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.”
Yesterday Elena Gorbacheva presented her article in progress at the research seminar at the Alekanteri Institute. Jussi Lassila from the Finnish Institute of international Affairs served as the discussant. In her paper, Elena discussed the impact of environmental protests on the support of the regional heads in Russia.
Since 2017, several waves of garbage protests have been rising in Russia, with some of the anti-landfill campaigns lasting for several yearsю In some of the cases, like Shiyes in Arkhangelsk region, the population mobilised against the construction of the landfill for Moscow waste, while in others the protests started against a local project. In this article, I am examining the political consequences of environmental protests in Russia by studying the protests in two regions with varying degrees of mobilisation on the eve of subnational elections of September 2020 and the role of anti-Moscow sentiment in the mobilisation. The protests in Arkhangelsk (against Shiyes and Katunino landfills and new incinerators) and Kaluga (against Mikhali and Timashovo landfills) regions are compared in scope, agenda, success, and their impact on the regional head election.
During the seminar, the preliminary findings were presented and discussed. The work on the article will continue during the next year too.
On the 28th of November, Margarita Zavadskaya participated in the discussion “Is the society ready for the elections? Opportunities and restrictions for civic movement”, which was part of All-Russia Civil Forum 2020. The participants discussed how similar are the elections 2021 to the previous ones held in 2011, 2016 and whether there is a chance for a new broad movement for fair elections. The experts also suggested ways of stimulating populations’ participation in the election process – campaigning, voting, and election observation.
PONARS Eurasia published a policy memo “Linkages between Experiencing COVID-19 and Levels of Political Support in Russia”, written by Margarita Zavadkaya and Boris Sokolov (Higher School of Economics, St. Petersburg).
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has left noticeable traces in everyday life of Russian society. Eighty percent of Russians had to alter their lifestyles due to the virus, with half reporting that their incomes shrank, and this share keeps growing. Has the pandemic also affected how Russian citizens feel about their government? To explore how the pandemic has affected political support in Russia, we analyzed data from a representative online panel survey, “Values in Crisis,” carried out by the Laboratory for Comparative Social Research at the Higher School of Economics (LCSR, HSE).
We looked at four indicators of support: confidence in (1) the Russian government, (2) the health sector, and (3) the country’s institutions as a whole, as well as respondents’ opinions on (4) how well the government is handling the coronavirus crisis. We found that actual encounters with COVID-19 and the public healthcare system are negatively, although weakly, associated with all four indicators. We also found that the fear of getting sick moderately positively correlates with assessments of the government’s response to the crisis. Reported negative economic impacts do not seem to affect political trust and support. Strikingly, the most distrusting group of respondents are the so-called “COVID-19-dissidents,” who consistently scored low on all measures due to their refusal to take COVID-19 seriously.
On 19-21th of November, EU SPb organised the annual conference VDNKh (Exhibition of the Academic Research Achievements), and Margarita Zavadskaya participated in the VDNKh’s roundtable discussion “Good and Bad Governance in Russia: Actors and Institutions”, moderated by Vladimir Gel’man on 20th of November.
Numerous assessments of various organizations show that the quality of public administration is much worse than can be predicted based on the level of socio-economic development of our country. At the same time, this sad picture has significant variations at the level of various sectors of the economy, municipalities, as well as individual government projects and programs. What explains these variations, and why have a number of attempts to improve the quality of public administration in Russia yield modest results at best? The search for answers to these and other questions will be the subject of a special issue of the Europe-Asia magazine, which is being prepared for publication in 2021. During the round table, the authors of the articles of this special issue – EUSP employees and alumni – will present their works, which are planned for publication and which touch upon various aspects of the problem of good and bad governance in modern Russia in a theoretical and comparative context. During the round table, the general framework of the analysis, as well as specific approaches of research will be discussed.
Margarita Zavadskaya wrote an article for Riddle titled “Six myths about elections and protests in autocracies”. In the piece, which continues the discussion organised by All+Russia Civil Forum in October, Margarita discusses the mechanisms that lead to mobilisation after elections and ponders whether the upcoming 2021 election to the Russian Duma faces an increased risk of post-election protests. She achieves that by dismantling the popular myths about the elections in autocracies and the protests that might follow. The conclusion that Zavadskaya reaches is an open one:
The 2021 Duma elections will not be held in particularly comfortable conditions for United Russia. The situation is complicated by the economic consequences of the pandemic and the overall decline in support for the institutions of power. According to representative online surveys, in the summer of 2020 the respondents were extremely sensitive to economic fluctuations and expressed a high degree of concern (while being slightly less concerned about the pandemic). In the eyes of voters, the Duma is the most disliked body of federal power, which is why it will be difficult for United Russia to maintain its current number of mandates. However, no serious opponents will be allowed to participate in the elections anyway. And the probability of protests will largely depend on the strategies employed by the opposition and the degree of its organisation.
The full version of the text can be found on Riddle in both English and Russian.
