment on this situation by the

There are countries in the world, where voting by post is an established practice. For example, on the 7th of May, Sejm of Poland passed the Law on postal voting at the presidential elections 2020, on which insisted the party of power “Law and Justice” (PiS) and with which did not agree the opposition and the senators. Margarita Zavadskaya also mentions Switzerland, Estonia, and some other states as an example. “However, under the conditions of undemocratic, nontransperent regime, a normal democratic norm may work out badly. Unfortunarely, researchers of electoral politics know, that a share of votes casted for the president of Russia correlates well with the share of  at-home voting. And this issue with post or Internet voting will serve as a kind of  remote ballot box.

Read the full version of the article at

Concentrating Benefits and Delegating Costs: How the president undermines the governors’ chance to raise their own political credentials while handling the pandemic

This post, written by Margarita Zavadskaya and Elena Gorbacheva, is the seventh in the special series “Politics&Pandemics”.

Three days ago, on May 11th, during his latest address to the nation, Vladimir Putin stated that from the 12th of May the regime of non-working days is over, and each region should proceed to gradually lift off restrictions according to their own schedule. Does this imply that the pandemic has reached the long-awaited plateau and Russian authorities handle the corona crisis successfully? This does not seem to be the case: since the beginning of May, there have been more than 10.000 new cases of coronavirus infections recorded daily in Russia. At the moment, Russia has the second highest toll of the number of COVID-patients in the world after the US. Not to mention the growing number of complaints from the business, doctors, and impoverished citizens locked in their homes.

In his first of the five addresses to the nation about the coronavirus situation on 25th of March, President Vladimir Putin declared a non-working week from 28th of March, that was prolonged several times until the 11th of May. He also outlined some support measures for business and families, but hasn’t declared the state of emergency in the country. On 1st of April the law on emergency situations in Russia was amended, and the power to declare the state of emergency was granted to the Russian government – until then only the president and the state commission on emergency situations had the right. Until this day, none of them has exercised this right. In his second address on 2nd of April, President Putin announced that he has issued an Executive Order, granting additional authority to the regional heads. From now on, the heads could decide themselves about which measures to introduce in their regions and when. After the address to the nation on the 2nd of April, the heads of Arkhangelsk region, Komi Republic, and Kamchatka Krai, resigned. All of the regions were criticised for their inefficient measures of fighting the coronavirus. The situation was especially severe in Komi, where a coronavirus explosion occurred in a hospital when a “superspreader” infected 50 people.

Alongside social and business support measures, the state planned additional support for the regions. For instance, federal subjects are exempt from paying the budgetary loans in 2020, and the governors received rights to change sources of budget deficit financing and objects of regional budget expenditures. The government allocated 65,4 billion rubles ( 817 million euros) from its reserve funds to the regions to spend on additional medical equipment. The president also ordered to forward additional 200 billion rubles (2.5 billion euros) to the regions for social and business support.

How regional diversity in terms of threat and infrastructural capacity affect the popular evaluation of anti-corona measures? Recent polls by Levada-center have registered an increase of trust in regional heads. Meanwhile, according to VTsIOM (a state-sponsored polling agency), the majority of Russians positively assess the authorities’ actions aimed at fighting the coronavirus. Denis Volkov, the leading Levada-Center analyst argues that the decline in mass support will occur months after the eruption of the economic crisis, which makes sense as public assessments usually arrive with some delay.

On the other hand, we observe a rise in new forms of protest that signal distrust with the existing policies. According to the HSE poll, half of Russians do not believe the official coronavirus statistics in Russia. On the 20th of April, online protests against insufficient state measures were organised via “Yandex. Navigator”: they started in Rostov-on-Don and continued in Krasnoyarsk, Samara, Moscow, St. Petersburg, and some other places. Offline demonstrations are rarer for the reasons of movement restrictions. However, on the 20th of April in Vladikavkaz a COVID-dissident organized a mass protest. The protesters, who declared that the Republic of Severnaya Osetiya should support the people who lost their job due to the restriction measures, also demanded the republican heads resign.

