Election system at the start of Russian State Duma elections: expectations, threats, and opportunities

Today All-Russia Civil Forum roundtable “Election system at the start of Russian State Duma elections: expectations, threats, and opportunities (“Избирательная система на старте выборов в Государственную Думу России: ожидания, угрозы, возможности”). The experts from various fields discussed the recent national elections conducted on 11-13 September 2020 that were highly criticised and discussed the upcoming vote in 2021, namely how State Duma elections should go so that the citizens would accept their results, and what can the society itself do to make the situation better.

Margarita Zavadskaya was one of the experts, and in her talk, she covered the likelihood of post-election protests in 2021. Margarita thinks, that the Belarusian scenario is not impossible, but very unlikely in the Russian conditions: in Russia, more people are the system’s beneficiaries due to their employment in the state sector, and Russia’s economy is more diversified than the Belarusian. However there is a chance for mass peaceful post-electoral mobilisation in Russia, and a lot here depends on the election observers and their coordinated work and unsatisfied politicians from satellite parties who need to join in the opposition mobilisation efforts. The United Russia party wins the elections now because they intentionally suppress the turnout, and to withstand it there is a need to mobilise the passive but unsatisfied voters. Opinion polls and panels reveal that the dissatisfaction with the regime is only growing, and the State Duma is the most disliked institution.

The current situation with the election system in Russia seems rather gloomy – all experts agreed on that. But as Margarita Zavadskaya said, there is no need to give up. Exposing electoral violations and making information about them as widely known as possible is a crucial factor in the fight for fair elections.

Full version of the discussion is available on Youtube:

Authoritarian Governance and Reform in Russia

On the 9th of October PONARS Eurasia held an online event “Authoritarian Governance and Reform in Russia”. Vladimir Gel’man, professor at the European University at Saint Petersburg and the University of Helsinki gave a talk at the event based on his and Margarita Zavadskaya’s policy memo “Explaining Bad Governance in Russia: Institutions and Incentives”. The memo is available online and you can find the recording of the event below:

Election observation of the 2020 presidential elections in Belarus, part 2

This is the second part of the paper “Election observation of the 2020 presidential elections in Belarus: main actors, electoral manipulations, and lessons for the future” by Dr. Alla Leukavets, a policy analyst at the Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies in Minsk. The first part can be read in our blog.

Menu of electoral manipulations

According to numerous reports, the 2020 presidential elections in Belarus were unprecedented in the amount of electoral falsifications and repressions applied by authorities towards representatives of the political opposition.

Analysis of the 2020 presidential elections demonstrates which strategies (or in Andreas Schedler’s words “a menu of electoral manipulations” (2002)) the Belarusian regime applied to break the “chain of democratic choice” to secure their desired electoral results.

The first set of strategies focused on breaking the “the range of choice” link in Schedler’s chain of democratic choice. The main strategies used by the regime dealt with the fragmentation of the opposition by restricting their access to the electoral arena. The means through which the regime excluded the competitors from the electoral game were manifold.

First, the Belarusian authorities developed cumbersome procedures to register political parties which provide broad discretionary powers to the registration authorities to reject the applications based on formalistic grounds. This burdensome registration process allowed the government to fully control the political environment and preclude or promote the appearance of new political actors if needed, limiting the right to freedom of association.

Second, the existing electoral legislation has a number of gaps and inconsistencies, including in the areas concerning the scope of restrictions on campaigning or grounds for removal of candidates. In numerous cases, during the 2020 presidential elections campaign, these provisions were interpreted and applied restrictively in relation to opposition candidates. As a result, the disqualifications of “unfavourable” candidates from the electoral game were often arbitrary acts by authorities and the result of fabricated politically motivated cases (for example, a case of embezzlement against Viktar Babaryka and a violation of order during campaign activities against Siarhei Tsikhanouski).

Third, the ruling regime weakened and split the opposition by creating divided structures of contestation. By allowing some of the opposition forces to compete in the elections or even advancing some of them into political offices, the incumbents provided mixed incentives to the opposition leaders by dividing them into the so-called “outsiders” and “insiders”. For example, Hanna Kanapatskaya and Siarhei Cherachen (often dubbed as “spoilers”) acquired more support from the ruling regime than the opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.