Yesterday our project held its first seminar “In the Eye of the Beholder: Misperceptions of Electoral Integrity in Central-Eastern Europe”. Margarita Zavadskaya presented the early results of the empirical analysis, Elena Gorbacheva chaired the seminar, and Emilia Palonen, leader of the Helsinki Hub on Emotions, Populism & Polarisation, acted as a discussant.
At the seminar, Margarita Zavadskaya discussed the differences between expert and mass perceptions of electoral integrity in Central-Eastern Europe. In some post-communist states, people tend to overestimate the quality of elections while in other citizens are more critical to conducted elections even if they are assessed as democratic by experts. To a certain extent, it happens due to the experience of the authoritarian rule in communist times and the current evolution of emancipation values. In her presentation, Margarita argued that people with preferences for authoritarian leadership and a strong national identity are more likely to overestimate the quality of elections in their country. In contrast, people holding post-materialist values with a higher level of education can be regarded as critical citizens. This contribution brought up by the research varies depending on the context. Margarita compared how these factors differ in cases of Russia, Poland, and Hungary. As such, the role of post-materialist values is more important in the case of Hungary and Russia compared to Poland and in Hungary, the role of nationalism is the strongest. The case of Belarus where people unexpectedly massively went to protests after the unfair presidential elections can be explained by the increased level of education among the population and knowledge about politics, Zavadskaya considers.
Because the seminar was organised through Zoom, residents of different cities and countries could attend it. We would like to thank all the participants for their excellent questions and especially the discussant Emilia Palonen for her insightful comments.
Margarita Zavadskaya and Elena Gorbacheva wrote a piece on the changing attitudes of Russians towards environmental issues for RBC Trends section “Eco-nomica”. In their article, the researchers analysed the results of the World Values Survey and European Values Study over the past 20 years and outlined how Russians’ perceptions of certain environmental questions have been shifting. The researches addressed issues such as the importance of environmental protection over economic growth, the trust in environmental organisations, and the attitudes towards climate change. One of the interesting findings was that during 1994-2014, environmental protection was seen as an issue with more priority compared to economic growth.
Alexei Navalny’s ‘smart vote’ initiative appeared effective in the course of Moscow and St. Petersburg elections last year. Russian subnational elections of September 2020 showed that, against common expectations, the ‘smart vote’ support boosted candidates’ electoral results outside the biggest cities as well. At the same time, the ‘smart vote’ pro-opposition effects are mitigated by the regime’s ability to rely on multi-day voting which exacerbates the spread of electoral malpractice.Mikhail Turchenko, associate professor of Political Science at the European University at St. Petersburg provides empirical evidence confirming these findings.
The ‘Smart Vote’ Campaign: A Background Story
Two years ago, on 28 November 2018, Alexei Navalny, the main Russian opposition politician, announced in his blog a new tool to oppose the regime’s electoral hegemony – the ‘smart vote’. At first glance, the ‘smart vote’ resembles Voting Advice Applications (VAAs), which have become popular in Western democracies since the 2000s. The ‘smart vote’ is designed as an electronic application as well as a webpage and a Telegram bot intended to give the voter advice, how to vote during the course of a given electoral campaign. However, if conventional VAAs compare the positions of the voter with the positions of parties/candidates on a range of policy issues to suggest the former the ‘optimal’ choice, the ‘smart vote’ operates in a more straightforward way. In the candidate-centered campaigns, it recommends the voter only the strongest non-United Russia candidate (or candidates) irrespective of his or her issue positions or party affiliation. Under the proportional representation system, the ‘smart vote’ advises voting for any party but United Russia. The rationale behind the ‘smart vote’, therefore, is to undermine the regime’s monopoly in the electoral realm by encouraging strategic behavior on the voters’ level.
The ‘smart vote’ was employed for the first time in September 2019, when Navalny’s team chose two main targets for the ‘smart vote’. There were electoral campaigns in two biggest cities of Russia: regional legislative elections in Moscow and municipal elections in St. Petersburg. As a result, candidates supported by the ‘smart vote’ won 20 out of the Moscow City Duma’s 45 seats, which was the best opposition’s victory since the beginning of the 2000s. During the St. Petersburg 2019 local elections, the ‘smart vote’ support gave candidates 7 percent of additional votes on average, as Mikhail Turchenko and Grigorii V. Golosovshowed. Despite the fact that the ‘smart vote’ had, undoubtedly, an impact on the outcomes of Moscow and St. Petersburg electoral campaigns last year, the question remained, whether this tool is effective outside the capital cities. Russian subnational elections of September 2020 shed light on this question.
Overview of September 2020 Elections in Russia
In September 2020, there were no remarkable elections in terms of media campaigns or political stakes, as it was the case in 2019, keeping in mind Moscow and St. Petersburg. At the same time, some important contests had still taken place: there were by-elections to the State Duma in four single-member districts, gubernatorial elections in 18 regions, legislative elections in 11 regions, and city council elections in 22 regional capitals. In addition, there were plenty of local contests including city council elections in 12 cities with more than 200,000 inhabitants.
