Governing Authoritarian Elections: The Case of Russia

The new year has started and we continue to publish the recordings of keynote lectures given at our International Workshop. Today we are happy to share the excellent talk that Vladimir Gel’man, Professor of Russian Politics at Aleksanteri Institute and Professor at the European University at St.Petersburg, gave on the 26th of October. In the lecture titled ‘Governing Authoritarian Elections: The Case of Russia’, Professor Gel’man talked about

The mechanisms of electoral governance under authoritarianism aimed at preservation of political monopoly under the guise of multi-party and multi-candidate contest. However, the very framework of legal regulations and their implementation relied upon numerous political and institutional devices, carefully chosen and arranged on the basis of “menu of manipulations”, typical for some electoral authoritarian regimes. Under such conditions, regimes employs the combination of high barriers, vague norms, biased enforcement of rules, and top-down mechanisms of control. Russia demonstrated the evolution of mechanisms of electoral governance towards near-elimination of very possibilities for unwanted electoral results. Still, these mechanisms are imperfect, as they perform at the expense of legitimacy of elections and not always prevents undesired outcomes. This is why authoritarian elections is a risky game, vulnerable to disequilibrium, observed in the wake of post-election protests in 2011-2012. Based on this perspective, I will discuss the experience of elections in Russia since the Soviet collapse until the State Duma elections of 2021.


Political support during the pandemic: success of the communists and COVID-scepticism

On the 10th-11th of December, Sakharov’s Centre, Levada, and Memorial organised the 4th conference “Russian realities: state, socium, civil society”. Margarita Zavadskaya gave a talk “Political support during the pandemic: the success of the communists and COVID-scepticism”. The main arguments of her presentation were summarised by Boris Grozovsky and published online:

Political support for the regime changed under the influence of both long-term and short-term factors. The political consequences of the pandemic are close to none, but there is a number of nuances. “The success of the communists” in 2021 is “success” only under the conditions of the current regime; if it were softer, no one would be surprised. And this is connected to covid skepticism.
The pandemic as an external shock affects the level of political support. People who have been themselves ill (or their loved ones) do not experience a decline in support of the government and the health care system, of the system of institutions as a whole. That is, the pandemic did not affect the decline in confidence in the enlarged government. The pandemic has left no political traces. However, it interacts with other factors. This is not a shock localized in time, like a natural disaster, it is extended in time and less intense. This reduces the effect of shock and suddenness.
Covid is not visible. We do not always observe the consequences directly, plus there is an effect of fatigue from this agenda. In democracies, political support grows in a situation like this (the “rally around the flag” effect), but this is a short-term effect. The second effect is hyper-responsibility: if there is an increased number of deaths, this affects the decrease in support for the authorities. This phenomenon is less common.
What is happening in Russia? It seems like nothing. In fact, there are some effects:
1) The pandemic affects the economic situation – the damage is quite large. If the economy is declining and government support is low, citizens should, in theory, “punish” the government with a decrease in support. The loss of job or a decrease in income affected the decrease in support, but also very slightly (the effect was weak or insignificant). One of the most pressing issues is inflation. Economic problems came to the fore not in 2020, but in 2021 (the pandemic worries people less now).
2) Feelings of anxiety, anxiousness, expressed through the questions like how well the government is coping with the crisis, whether people fear getting ill, have become a top predictor of support. The more anxious people feel, the higher their support for the government (hopelessness and anxiety induce people to look for an “anchor” in the form of state institutions).
3) But the winner among the factors influencing political support was covid skepticism (the higher it is, the lower the support of the authorities). However, it is not clear what is the cause and what is the effect (were people skeptical of the government even before the pandemic or did the pandemic cause a decrease in support). The share of covid skeptics was about 38% in 2020, now – about 30% (these people think covid is fiction). Here Russia, along with Chile, is the leader. Did we dream of such opposition?
Support for the communists increased despite the clear-up of the political field. Does this mean that the communists have returned from political oblivion? In the week before the elections, the share of negative references to the Communist Party of the Russian Federation on TV channels increased sharply. The Kremlin was very much afraid of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation as a political force capable of uniting the electorate against the ruling party. This is an amazing result of both this party and the entire civil society. The communists became the beneficiaries of Navalny’s removal from the political field, the growing popularity of Smart Voting, and the growing distrust of the state presented also in the form of covid skepticism. The Communist Party turned out to be a “dust collector” of the protest vote.
The state is mistrusted so much that people do not trust all its institutions and its vaccine. This continues to strengthen the communists. Do these processes have the potential for increasing politicization? It is unlikely: the groups are scattered, they have little in common, they have poor communication channels.