The second set of strategies focused on breaking the “formation of preferences” link.  In order to prevent voters from acquiring information about the opposition candidates, the regime obstructed the opposition from disseminating their campaign messages.

During the campaign period, the opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was denied a space for her pre-election picket in the capital Minsk due to a dubious reason – this space was allocated for celebrating one of the state holidays which had never before been widely celebrated in Belarus.

Furthermore, recent amendments to the Law on Mass Media introduced additional regulations for online media. According to the changes, the Ministry of Information, which is the primary regulatory body for media in Belarus, was granted wide discretionary powers to restrict access to websites on the basis of its own monitoring or notification from other state agencies. In addition, the new amendments obliged online media operators to collect, store, and provide to law-enforcement organs personal data of those individuals who comment on online articles. As a result of these measures, public discussion about elections was severely restricted. Thus, the regime attempted to skew the playing field by capturing institutions which should promote political pluralism and severely limiting the opposition’s access to the public space. In response, the public discussion moved to more secure social media platforms, such as Telegram channels, which played a crucial role in mobilising people against the regime and galvanising the post-election protest movement in Belarus.

The third group of strategies concerned breaking the “expression of preferences” link, i.e. influencing voters to express their preferences in a certain way through voter intimidation and voter buying.

According to a wide-spread practice, the Belarusian regime puts pressure on specific groups of the population, including civil servants, military personal or students to cast their vote in advance of the E-day, i.e. during the early voting (5 days before the E-day) which provides a lot of opportunities for falsification of election results. The authorities apply a mix of threats and rewards to realise this strategy: in some cases, for example, the students were promised a day-off from attending classes, whereas in others they were threatened with losing their place at the dormitory. The latter approach especially targets students who come to study in bigger cities from the periphery and are particularly vulnerable to pressure as they depend on the volition of the administration to have a place to stay at the student accommodation.

The fourth group of strategies focused on breaking “the aggregation of preferences” link.  It manifested itself in electoral fraud, including ballot stuffing, increasing turnout rates among the loyal population (especially during early voting and home-bound voting), mistakes in voter registration, falsifications during counting and tabulation processes as well as depriving independent election observers of entering the premises of the polling stations and detaining them.  One of the key mechanisms which facilitates the electoral malpractices is the composition of precinct electoral commissions: the members of most of them belong to one institution, e.g. a school, hospital, or enterprise, and are usually chaired by the head of these institutions. Such commissions function efficiently and unanimously as the members are aware that the results of their “work” can have an impact on their future employment at the institutions which they represent.

Thus, The Belarusian regime has used a variety of strategies to manipulate the election results, consisting of both hard repression measures, including detentions and prosecution of opposition candidates and independent election observers as well as more subtle mechanisms, including ballot stuffing, falsifications during the counting and tabulation, manipulating the rules governing media and access of the contestants to the public space.

What Went Wrong for the Belarusian Regime This Time?

However, the rich menu of electoral manipulations consisting of massive falsifications, detentions, and arrests of observers and representatives of the political opposition was not accepted by the Belarusian citizens and they came out into the streets to protest against the fraudulent results of the elections. Several factors contributed to triggering this result.

The first one was the mishandling of the pandemic by the authorities.  Lukashenka and his entourage adopted a ridiculous approach to fighting coronavirus. Lukashenka called it a corona psychosis and recommended saunas, working out in the fields, and drinking vodka as the best remedy to fight the virus. The anxiety and anger of the population started to grow as many people were taken to hospitals and died there, sometimes because of a lack of necessary treatments and the old infrastructure. The message sent to the general public was that wearing a mask is unnecessary and even shameful. This narrative was emphasized not only by Lukashenka himself but also by other officials, for example, by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Uladzimir Makei, who said that he feels embarrassed to wear a mask when shopping.

In addition to coronavirus, the economic situation in the country had been worsening for some time leading up to the elections which contributed to increasing social dissatisfaction with the Lukashenka regime and also considerably lowered the level of trust in the authorities.