Navalny’s team proposed ‘smart vote’ candidates for all contests mentioned above, but city council election in Sterlitamak (more than 275,000 inhabitants), which is the second-largest city in the Republic of Bashkortostan. In sum, there were selected 1155 candidates to be included in the ‘smart vote’ list for 1171 seats to be distributed in the Duma by-elections, regional legislative elections, and city council elections both in regional capitals and cities with more than 200,000 inhabitants (with the exception of Sterlitamak).
It is noteworthy that, as in 2019, Navalny’s camp chose to focus on two elections for the ‘smart vote’ campaign – city council elections in Novosibirsk and Tomsk. In the run-up to the elections, Navalny himself visited both cities. It was exactly Tomsk where he was poisoned on 2 August by the toxic chemicals structurally similar to those prohibited by the OPCW.
Was the ‘Smart Vote’ Campaign Effective in 2020?
Moving back to the question of whether the ‘smart vote’ campaign had an impact on the September 2020 elections, which took place in different parts of Russia, it is useful to look at Figure 1 showing the average electoral results of the ‘smart vote’ candidates compared to non-‘smart vote’ ones both in general and broken down by different party affiliations. It is clear that the average electoral results of candidates backed by the ‘smart vote’ campaign are in all instances better than those of non-‘smart vote’ ones.
Figure 1. The structure of the ‘smart vote’ support and average results of candidates backed by the ‘smart vote’ (SV) and those without one (non-SV)
Figure 1, however, cannot indicate, whether some candidates obtained higher electoral results due to the ‘smart vote’ support or they performed better simply because of their personal characteristics or previous electoral experience what, in turn, were taken into account by Navalny’s team when deciding upon including given candidates into the ‘smart vote’ list.
A proper way to understand whether the ‘smart vote’ support boosted candidates’ electoral results, would be to consider only those candidates who took part in both the 2020 elections and previous ones and did it with the same affiliation (or the lack thereof). Figure 2 displays the electoral results of such candidates, 213 in sum. The mean electoral result of these candidates in the 2020 elections – 26.63 percent – was higher than in the previous elections, 21.44 percent. And this difference is statistically significant (Wilcoxon signed-rank test, right-tailed, p < 0.001). This evidence allows concluding that the ‘smart vote’ campaign boosted candidates’ electoral results during September 2020 subnational elections in Russia.
Figure 2. Electoral results of the same candidates in 2020 elections compared to the previous ones (only those candidates were selected who kept the same party affiliation)
Despite this, and the drop of victory rate from 90 percent in previous elections to 83 percent, United Russia candidates succeeded to win a majority in all regional assemblies and in most city councils. The only city councils, where United Russia failed to get a formal majority were the ones of Novosibirsk, Tomsk, and Tambov. If in Tambov poor United Russia’s results are rather due to idiosyncratic factors – a broad coalition has occurred around an ex-mayor of the city and the Rodina party, then both in Novosibirsk and Tomsk United Russia’s relative failures can be attributed to the ‘smart vote’. The number of ‘smart vote’ candidates got elected in these cities was bigger than elsewhere but Tambov.
The relative success of United Russia candidates in the light of the pressure imposed by the ‘smart vote’ campaign can be explained not only by the skewed playing field but also by a novel multi-day voting scheme when the main election day, September 13, was preceded by two days of early voting. Figure 3 shows that the vote share of United Russia affiliated candidates was positively associated with the share of early voting, while the correlation between the vote share of candidates backed by the ‘smart vote’ campaign and early voting was negative. In Russia, early voting limits the effectiveness of electoral observation, facilitates the task of mobilizing state-dependent voters to go to the polls, and, after all, simplifies the use of electoral malpractice. Numerous irregularities during the early voting phase of the Russian subnational elections of September 2020were reported by the ‘Golos’ movement.
Figure 3. Early vote helps United Russia candidates: UR vote share by early voting (left pane) and SV candidates’ vote share by early voting
It seems that the ‘smart vote’ campaign boosts electoral results of candidates even outside the two biggest Russian cities. It is definitely bad news for the Kremlin and an encouraging one for the opposition. The ‘smart vote’ can potentially damage United Russia’s score during the Duma elections next year. No doubts, however, that the regimewill respond. At least, the provision of three-day voting during all electoral campaigns has already been brought into Russian legislation.
 In the case of gubernatorial elections, the ’smart vote’ advised voting for any other candidate than either incumbent or the Kremlin’s nominee which were explicitly named. The reason was that gubernatorial elections were held according to a two-round system when a candidate in order to get elected must collect more than 50 percent of the valid votes cast.
 Figures 1-3 are based on aggregated data on legislative elections in 11 regions and city council elections in 22 regional capitals and 11 cities with more than 200,000 inhabitants (except for Sterlitamak).
 The author analyzed the previous elections, which took place in 2015, and all by-elections between 2016-2019.
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: