Social Distancing under Autocracy: How Pandemic Changes Protest in Russia?

This post opens a series “Politics & Pandemics” – weekly updates on the coronavirus outbreak and its effects on politics, media, and activism. We will publish blog entries written by us and invited experts,  where we will try to look at the current events through the prism of political and social sciences.

The 2019-2020 coronavirus pandemic has changed everything and we are stepping into uncharted territory now. In post-Soviet Russia, the state of emergency has never been declared on the federal level, but it will probably be declared one of these days. The usual course of life has been affected by quarantines and physical distancing in dozens of countries. Everyone had to change their routines, and of course, protests have been also affected.  By definition, social movements require a plurality of actors engaged in a network of relations (Diani 1992). Successful political protest needs coordination, which is usually costly and requires intense social interactions. Protesting under autocracy is twice as costly as it may result in violence and repression becomes even more challenging and costly under both democracies and autocracies in times of social distancing. However, the measures implemented all over the world during the time of the coronavirus pandemic aim at restricting physical interactions to flatten the curve and to slow down the spread of infection. How do protesters and social activists manage their activities during the coronavirus outbreak? How does social distancing and quarantine affect opposition movements in the east neighbor Russia?

To start with, repertoires of social movement vary significantly: from street activism that first comes to mind like rallies, demonstrations, blockades, picketing, public meetings to actions such as petition signing, letter-writing, statements in media, etc. (Tilly 2006).  Additionally, we observe a more active use of online tools for protest campaigns: for instance, during 2011-2012 “For Fair Elections” movement, the Internet was one of the driving forces of the protest (Oates 2013) – information on the electoral fraud was widely spread through online platforms, and protest activities were in general coordinated through social media. So, as we can see, some of the forms of the protest do not require going to the streets, while for others physical interaction is essential. 

Moscow authorities started to introduce movement and mass gathering restrictions in the middle of March. Due to their own wish to prevent the spread of the infection, the organising committee of the campaign “Net!” decided to postpone the demonstration against the amendments on the 22nd of March in Moscow. The demonstrations, however, were in more than 10 cities across the whole country, where it was still allowed. It is easier for authorities now to prevent protests – from the last days of March, in most of the regions, mass gatherings are prohibited due to the “self-isolation regime”.  

Some activists tried to organise single pickets in the second half of March. Even before the lockdown, several participants of single pickets against the amendments or in support of political prisoner Azat Miftakhov were detained by police, who said that they violated the restrictions of mass gatherings – which single picket is not. Nevertheless, some of the picketing campaigns have been also moving online. Activists from Nizhny Novgorod launched a campaign “Remote picketing”, where they encourage everyone who is against the new constitutional amendments to make a sign, take a picture with it and publish it on the internet instead of going to conventional street picketing. The regular “metropicketing” (Метропикет) – single pickets next to Moscow metro stations in support of political prisoners – are now also happening on social media.

Regular protest camps and assemblies are also trying to adapt to the new restrictions. For the first time in 5 years, the volunteers had to suspend their vigil “Nemtsov bridge” on Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge, where Russian opposition politician was killed in 2015. The camp at Shies continues to operate at this moment but has introduced safety measures including prohibiting arriving at the camp for people outside Arkhangelsk Region and the Komi Republic. Termless protests (bessrochkas) that are held now in around 30 cities across Russia, also change their work. Some bessrochkas have temporarily stopped their activities. Arkhangelsk bessrochka, the first one to be created almost a year ago, continues to work with some changes: they stopped, for instance, giving out leaflets and minimised social contacts, but the activists still come to Lenin’s square every day, just keeping the safety distance between each other now.

On 31st of March, Russian State Duma passed a bill on amendments to the Code of the Russian Federation on Administrative Offences. According to the new amendments, new rather large penalties for breaching the quarantine, violating the regulations aimed at curbing an epidemic, and spreading fake information about the coronavirus were introduced. The penalties are a real threat to the activists, who despite new restrictions still engage in some forms of street activism. Some of the activists do not recognise the authority of the “self-isolation” decrees, saying that the heads of regions do not have the powers to issue them. Thus, in several regions (for example, Moscow, Komi Republic) lawyers and activists are suing regional heads for introducing regimes of “self-isolation” before even the state of emergency has been announced on the federal level.

Nevertheless, on  1st of April evening, President Putin has signed the bill amending the law on emergency situations in Russia, according to which the Russian government will have the powers to declare the state of emergency on the federal level (until now, only the president and the state commission on the emergency situations had the right to do so, but has not exercised it). So it can be expected that the state of emergency will be announced soon.

Thus, most of the social activism will be happening online in the near future. It offers some challenges too. Despite being deliberating, the Internet is affected by the social and digital divide in Russia,  which complicates bringing people together online. Also, after the events of 2011-2012 freedom of the Internet was significantly restricted (Denisova 2017).

For example, the aforementioned campaign “Net!” and its volunteers said that they will continue to spread the information online about the amendments to the Constitution and why the citizens should oppose them. They will also continue to share videos of famous activists explaining why they will vote against the amendments. They do it through social media groups mostly, as the access to the website of the campaign has been restricted by Roskomnadzor, the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media. 

Despite this all, the activists try to see the opportunities that the emergency opens – street demonstrations are important, but they are rarely achieving results. Now the activists can spend more time creating horizontal networks and engaging in deep conversations with other people online to build more social capital. They can think through their strategies, try to engage more people in campaigns, rest a bit after spending days outside at termless protests and pickets. The physical space of social movements is under lockdown, but they continue to live online.

Should we trust Russian surveys?

In the latest issue of Baltic Rim Economics you can read an article written by our Doctoral student Eemil Mitikka – “Should we trust Russian surveys?”. Eemil has been using survey data in his Master’s Thesis and will continue to use it in his Doctoral dissertation. Russian surveys might indeed raise concerns of preference falsification and under-representation, but what if the situation is not that bad? Eemil in his piece discusses the common challenges that arise when working with survey data and comes to the following conclusion:

To answer the question posed in the title, it is obvious that we should not trust blindly Russian surveys. Yet, since alternative ways to study mass attitudes are limited, surveys maintain their functionality and relevance in public opinion studies. Naturally, it is possible that better methods to study public sentiments will occur in the future. In the meantime, however, traditional surveys serve as valuable tools in analyzing societies – including contemporary Russia.

Read the full article online here.

Environmental protests in Russia

Yesterday in Oodi library a panel discussion on environmental activism in Russia “Citizens, authorities, and waste management in Russia” was held. The event was organised by Suomi-Venäjä Seura and was conducted in Russian and Finnish languages. The seminar addressed current environmental issues related to waste management from the perspective of activists and researchers. Pavel Andreev, chief editor of the 7×7 online media outlet, PhD candidate Elena Gorbacheva, and Professor Veli-Pekka Tynkkynen participated In the discussion, chaired by Satu Hassi, Finnish MP from the Green Party.
The speakers highlighted the Shies protests – since summer 2018, people in Arkhangelsk region and Komi Republic are actively protesting against the landfill construction for Moscow waste in their area. The protesters formed “Stop-Shies” coalition, and now they organise people’s primaries and aim to select one candidate, “People’s governor”, which they will actively promote and hope to see as the new governor of Arkhangelsk region.

The video recording of the event is available below:

Lecture in CEU

Yesterday Margarita Zavadskaya gave a lecture “Variety of Local Governance in Russia: Do Autocracies Serve People’s Interests?” at the Central European University, Budapest Campus, Hungary. During the lecture, Margarita presented and discussed her co+authored with Lev Shilov article.

Does good governance exist under autocracy and to what extent public goods provision depends on budget autonomy and political loyalty? Local heads in Russia are caught between citizens and governors that hold them accountable. We aim to explore the heterogeneity of local governance in Russian municipalities (municipal and urban districts) by constructing weighted index of public goods provision and estimating the effects of budget autonomy and vote delivery for the United Russia in 2016-17. Our findings suggest that coercive vote mobilization harm public goods provision in municipalities of relatively small size.

More information on the event can be found here.

The game is afoot

On the 5th of February, we had our first project meeting, where the plan for the next three years was drafted. Our project is quite ambitious and its realisation requires fieldwork, participation in notable conferences, workshop organisation, extensive data collection, and many other important activities. The schedule is busy and therefore very exciting.

In this blog, we will be telling more about what we are doing for our project realisation in the coming months. In the meantime, we are working on the theoretical framework of ElMaRB already since January, and hope to present it in a few months. Stay tuned!

It’s hard to be a mayor

Riddle published a new piece by Margarita Zavadskaya titled “It’s hard to be a mayor”. In the text, Dr. Zavadskaya discusses constraints that Russian laws and regimes put on mayors’ governance in Russia, also from the point of elections.

However, adjustments must be made for the dominant form of political regime, which in Russia’s case can be termed a consolidated electoral autocracy. It is known that in such circumstances governors are forced to a certain extent to provide the requisite share of votes and increased turnout in federal elections. As municipal heads are de facto accountable to regional administrations for everything from the efficient use of funds, they also have a role to play in these electoral processes. Municipalities in Russia’s political conditions can therefore be considered an extension of the vertical of power. If this is so, then the survival of leaders at the most local level of government may also depend on election results and their success in ensuring the political loyalty of the population.

So how does political mobilisation affect local governance? Does it affect it at all? Two possible answers suggest themselves. The first is that the assistance which municipalities feasibly provide in ensuring turnout, votes, or both results in additional bonuses, access to financing and other programmes which in turn increase the budget available to local heads, giving them more room for manoeuvre. Essentially, political loyalty and budgetary autonomy are mutually reinforcing. The second answer is more pessimistic: if municipalities need to take extra efforts to ensure turnout and votes, they can potentially distract their staff, and divert their resources, away from solving pressing problems, thereby distorting the system of managerial priorities.