Another factor is the role of social media, i.e. Youtube and Telegram channels which have led to the appearance of new faces on the political spectrum in Belarus. The authorities clearly underestimated the role of social media in politicising the Belarusian people. One of the figures that have emerged thanks to digital media was Siarhei Tsikhanouski  – a famous youtube blogger who had many followers at his channel titled, “Country for life”. Another famous social media persona is Styapan Putila who migrated to Poland and created a youtube channel Nexta (which stands for “somebody” in Belarusian). There are also several Nexta “channels” on Telegram where thousands of videos of what is happening in Belarus are being uploaded on a regular basis.  The videos from Nexta channels played an important role in galvanizing the protest movement in Belarus.

Finally, the role of technology, i.e the IT sector, was also crucial in these elections. Belarus is considered to be an IT hub in the post-Soviet space and there are many IT companies here which work as part of the Park of High Technologies. A group of IT specialists developed the online platforms (e.g., Golas, Zubr) for alternative counting of the votes.  These platforms provided the key evidence which contributed to delegitimising the official results of the presidential elections and clearly showed that Lukashenka did not win in the elections with 80 percent as the official results stated.

Thus, the combination of these factors, i.e., mishandling the coronavirus situation by authorities, the worsening economic situation in the country, and the role of digital media and the IT sector contributed to mobilising people against the ruling regime, raising Belarusian’s dissatisfaction with the results of the elections and bringing people in such massive numbers to the streets to demand changes.

In Lieu of Conclusion

Although many election observers in Belarus were threatened, detained, and imprisoned and the Central Election Commission made the outlandish report of Lukashenko’s landslide victory,  the work of observers made a crucial contribution to exposing the electoral fraudulence exercised by the regime. The grassroots initiative “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections”, “Honest people”, “Prava Vybary”, the online platforms Zubr and Golas as well as independent citizen observers managed to create a network for communication, support, and data-sharing. The work of observers put pressure for fair counting at some polling stations and presented essential data on the turnout, alternative votes, violations of voters’ rights and election procedures. Documented testimonies, systematic collecting and publishing of evidence helped to show the appalling scale of falsifications made by the ruling regime to ordinary Belarusians and the world at large.  This evidence inspired Belarusians to take to the streets in massive numbers to demand an end of repressions, the resignation of Lukashenka as well as the conduct of new free and fair elections.

Election observation of the 2020 presidential elections in Belarus: main actors, electoral manipulations, and lessons for the future.

We return with our regular posts about elections, electoral malpractice, and cyber-security, and this Summer and Autumn have been full of notable events we aim to uncover. Elections and protests in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan, single voting day in Russia – we will discuss all these and other cases in the following weeks.

Today we invited Dr. Alla Leukavets, who is a policy analyst at the Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies in Minsk, to write about the conduct of the presidential elections in Belarus on the 9th of August 2020. Alla Leukavets holds a PhD in political science from Bremen International Graduate School of Social Sciences and has recently finished a post-doc programme in electoral studies at the University of Tartu. Alla specializes in the domestic and foreign policy of Belarus and other Eastern Partnership countries, Eurasian integration, and energy relations between Russia and the European Union. Leukavets’ enlightening and rich contribution will be split into two parts, and today we publish the first one that deals with election observation in Belarus.

Election observation is the process of assessing the conduct of elections in accordance with national legislation and international election standards by one or more independent actors. It plays an important role in ensuring electoral integrity. This blog post will discuss the types of election observation, main actors, and kinds of electoral malpractices based on a case study of the 2020 presidential elections in Belarus.

Photo: Vyasna

Types of election observation

Based on the actors who carry out monitoring, election observation can be divided into international and national. International actors include, for example, observers delegated by other countries as well as missions deployed by international organisations (for example, OSCE ODIHR, OSCE PA, the EU, Council of Europe PA, CIS, SCO).

National actors allowed to carry out election observation of presidential elections, according to the Belarusian national legislation (art. 13 and 155 of the Election Code), include members of Parliament, representatives of local governmental organs, political parties, other public organisations, labour unions, proxies of the candidates as well as citizens (Table 1).