Is there any way to look at how unhappy Russian citizens are with public measures to handle the crisis? The lack of open regular polls prevents us from exploring whether governors’ support has changed during the time of the coronavirus emergency as well as the data on regional protest in Russia is scarce. Moreover, usually, the number of protests tends to decrease in times of severe economic hardship as civic engagements presume that people enjoy sufficient resources such as time, money, and education (civic skills) (Brady et al. 1995; Beissinger & Sasse, 2014). In general, protesting under non-democracies is usually more costly, especially during quarantine measures imposed by the state and prohibition to gather in public spaces. Authorities are fully authorized to prevent and detain protesters and a significant share of compatriots would deem such actions as extremely irresponsible. 

Given these limitations, we decided to take a look at how Russians respect the rules of self-isolation in the regional capitals using the data provided by Yandex. The Index of Self-Isolation is based on peoples’ traffic, movement within a given location. During the quarantine, it has to be as high as possible. Following the rules and sticking to self-isolation reflect 1) the degree of trust that the danger is real and collective action should take place; 2) the degree of trust in publicly imposed restrictions and their necessity; 3) the minimal capacity to uphold the household economic well being for the quarantine time without regularly, for instance, sneaking to work illegally elsewhere, 4)  the cost of disobeying the restrictions and control over them. Not to mention that it approximates the degree of civic responsibility and respect towards fellow citizens. If the index takes on high values, this stands for a high level of self-isolation and, vice versa, lower values mean that there are too many people on the streets. Thus, we assume that low levels of self-isolation even under strict quarantine regimes and higher risks of virus exposure indicate more troublesome situations in a regional capital.

As we know, the Russian president de facto delegated the adoption of counter-pandemic measures to regional administrations. Some experts even spotted the signs of ‘federalization’ in this step. First of all, it is reasonable to expect stricter quarantine regimes where the threat is more tangible and, consequently, more respect for the self-isolation regulations. Figure 1 shows how the Self-Isolation Index varies depending on a number of active COVID-19 cases as of 12.05.2020. We see a slight positive correlation: in Samara and Moscow, the number of cases per capita is higher that came with tougher restrictions. However, we also observe over-performers such as the Chechen Republic, Komi, and Astrakhan Oblast (above the line of expected self-isolation rates, regression line) and under-performers such as Khakasia and North Ossetia. Interestingly, the strictness of counter-virus measures does not seem to correlate exposure to the virus (Figure 2). Although median values of active cases tend to decrease with tougher quarantine regimes (quarantines in most of the Russian regions were introduced in late March-early April, data on COVID-19 cases are from 12.05.2020). Three groups of regions do not significantly differ from each other. No wonder that citizens adhere to the self-isolation restrictions more tightly under stricter quarantines like in Moscow.

Figure 1. Number of active cases and Self-Isolation Index

Source: Yandex; Оперативный штаб по борьбе с коронавирусом (данные на 12.05.2020) 


Figure 2. Number of Active Cases (logged) by regions with various quarantine regimes (high stands for the most strict restrictions, low – for the least).

Table 1 shows the list of regional capitals with lowest self-isolation scores and their restriction regimes. Half of the cases concentrate in Siberia, only one case in Urals and Far East, three cities are from Central Russia. The latter looks particularly worrisome, while exposure to the virus is lower for more remote regions and significantly lower population density.

Table 1. The list of cities with low self-isolation scores (less than 2.5) and quarantine regimes

Source: Meduza; Yandex; Оперативный штаб по борьбе с коронавирусом (данные на 12.05.2020) 

Another conjecture is that the ability to maintain self-isolation and to prevent the virus from spreading depends on the overall managerial capacity of governors, i.e. to squeeze the resources from the center and thereby upholding better infrastructure in a region including police forces, digitalization, healthcare systems, social services, etc. We approximated this managerial capacity through the number of doctors per 1000 inhabitants and the Political Management Effectiveness Score. The latter is based on expert surveys and reflects popular support, elite unity, and ties to the center (the same measure is used by Smyth et al. 2020 to compare governors’ political vulnerability). Indeed, in the regions with higher management scores implementation of quarantine seems more slightly more successful. The absolute leaders are Moscow and Grozny – the two most unrepresentative regions one could imagine – with the most powerful and politically autonomous leaders Sobyanin and Kadyrov. Meanwhile, there is very little correlation between managerial capacity and self-isolation in the rest of the regions. The number of doctors per capita does not seem to correlate with higher self-isolation either.