The work can be read both in English and in Russian.

With not great elections comes not great governance

PONARS Eurasia published a new policy memo “Explaining Bad Governance in Russia: Institutions and Incentives”, written by Professor Vladimir Gel’man and Margarita Zavadskaya.

What are the sources and mechanisms of governance in Russia? Is bad governance doomed to persist endlessly under authoritarian rule, or can the quality of governance be improved over time by certain policies? Recent discussions attempting to explain good and bad governance in various countries, regions, and policy areas have been quite extensive. How can we place present-day Russia onto this global governance map? And should we consider Russia as an outlier or, rather, as a laggard vis-à-vis many other developed states? We argue here that the Russian political regime provides insufficient incentives for good governance, and that attempts to improve the quality of governance without democratization will not ultimately prove fruitful.

Zavadskaya and Gel’man see one of the reasons for lack of sufficient incentives for good governance in the electoral nature of Russian authoritarianism, which, they say, is heavily dependent on political performance of the “power vertical”, rather than economic one:

The performance of regional and municipal authorities is judged by election results, not by socio-economic achievements. Furthermore, state enterprises and organizations perform functions of workplace electoral mobilization for the sake of the Kremlin and its sub-national agents. The mechanism of accountability within the “power vertical,” based upon prioritization of such political indicators as “degree of popular trust in the president” in a given region, is institutionalized. In other words, the delivery of votes can become a more important task for Russian local governments than the delivery of local public goods. Placing political loyalty above professional efficiency serves as the Achilles heel for a number of authoritarian regimes, and Russia is by no means an exception.

The authors discuss the solutions that Russian authorities offer to change this trend and get rid of bad governance. However, decentralization, deregulation, and digitalization cannot possibly solve the problem without initial democratization – an option that Russian top leaders seem not to consider:

The 4D solution, which goes beyond recipes of deregulation, digitalization, and decentralization and puts democratization as the number one item on the agenda of advancing good governance, remains beyond the current menu of Russia’s authoritarianism. This is why all other recipes for countering bad governance in the country may be considered at best partial and temporary solutions. Yet as the recent experience of Ukraine suggests, even the democratization of Russia’s political regime as such could not guarantee the diminishment of bad governance within the country. Nonetheless, without major political changes, there is no way to improve the quality of governance. Without these changes, Russia most likely will be doomed to muddling through numerous pathologies of bad governance while preserving certain “pockets of efficiency” in strategically-important priority sectors and policy fields, selectively picking up good apples fallen from the bad trees of ineffectiveness and un-rule of law. The question is to what extent these pathologies of bad governance could turn into chronic diseases, not curable under any treatment, and whether or not the “vicious circle” of bad governance in Russia may be broken in the foreseeable future.

Full version of the policy memo can be read online.

a good advice for a bad guy

Imagine, that you have been single-handedly ruling a country for more than 20 years and now you feel tired and want to leave. What is the best way to do it? Should you find a successor or maybe better to adopt a new constitution? Or come up with a new advisory body and head it after you stop being a president?

ElMaRB project leader Margarita Zavadskaya knows how to do it best. Read her scientific instruction for authoritarian leaders on Meduza.

Can the media undermine people’s trust in electoral system? Flamma news

University of Helsinki published a small interview with the project leader, Margarita Zavadskaya, at the University Intranet Flamma. In the interview, that was given right after the grant results were announced, Doctor Zavadskaya describes the project’s aims and expectations.

Margarita Zavadskaya, PhD, investigates in her project entitled ‘Electoral Malpractice, Cyber-security, and Political Consequences in Russia and Beyond’ (ElMaRB) how public perceptions of elections and their quality affect citizens’ political behaviour. In the era of fake news, can the media undermine people’s trust in electoral institutions?

“I think that if people consider elections to be poor quality, it can affect their participation and also their trust in democratic institutions. In certain circumstances, such as under regimes that put restrictions on their citizens, mass media can be used to disseminate messages that influence people’s views. In my research, I explore Russia as a central operator of electoral malpractice, comparing it with other post-communist countries,” Zavadskaya says.

Zavadskaya says she has always wondered why dictators organise elections. After all, there is always a risk of losing, while elections take a lot of resources to organise.

“I began my doctoral studies at the European University Institute in Florence in the autumn of 2011 immediately after the Arab Spring. I became interested in how elections and mass protests affect the democratisation of authoritarian states. In my home country, widespread protests erupted after the elections held in December 2011, giving me another reason to study post-electoral contention in authoritarian states and their consequences for political regimes. Since then, I have worked for the Electoral Integrity Project and contributed to UNDP projects devoted to promoting electoral integrity,” she states.

Zavadskaya and her team are interested in whether expectations of poor-quality elections have an effect on voter turnout and trust, regardless of the actual quality of the elections.

“We posit that spreading fake information harms trust and participation in democratic systems.”