Based on the length of monitoring, election observation can be divided into short-term and long-term. Short-term focuses on the monitoring of early voting (five days before the main election day) as well as the E-day. Long-term observation includes the early phases of the electoral process, usually starting with the registration of candidates.

Table 1: Main election observation actors in Belarus and their participation in the 2020 presidential elections

International election observation

For the first time in the election history of Belarus, the presidential elections were not observed by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). It did not send its mission to Belarus because an invitation from the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to deploy a mission came more than two months after the start of the electoral campaign reportedly because of the risks of Coronavirus. Accepting an invitation and sending a mission so late would have prevented the OSCE ODIHR from carrying out comprehensive coverage of the electoral process. The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly also refused to send their missions to observe the 2020 presidential elections in Belarus.

The only international observation mission to the 2020 presidential elections in Belarus was deployed by the CIS Interparliamentary Assembly (CIS IPA). Consistently with its usual approach to monitoring the elections in Belarus, the mission did not raise any criticisms and declared that the 2020 presidential election was conducted in accordance with international election standards.

National election observation

The Central Election Commission issued several resolutions (No 15 in May 2020 and No 115 in July 2020) before the elections regulating the functioning of the national election observers. The resolutions were based on the recommendation of the Ministry of Health on sanitary and anti-epidemic measures during the presidential election. According to these resolutions, only 3 observers could be allowed inside the polling station during the early voting and 5 observers – on E-day. In addition, it was envisaged that at polling stations with precinct election commission (PEC) members below 8 persons, the number of observers could not exceed half of the commission’s size. By adopting these resolutions, the authorities artificially created conditions under which independent observation of the voting and counting was severely limited or completely impossible.

By the time the resolutions were adopted about 43.000 observers representing pro-government political parties and public associations (see Table 1) had been accredited with precinct election commissions (the total amount of polling stations for the presidential elections in Belarus was 5.767). These observers did not register any facts questioning the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential elections.

The right of observers to be present at polling stations was determined by the order of their accreditation with the election commissions, and the delegates from the civil society organisations or independent citizen observers in most of the cases were assigned numbers more than 5, which deprived them of the opportunity to be present inside the polling stations and monitor the process of voting and counting of votes. For instance, in the case of “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections” – a joint initiative of two human rights NGOs “Belarusian Helsinki Committee” and Human Rights Center “Vyasna” – a total of 798 observers were accredited with the PECs out if which only 93 observers (11,5%) were admitted to the polling stations and only for a limited period of time. Only one observer was able to fully observe the entire voting process (early voting, voting on the main day, and home-bound voting).

Initiative “Chesniya Lyudi” (“Honest People”) was advanced by the election campaign team of Viktar Babarika and became a multifunctional platform for fighting against the regime.  It delegated about 6.000-7.000 observers to monitor presidential elections, developed an online training course for observers, and launched a mechanism for helping those who had suffered as the result of the repressions during and after the elections. During the first two days of early voting, Honest People had registered over 3000 violations in the work of PECs. However, none of them had been addressed by authorities. Honest People observers in most cases were not allowed to enter the polling stations and were often deprived of accreditation and detained.

Honest People acted in cooperation with the two online platforms for alternative counting of votes – “Golas” (“Voice”) and Zubr.in (the website has been blocked by the Belarusian authorities). The platforms asked voters to take photos of the ballots at the polling places and submit them to the platforms. According to the final report of Golas, there were falsifications made at least in every third polling station which proved that the official results, according to which, Aliaksandr Lukashenka had won with 80.1%, were clearly false (data has been analysed for 1.310 polling stations out of a total of 5.767 polling stations across Belarus).

Prava Vybaru – 2020 (“Right to Choose – 2020”) is a joint initiative of eight organisations, including seven opposition political parties and one social movement. The initiative sent about 600 observers to monitor the early voting out of which only 45 were allowed to be present inside the polling stations. During the first day alone, the observers registered 318 complaints concerning the malpractices of the electoral administrations – the major one being a large artificial increase in voter turn-out. . During the whole course of observation, the observers registered 1634 electoral falsifications and 28 observers from Prava Vybaru had been detained by the 9th of August.

Finally, national election observation was also done by independent citizen observers. In order to register as such, one needs to collect 10 signatures of Belarusian citizens in support of his or her candidacy. These elections witnessed a rise of civic activism resulting in many Belarusians expressing their wish to observe the elections. These observers, just as the representatives of the aforementioned civic initiatives, were not allowed on the premises of the polling stations. All they could do was to stay outside and sometimes look through the windows or doors at the work of electoral administrations. In spite of these limitations, the “outside independent observers” played a very important role in gathering evidence of electoral falsifications. Their main function was to register voter turn-out and to count voters wearing “white bracelets” – a symbol for demonstrating opposition to the ruling regime. This was particularly crucial during the early voting which is the usual time when the electoral administrations engage in vast falsifications. The data from independent observers demonstrated that the official voter turn-out during early voting presented by the authorities was twice as high in comparison to the actual results.

The second part of the publication will be published on Monday, the 12th of October.

ElMaRB expert panel discussion on Belarusian elections and protests

ElMaRB project and the Aleksanteri Institute organised on 1st of September the first event of the new study year – panel discussion “Belarusian election 2020: unexpected outcomes. What is happening and what is to come?”. For this timely event, we invited experts from political science and international relations fields: Ryhor Nizhnikau (Finnish Institute of Foreign Affairs), Vladimir Gel’man (Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki), Kristiina Silvan (Finnish Institute of Foreign Affairs and University of Helsinki) and Katri Pynnöniemi (Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki & National Defence University). The discussion was moderated by ElMaRB project leader Margarita Zavadskaya.

The event started with a brief introduction to the conflict from each expert. Ryhor Nizhnikau’s talk “Knight with rakes: the EU’s way and response to the crisis” dealt with European Union policy towards Belarus in recent years and its dissatisfying reaction to the ongoing events. The next speaker, Katri Pynnöniemi, in her talk “Russian strategic narratives and the crisis in Belarus” explained how the Kremlin applies the same “colour revolution” narrative they used with Ukraine during the Euromaidan and how the Kremlin sees the situation in Belarus in general. Kristiina Silvan, whose Doctoral dissertation is dealing with state youth activism in Belarus and Russia, spoke about the changing attitudes of the youth in her presentation ““From apathy to activism? Young people’s mobilization in 2020””. From the scarce poll data available and based on her research, Silvan revealed that the modern generation in Belarus becomes more politically active. What is interesting, however, is that during the current crisis the Belarusian Republican Youth Union had been rather inactive and did not refer to the protests in their social media channels. The last talk was Vladimir Gel’man’s ”Democratization by Mistake? The Limits of Authoritarian Strategies in Belarus”. Professor Gel’man focused on the problems Lukashenka’s regime faces in the aftermath of the fraudulent elections, how it deals with them, and what can be expected in the future.

The presentations were followed by a discussion with questions from the moderator Margarita Zavadskaya and the online audience. The covered themes included but were not limited to a comparison of the current protests with the recent Venezeualan, Armenian, and Ukranian contention and Russia’s response to them; the repertoire of protest action and its strengths and weakness; the shocking level of violence to which the law enforcement resorted and the loyalty of siloviki to Lukashenko; the role of COVID-19 in the weakening of Lukashenko’s support, and many other related issues. While the experts were rather careful and pessimistic in their assessments of the ongoing post-election protests, they all agree that the regime was significantly weakened by them, and if it withstands, it wouldn’t happen without Russia’s assurance of possible help.

The Belarusians continue to go on marches and strikes every day, and while it is not clear that the democratisation of Belarus will be the result of this contention, what is know for certain is that the citizens are ready for free and fair elections, and without them, there is no democracy.

The recording of the panel discussion is available on Tiedekulma’s website and will be soon published on the Aleksanteri Institute Youtube channel. In the meantime, our project continues to closely follow the post-election contention in Belarus and will be getting back to it in our future publications and events.

Belarusian election 2020: unexpected outcomes

 

 

Political developments in Belarus have shaken the world this summer: elections marred with an overwhelming fraud and violations lead to unprecedented large-scale political mobilization. Subsequent state-sponsored violence triggered the protests further and resulted in strikes, marches, meetings, and performances. The situation is developing rapidly and the conflict resolution remains uncertain. At “Belarusian election 2020: unexpected outcomes. What is happening and what is to come?” panel discussion, organised by the ElMaRB project, the experts in the realms of Belarusian politics, social movements, governance, and international relations will discuss the current situation and its impact on the future political landscape.

Tune in at Tiedekulma Live on Tuesday, September 1st at 1 pm to follow a panel discussion with Ryhor Nizhnikau (Finnish Institute of Foreign Affairs), Vladimir Gel’man (Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki), Kristiina Silvan (Finnish Institute of Foreign Affairs and University of Helsinki) and Katri Pynnöniemi (Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki & National Defence University). The discussion is moderated by Margarita Zavadskaya (Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki).

You are welcome to participate in the event by sending in comments and questions either prior to the event by emailing them to niina.into@helsinki.fi, or real-time via Twitter, using hashtag #belarusianelections.

Recording of the event will be available later on the Aleksanteri Institute YouTube channel.

About the speak­ers:

Dr. Ryhor Nizhnikau is a Senior Research Fellow at the Finnish Institute of Foreign Affairs. His area of expertise includes the EU’s Eastern neighbourhood, Russian policy in the post-soviet space, domestic and foreign policies of Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine

Dr. Vladimir Gel’man is a Professor of Russian Politics at the University of Helsinki. His areas of expertise include Russian and post-Soviet politics and governance in a theoretical and comparative perspective with a special emphasis on political regime dynamics, political institutions, policy-making, electoral and party politics, regional and local government.

Kristiina Silvan is a Research Fellow at the Finnish Institute of Foreign Affairs in the field of Russian and Belarusian domestic policy and social movements, and politics and society in Central Asian states. As a doctoral candidate at the University of Helsinki, she studies youth activism and government-organised youth organisations in post-communist Russia and Belarus.

Dr. Katri Pynnöniemi is an Assistant Professor of Russian Security Policy at the University of Helsinki and National Defence University. Her current research focuses on Russian foreign and security politics, with emphasis on changes in strategic thinking (doctrines, strategies and concepts), conceptualization and implementation of information warfare tools as part of Russian foreign policy, and the analysis of treat perceptions and enemy images in Russian strategic communication/deception.

Dr. Margarita Zavadskaya is a Postdoctoral Researcher and leader of the Electoral Malpractice, Cyber-security, and Political Consequences in Russia and Beyond (ElMaRB) project at the University of Helsinki. Her research focuses on how perceived electoral malpractice affects electoral turnout and other politically relevant outcomes, and how Russian voters consume and process political information translated by the media.

Belarus “elects”, Belarus protests

The protests in Belarus continue and we also continue to follow the situation. In today’s Helsingin Sanomat article “Lukašenkan hämmentävän samanlaiset vaalivoitot muistuttavat, että demokratialla menee huonosti nykymaailmassa – ”Vaalit väärennetään vaalien välissä”, sanoo tutkija” (Lukashenko’s confusingly similar election victories are a reminder that democracy is doing poorly in today’s world – “Elections are rigged between elections,” says the researcher). Margarita Zavadskaya provided her comments for the article.

Speaking about constant landslide victories of Lukashenko at presidential elections, Zavadskaya said:

“Very few people have illusions that these numbers are true,” says Helsinki, Margarita Zavadskaya, a postdoctoral researcher at the Alexander Institute of the University, who is familiar with elections in post-Soviet societies.

 

According to ZAVADSKAYA, at the beginning of his reign, Lukashenko was a “quick learner” and one of the first leaders in the former Soviet region to hone the falsification of election results. According to the researcher, the main key to staying in power has been to destroy the opposition with the help of the security machinery.
“We often focus on election time, but elections are falsified between elections. Eliminating the opposition is a 24/7 job, ”Zavadskaya says.

The full version of this eliminating article is available online for HS subscribers.

The end is near?