Figure 3. The Self-Isolation Index by Governors’ Managerial Score

Source: Apecom; Yandex


Figure 4. The Self-Isolation Index by the number of doctors per 1000 inhabitants (2018)

Smyth et al. (2020) in their freshly published policy memo show the vulnerability of certain regions due to structural factors such as the number of doctors per capita and share of pensioners. Those regions with higher numbers of vulnerable populations and weaker healthcare capacities are expected to be hit harder: Komi, Arkhangelsk, Tula, Vladimir, Kurgan. We already witnessed the dismissals of governors in Komi and Arkhangelsk oblast because of the virus outbursts in regional hospitals). However, it is not necessary that the largest discontent will rise in the places hit the hardest. We would rather expect citizens to protest in regions with relatively calm epidemic situations such as Khakasia. 

Decentralization of decision-making is de facto a delegation of reputational and material costs to the governors. Even those who managed to capitalize on the COVID-19 challenge will likely lose these credentials as the President announced “the good news”, i.e. the end of “the non-working days”. The latter seems risky as most of the regions have not reached the peak of the pandemic yet and even in Moscow, where the speed of the pandemic is the highest, the strict quarantine remains in place. According to the vice prime-minister Tatiana Golikova, the regions are allowed to start gradual lifting of restrictions if they fulfill three criteria: the R₀ should be less than 1, at least 50% of hospital beds of the normative number should be vacant, and the test ration should be at least 70 tests per 100.000 of population. By the 13th of May, 35 regions had started to lift off certain restrictions: in Moscow, for example, even though lockdown remains, industrial and construction enterprises were allowed to resume working. In Kaliningrad, in turn, shopping centres and beauty salons reopened. Under such circumstances, the governors are facing a dilemma whether to keep the quarantine with limited resources or lift the restrictions to send a sign of relief to the citizens and business and potentially expose the citizens to the virus.

The bottom line, decentralization or devolution in the realm of fighting COVID-19 in Russia is anything but federalization or regional empowerment. This is mostly the part of “the blame game” (also see Smyth et al. 2020) where costs of painful measures are shifted to the regions and ‘good news’ are delivered by the president even at the price of the premature celebration of victory over coronavirus. Rates of self-isolation somewhat depend on the strictness of quarantine, but there is surprisingly a lot of variation where citizens do not stick to the self-isolation even under tougher control and, vice versa, there are regions where citizens respect the regulations despite the more permissive conditions. Since there is no direct way to know people’s approval, it could be a proxy for more problematic territories. One way or another, economic factors will be decisive in determining who is to blame and for what and the growth of public discontent is yet to come.

Figure 5. The Index of Self-Isolation by Quarantine Regimes

Source: Yandex; Фонд “Петербургская политика”

Is it who is saying or what is being said? Mechanisms of disinformation under non-democracies. Evidence from a survey experiment in Russia

Self-isolation does not prevent research seminars from happening. Today, Margarita Zavadskaya together with Anna Shirokanova, senior research fellow, Laboratory for Comparative Social Research (LCSR) presented their research, that they have been doing together with Elena Sirotkina, doctoral student, University of North Carolina, at the Russian Media Lab Network cyber lunch. The paper they presented is titled “Is it who is saying or what is being said? Mechanisms of disinformation under non-democracies. Evidence from a survey experiment in Russia” and is a result of the research based on a nationwide survey, where the participants were asked how do they perceive two ideologically polarised media messages depending on the media outlet they are published in – Channel One or Ekho Moskvy.

How good citizens are in defining disinformation in an autocracy? Which information they name credible and what influences their perception of credibility? On a representative sample of the Russian population, we run a story-based vignettes experiment to find out how consistency of the message and the source influences credibility to the information provided given partisanship and perceived neutrality. We find that overall citizens accurately identify which of the polarized opinions is more likely to appear at a pro-government and a pro-opposition source. However, the message content and its tone coupled with the respondents’ partisanship define whether s/he deems the piece of information credible and trustworthy. Perceived neutrality is the main mechanism, which forces credibility to the message. This perceived neutrality proves to be a key heuristics for navigation in media for citizens from both pro-government and pro-opposition flanks. The results of the survey experiment suggests that respondents generally admit that the Russian media mostly transmit pro-government messages, while largely fail to spot the pro-government bias having been intentionally exposed to it. These findings adds up to the argument that public opinion under autocracies does not entirely result from the preference of falsification, but also from ‘the preference for propaganda’.