Workshop on coronavirus pandemic’s effects on Russian society

Today HSE SPb organises a workshop “Coronavirus pandemic: new challenges for socio-political relationships in Russia”. During the workshop, the experts will discuss the research results of the effect of COVID-19 pandemic on various aspects of social and political life in Russia. Margarita Zavadskaya gives two presentations with Boris Sokolov (HSE SPb). In the first presentation, they outline a socio-psychological portrait of a typical COVID skeptic. In the second one, the researchers describe the determinants of political support and institutional trust in Russia during the pandemic.

Margarita and Boris demonstrate that Russia and the post-Soviet space, in general, are leaders in covid-skepticism among ten countries included in the “Values in Сrisis” survey. One explanation of this outcome may be the communism past, but the causal mechanism is ambiguous and requires further research. The researchers compose a portrait of a typical COVID skeptic in Russia. The dissidents are individuals who believe in the mysterious nature of the COVID-19. Commonly, these are more regularly men than women with an average level of education living in a medium or small town. Covid-skepticism prevails among respondents who distrust institutions, government, and traditional media to a greater extent. This group is more pessimistic and expects the Russian economy to shrink dramatically because of the pandemic. Counter-intuitively, covid-dissidents are less conservative and more open to risk. Facing the virus personally undermines skepticism while experiencing financial problems due to the restrictive measures acts as stimuli to a more significant skepticism.

If you want to learn more about Zavadskaya’s and Sokolov’s research, you can read the new article “How did Russian society react to Covid-19?” on Riddle.

Coronavirus exacerbated fundamental problems that had accumulated before the pandemic

Margarita Zavadskaya gave an interview to “European dialogue”, which was published yesterday in the article “Coronavirus exacerbated fundamental problems that had accumulated before the pandemic” (Коронавирус обострил фундаментальные проблемы, которые накопились до пандемии). Despite the pandemic (or because of it?), the year 2020 was full of protests. Dr. Zavadskaya was asked to reflect upon the new protest trends, her answers in Russian can be found online. Read this insightful interview to find out how the imposed during the pandemic restrictions affect mobilisations, what is the difference between protests in authoritarian regimes and democracies, and what is the fate of long-term protesting.

How unemployment and perceptions of the economy affect political trust in times of the Corona crisis?

Declared in response to the Corona crisis states of emergencies had enforced the role of the executive, placing the national governments on the first line of pandemic management. Considering the unprecedented character of the situation, some governments have experienced the ‘rally around the flag’ phenomenon – the rise of support during an external crisis while others have been faced with ‘hyper accountability’ – a severe punishment by the population for an economic downturn and pandemic’s consequences. In the pandemic’s complexity where healthcare and economic crises are linked together, it is ambiguous what factors impact trust formation. In this post, Valeria Caras focuses on economic factors as financial perceptions and unemployment from the comparative perspective. Valeria is ElMaRB project intern and a master’s student of the European and Nordic Studies programme at the University of Helsinki.

Trust in governments and economic performance

The economy acts as a deriving point for citizens to punish or reward governments in the elections (Powell and Whitten, 1993; Nadeau et al., 2002). When the economy is in recession, unemployment rises, and people earn less, they start to distrust governments and are less likely to vote for the incumbents in the next elections.

During the external shocks, the performance of the economic voting and economy’s impact on trust is sometimes reinforced. The harsh economic downturn can bring significant cuts in the healthcare provisions, austerity measures that enforce social vulnerability, and as a consequence, undermine the levels of trust. The political trust falls due to the unfulfillment of peoples’ demands for higher social protection during the hard times when governments do not introduce enough expansive economic instruments (Kumlin, Stadelmann-Steffen, and Haugsgjerd 2017).

However, the economic perceptions usually deteriorate not immediately as the crisis has started but after the recession accelerates. On the initial stage of the international crisis, people might experience the ‘rally around the flag’ effect – consolidation around the leaders contributing to the rise of their popularity (Mueller 1970). The recent research on pandemic has revealed a strong significant relationship between daily cases of COVID-19 and the approval of eleven world leaders in majoritarian systems, explaining it by the ‘rallying effect’ (Yam et al. 2020); a general increase of both specific and diffuse support in Western Europe (Bol et al. 2020); higher institutional and interpersonal trust on the initial stage of the pandemic in Sweden (Esaiasson et al. 2020). ‘Rally around the flag’ crops up due to limited access to information, decreasing open criticism of the incumbent in the unknown situation (Baker and Oneal 2001), and is characterized by the weakened role of the economic performance evaluations (Schraff 2020). Although the societies can unite around the leaders and governments in the early stage of the pandemic, the rally is usually relatively short-lived in time and may differ between groups. The economic decline coming after strict lockdown policies and the rise of unemployment may cause the harsh punishment of incumbents called in the literature  ‘hyper accountability’ (Roberts 2008). The phenomenon was studied on examples of the Central and Eastern European countries which experienced the harmful transition to the market. The region’s elections are still characterized by ‘hyper accountability’ since incumbents systematically receive significantly fewer votes than in established Western democracies (Jastramskis, Kuokštis, and Baltrukevičius 2019). Facing economic and social consequences of the anti-covid policies, people might become more critical to the governments and judge them for economic performance.

Is it ‘rallying’ or ‘hyper-accountability’ in the EU countries?

The ongoing analysis illustrates that rally and hyper accountability diverge by the groups and contexts. Respondents who are more confident about their financial situation and who managed to keep the job positions tend to experience higher political trust levels. In contrast, individuals whose jobs and finances are already affected by the Corona crisis tend to distrust governments, punishing them for economic losses.

Based on the two waves of Eurofound survey data, I carried out an analysis of how economic perceptions and unemployment status correlate with political trust[1]. The mean of trust is higher in the first round (4.77 points on a scale from 1 to 10) compared to the second (4.63). Finnish respondents followed by Danes on average trusted the government the most compared to other EU member states in the first round.  In both countries, trust has dramatically declined in the second round while Luxembourg occupies the leading position across the EU in the second survey. Besides, the higher than average level of trust in both rounds is in Sweden, Ireland, Austria, Portugal, Malta, Netherlands, Germany, Cyprus, Italy, Greece, and Estonia. Trust in Slovakia was slightly higher than average in the first round but noticeably decreased in the second.  The opposite trend is seen in Spain where trust in government has increased in the second round slightly above average. Among Western European countries, trust in Belgium and France was the lowest and lower than average. However, the minimum trust in both rounds is seen in Central and Eastern European countries where leaders in distrust are Hungary and Poland.

Figure 1. Average trust in 27 EU member states during pandemic measured in two survey rounds: red line – 1st round, yellow line – 2nd round.

Source: made by the author based on Eurofound (2020).

To estimate the relationship between the economic effects and trust during the pandemic, I calculated the average measures of such indicators as losing a job during the pandemic and perceptions of the financial situation in the past and next three months.

As such, people who feel more anxious about their finances in the next free months score lower on trust. Moreover, people were more worried about their future finances during the first round of the survey when lockdowns were in place across the EU, and the general situation was more unpredictable. During the second round, the smaller proportion of people expect their finances to worsen, and the bigger proportion evaluates that their financial situation will remain the same. The change in proportions between groups indicates that people experienced financial distress and anxiety when the pandemic started (Eurofound 2020, 15).

Figure 2. Expected financial situation and trust in governments across EU during the pandemic (Round 1 and 2).

Source: made by the author based on Eurofound (2020).

The ratios of respondents who are more worried about their financial situation are higher among unemployed individuals (Eurofound 2020, 15). The harsh lockdown measures and closure of borders to stop the pandemic have impacted employment, especially in sectors like transportation, commerce, and hospitality (Eurofound 2020, 12). Since the onset of the pandemic, 8% of respondents became unemployed across the EU with the highest rate of losing the job in Spain, Greece, Hungary, and Bulgaria (Eurofound 2020). Although there are small differences between sexes regarding employment, the difference between age is more significant since young people under 35 are more likely to be unemployed during the pandemic (Eurofound 2020, 12). Unemployment affects trust negatively and is associated with the lower levels of trust in governments among people who lost their jobs during the pandemic. The mean values of trust are considerably lower for the first group of the respondents, those who became unemployed permanently since the lockdown policies came into power. The mean is also lower among temporarily unemployed people, but the difference is not very sharp among them and respondents who kept their workplaces.

Figure 3. The mean values of trust in governments by losing job status[2].

Source: made by the author

Generally, drops in economic growth and unemployment rise are expected to cause the decline of political trust. This analysis demonstrates that during the Corona crisis, trust fluctuates between population groups and contexts. As such, respondents who lost the job on the onset of the pandemic on average trust less in governments than those who kept the job market positions. The unemployed people are keen to hold governments accountable for economic losses, making executives work ‘hyper accountable’. Contrary to them, those who estimated the same or better personal finances and kept the jobs might experience the ‘rally effect’. Among these respondents’ trust in governments is more considerable, and the average level of trust was higher when the pandemic just started. Commonly, the pandemic caused financial anxiety among the respondents, especially in the initial stage when the more significant proportions of people considered that their finances would worsen in the next three months. In general, respondents whose financial situation was worse in the last three months or expected it to worse –  distrust governments higher. Across the EU, Western European countries led by Finland, Denmark, and Luxembourg witness the highest trust in governments, while executives in Central and Eastern Europe are distrusted the most.