Belarus is protesting against the results of the fraudulent election, where, according to the central election commission, Lukashenko won with 80% of votes for two days now. The brutality of security forces is overwhelming, but Belarusians don’t give up. Meduza tried to understand what is going on in the country now and how will it end and asked the experts to comment on the situation. Margarita Zavadskaya was one of the experts and here is her opinion published in the article “Заключил ли Лукашенко сделку с Путиным? Долго ли он еще удержится у власти? Почему на этот раз не получилось быстро подавить протест? Главные вопросы (и ответы!) о белорусском протесте” (Has Lukashenka made a deal with Putin? How long will he stay in power? Why this time they did not manage to suppress the protest fast? Main questions (and answers!) about the Belarusian protest).

“Most important is that the protest spread beyond Minsk. There is even crowdsourcing this year, the protest exists on its own, without leaders. Even Alexander Grigoryevich admitted, that he doesn’t understand who is fighting against him. If in 2010 it was an exclusively capital protest with a more narrow orientation towards the Belarusian nationalism, now a wider coalition is at place and everything depends on how successfully the opposition staff will coordinate the actions and how many people will be on the streets. The success is already present in small towns where AMAP stepped down before the protesters. It is a serious signal that maybe nothing is yet determined, even though the expert prognosis is that the regime will withstand for some time.

The concept of opposition is wide and unclear now. The potential infrastructure of the opposition is very powerful – there are Telegram channels and people’s demand for the emergence of new opposition leaders. In 2010, in order to gain the population’s trust, one had to try hard, write programmes, and in 2020 there is no need for such. A person needs to be firm, confident, and to say openly that he/she wants the change of power. This is exactly how [Sviatlana] Tsikhanouskaya asserted herself: she has no programme, no political experience, but she became the symbol; probably yesterday majority of the Belarusians voted for her. We can’t state this confidently, but taking into account that at some polling station there was a fair vote count and she won there, she has probably won everywhere. This is a unique situation, Netflix should make a series about it.”

How long will Lukashenko remain in power?

“Many experts agree that, most likely, this is the last Lukashenko’s term, though the survival statistics of authoritarian regimes is on his side for now. Regimes like this usually live long. Political scientists define three types of authoritarian regimes: military juntas, single-party regimes, and personalist dictatorships. The latter ones comprise a dominating majority in contemporary history, and they are the ones that live longest because the coordination of the elite circles is fixed around one person whom they all trust. It is not so important what personal qualities does this person have – they all change with age or lose their relevance, but it is important for the elites to have a guarantee of predictable future; especially in the authoritarian regimes, where the formal rules are not so important.

Regimes like this usually are limited by the life span of the dictator. But for the dictator and his circle, it is all very unsafe, because the power becomes their virtually only choice. That’s why even if the dictator became very tired of it, he will still cling to it till the very last moment because otherwise there is no guarantee for his personal safety. If a coup occurs, the danger comes from the elite. Even on the Belarusian example, we can see an early sign of it, because [Valery] Tsepkalo and [Viktor] Babariko – they are actually typical systemic liberals, not at all revolutionists, but rather people, who perfectly understand how the regime works. What is going on now in Belarus is too early to call an elite split, but regimes like this start to collapse when parts of the elite on which dictators rely start to split off.

Any authoritarian regime, for its own stability, has to rely on a broad public coalition, but Lukashenko himself started to narrow it down. It is not wise to call the nation “little people” (народец), especially when the wellbeing of large groups of the population is less and less guaranteed. By all accounts, right now Lukashenko relies solely on the security forces and the bureaucracy. It is not the broadest coalition, even though Belarus has a large public sector. But the wellbeing level and career perspectives even of these people are questionable at the moment.

This is called “a lame duck syndrome” when a dictator sends a signal that he is politically incapable. Now he appears with a catheter, and it’s a direct sign that he has health problems. For personalist regimes, it’s of paramount importance: a healthy political leader, who is capable of sustaining all vital functions and making adequate decisions – it is a relief for the elite, who needs to know for sure on whom to rely on and with whom to negotiate.”

Read the full version of the article online on Meduza.

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.