[1] The studied phenomena – trust in governments was measured in the Eurofound survey by answering the question: ”How do you trust the national government on scale 1 – [Do not trust at all] to 10 [Trust fully]”. The question was asked among 27 EU member states in two rounds: the first one in early April and May when countries were under strict lockdowns and the second one in June-July when restrictions were less tight.

[2] The differences between all groups are statistically significant. The difference between permanently and temporarily unemployed is 8.0e-17****, between permanently unemployed and employed is 5.3e-56**** and between temporarily unemployed and employed is 1.0e-83****.

Reaction to light

On the 14th of February Navalny’s team decided to organise an event of a new format – “Love is stronger than fear”. Everyone who wanted to protest police brutality and arrests of Navalny and other political prisoners was encouraged to go with lights and candles into their yards at 20:00 on Valentine’s day. It is not possible to learn how many people participated in the event, though one thing is clear – police did not detain or beat up anyone, unlike during the previous protests in January and February 2021.

Margarita Zavadskaya was interviewed about the 14th of February protest by Current Time TV (Настоящее время). Doctor Zavadskaya said that the event could be counted as successful – it allowed the neighbors to get to know each other and create the new social links together with “normalisation” of the protests, which was made safe again. This is important for future protests, and the plans of Navalny’s team to resume the mobilisation later in Spring seem plausible; however, according to Margarita, it is too early to expect that there will be large protests after the Duma elections in September 2021. It is highly unlikely that the authorities would allow prominent opposition leaders to take part in the election, and this would decrease the initiative of protesters to go to the streets against electoral fraud.

Ongoing Russian protests are inevitably compared to the Belarusian ones. Margarita Zavadskaya, however, warns not to think of them as similar phenomena – in Belarus, a much higher share of the population engaged in protest activity, and the level of protest brutality there outraged not only the opposition but also the Belarusians at large. The Belarusian regime lost its popular support, while in Russia, the status quo is still supported in general.

You can watch the full interview embedded below, 08:30-24:40:

US elections 2020: Electoral Fraud, Protests, and Russian Influence

By Elena Gorbacheva, Margarita Zavadskaya, and Bradley Reynolds

On the 3rd of November 2020, the United States presidential elections surprised many. A record-high number of people participated in the voting, despite the ongoing pandemic, which forced many to vote by mail. For the first time, the incumbent declined to accept the results due to alleged electoral fraud. During the previous election in 2016, there were claims that Russia interfered with the elections and facilitated Donald Trump’s victory. This time, however, there was no support for any claims of Russian interference in the voting process that would have affected the results, though concerns of cyber threats continued to menace US Government agencies elsewhere. Why have allegations of election fraud become a hot topic now and what are the consequences for Russia and post-Soviet states? We take a closer look at the situation together with experts from the fields of American, Russian, and post-Soviet studies – Ora John Reuter (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee), Ivan Kurilla (European University at St. Petersburg), Mark Teramae (University of Helsinki), Sherzod Eraliev (University of Helsinki) and Alla Leukavets (Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies).

Continue reading

the meaning of protests in authoritarian regimes

In 2021 there were already 3 protest days in Russia in support of Navalny, freedoms and rights of the Russian citizens. While they attracted thousands of people across the country, many doubt their power – after these demonstrations and those of the last years seemingly nothing changed for the better in terms of liberalisation. Meduza asked ElMaRB researchers Margarita Zavadskaya and Elena Gorbacheva together with Alexey Gilev (HSE Spb) to discuss protests in authoritarian regimes from the political science perspective. The results can be found online on Meduza website.

Is Kremlin afraid of the protests?

This week Margarita Zavadskaya was invited to Meduza’s podcast “What happened” to share her thoughts on the recent events and the transformations Russian regime has been going through. Margarita and the host Vladislav Gorin talked about the protests of the last weeks, organised by Alexey Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Foundation team, and how the regime reacts to them. They also discussed in details the current type of Russian regime – personalistic authoritarianism – and Margarita Zavadskaya explained what it fears and how it tries to fight the incoming challenges.

While many things in Russia may seem gloomy, there are several points that can give us hope. First, the society in Russia is more mature than it has been and is not content anymore with the political system in the country. This society has overgrown the personalistic regime and is ready for changes. Second, there are now more organisations and civil associations in Russian regions (the legacy of 2011-2012 ‘For Fair Elections’ movement) and there is also the network of Navalny offices opened after 2017 – this infrastructure and the social capital and experiences that accumulate after each protest wave give Russian opposition a chance for success.

Listen to the full version of podcast in Russian on Meduza website or at the podcasts platform you use.

Varieties of Russian activism today

Aleksanteri Institute organises a series of Aleksanteri Alumni Talks online seminars, where the previous visiting fellows present their research on Russia, Eurasia, and Central and Eastern Europe. Today’s talk was devoted to the upcoming book “Varieties of Russian Activism: State-Society Contestation in Everyday Life”, edited by Jeremy Morris, Andrei Semenov, and Regina Smyth.

In this presentation we reflect on a critical question in Russian politics that lies at the heart of our co-edited book project for Indiana University Press forthcoming in 2021: how do Russians act together to pursue shared goals through civic activism? This question demonstrates our break with existing studies in which Russian society is alternatively depicted as either passive—content with the strong leadership of President Putin—or nationalist and supportive of new Cold War policies. On the contrary, our contributing authors show Russians acting together to educate, inform, or engage fellow citizens, providing new insight into the continual change occurring in Russian politics and society. Common themes that link our studies are the accumulation of shared grievances, the role of identity and shared information, and the influence of opportunities, and resources. Considered together we highlight the dynamic nature of Russian society and civic organization as social forces gain experience and resources to make demands of governmental, economic, and cultural leaders.

Margarita Zavadskaya participated in the seminar as a discussant and highly praised both the editors and the authors for such a successful and bold project they undertook. In this collaborative effort of authors from different disciplines, who have different perspectives and use varying methods, as Margarita stressed, the researchers managed to debunk several myths about Russian civil society. The volume clearly shows that civil society in Russia is not dormant, it is constantly evolving and experiencing truly tectonic shifts, with which the state, alas, keeps up. And the activists and protests are not concentrated anymore just in Moscow, they are very much alive in Russian regions as well, and the last weeks’ Russia-wide protests in support of Navalny are a vivid example of it.

Margarita Zavadskaya strongly recommends everyone to read this book and we can’t wait to see it published.

Naiset Navalnyin takana

Alexei Navalny has been in the constant centre of attention since his return on 17th of January in Russia, after months of therapy in Berlin that followed a luckily failed attempt on his life with Novichok poison in August 2020. Finnish media also devotes a lot of attention to the Russian opposition leader, and on Saturday Helsingin Sanomat published a large piece on the women that stand behind Navalny (Naiset Navalnyin takana).

Margarita Zavadskaya was interviewed for the article and she shared her opinion on the role of women in opposition and argues that it is too early to speak about their breakthrough in Belarus, where Tsikhanouskaya and other powerful women became the leaders when the previous, “typical” opposition leaders who were their husbands and male colleagues, were imprisoned or sent abroad. In the case of Russia, Lyubov Sobol and other FBK women, like regional coordinators Ksenia Fadeyeva from Tomsk and Lilija Сhanysheva from Ufa are seen by authorities already as full-blooded opposition politicians.

The full version of the article can be found on HS website.

KONE funding

Last week Kone Foundation announced the recipients of its 2020 call and we are happy to say that Margarita Zavadskaya and Elena Gorbacheva will be taking part in one of the projects that were funded, FLOWISION – a 4-year project that will start in January 2021.

In the Changing “neighbournesses” of Finland funding programme’s now-ending, last thematic grant call, Sustainable Development, Russia, and Finland, the biggest grant went to Associate Professor in Russian Environmental Studies Veli-Pekka Tynkkynen and the FLOWISION consortium’s project. The project’s researchers, journalists and documentary filmmakers are aiming to make the flows of energy and waste visible. In so doing, they say, it is possible to reveal the political dimension of resource flows and to compare practices in Finland, Russia and elsewhere.

“In the project we have also wanted to listen intently to petrocultures that are seen as detrimental for mitigating climate change, i.e. to the ways that using oil is part of society and of our way of living. Trump’s USA and Russia are examples of what, from a European viewpoint, are often seen as petrocultures. And yet 75% of EU energy consumption involves fossil fuels, i.e. is based on oil, gas and coal.

In energy-poor countries such as Finland imported energy is not visible in the same way as it is, for example, in Russia, where fossil-fuel energy is indigenous and where oil in many senses greases the wheels of society. Energy-related materialities are more visible there, and it is thus possible to view them from the perspective of political power, too.

Once the project has begun, we will carry one trying to listen to these positive signals in what is generally considered the ‘dark side’ of the energy sector. Such listening offers a possibility for making the dark side of petroculture brighter. We believe that listening to these signals can help us as we aim for an energy transition, i.e. when we try to replace fossil energy with renewables.”

More information can be found from Kone website.