The full version of Margarita Zavadskaya’s talk in Russian can be watched here:

The party of people’s mistrust: components of the CPRF success

Liberal Mission Foundation published a new report on the situation in Russia after the 2021 Duma election – “New Reality: Kremlin and Golem. What do the election results tell about the socio-political situation in Russia.”

Margarita Zavadskaya was one of the authors of the report and wrote the part titled “The Party of People’s Mistrust: Components of the CPRF Success”. The text is based on the media monitoring we have conducted during summer 2021.

Under the conditions of complete “clean-up” of the political sphere, CPRF became the main beneficiary of the Smart Voting. Threat from the Communists, supported by the Smart Voting, affected the media campaign strategy of the federal tv-channels: if the start of it was quite peaceful, the last week before the elections the political coverage was mostly concentrated on discrediting the CPRF, 70% of whose mentions were negative. The Communists success hardly speaks of the “leftening” of the electorate, more likely the CPRF became a “focal point” for the protest regardless of the ideological positions of the protesters or even the Smart Voting recommendations. Consolidation of the “electorate of mistrust” atound the CPRF was promoted by both the weakening of LDPR’s oppositional rhetorics and the Communists’ position regarding the mandatory vaccination. All in all, the current social situation and Kremlin’s harsh strategies deprive the elections from their standard functioning – they are not a mechanism of cooptation of the moderate opposition. The cleavage between the political composition of State Duma and reality will be maintaining the tension and irritation. Scared of repressions and annoyed citizens will enter political nibernation until the new window of political opportunities emerges.

Her text can be read online in Russian.

The Authoritarian Turnout Gap: How Civic Duty Helps Autocrats Win Elections

We continue to publish the recordings of the keynote lectures given at our  International workshop Electoral Integrity and Malpractice in Russia and Beyond: New Challenges and Responses. Today we are glad to share with you the brilliant talk by Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee Ora John Reuter. His research interests include comparative political institutions, authoritarianism, elections, democratisation, comparative political economy, and Russian politics. Ora John Reuter is the author of the book the Origins of Dominant Parties: Building Authoritarian Institutions in Post-Soviet Russia and the recent papers on Clientelist Appeals and Voter Turnout in Russia and Venezuela; Protest Coordination in Authoritarian Regimes. At the workshop, Ora John Reuter gave a presentation “The Authoritarian Turnout Gap:  How Civic Duty Helps Autocrats Win Elections”

In electoral autocracies, regime supporters tend to vote at higher rates than regime opponents.  In the 2016 State Duma elections in Russia, the turnout rate among United Russia supporters was 12 percentage points higher than the turnout rate among opposition party supporters.  This gap gives the regime a built-in electoral advantage.   This paper suggests that the root of this gap lies in differing orientations toward civic duty among regime and opposition supporters.  Using original survey data from Russia, I present evidence that most voters feel an ethical obligation—a civic duty—to vote. I suggest that the duty to vote under autocracy is rooted not in norms of democratic participation, but rather in reverence for the state. Because autocratic regimes often penetrate and politicize the state, I argue that opposition voters are less likely to revere the state and less likely than regime supporters to believe that voting is a civic duty. Using a previously validated measure of the duty to vote, I find evidence in Russia consistent with these arguments. The theory and findings suggest that authoritarian incumbents have an inherent mobilizational advantage: their supporters feel a duty to vote, but regime opponents do not. This may help explain why opposition parties under autocracy find it hard to turn out their supporters.

Political support and the pandemic in Russia: a year and a half later

On Riddle, you can read the new text by Margarita Zavadskaya “Political support and the pandemic in Russia: a year and a half later”, in which she discusses how the political attitudes of Russians have changed during the 1,5 years of the pandemic. She concludes that

 there are no signs of an erosion of political trust, although the average level of confidence in institutions remains low. Despite United Russia’s dip in popularity, the general perception of executive power remains stable. In general, the narrowing down of the field of public politics, the crackdown on the independent media and the initiation of a number of politically motivated criminal cases during the pandemic (e.g. cases regarding violations of public health regulations) haven’t affected citizens’ perceptions thus far. Returning to the pre-pandemic reality and economic well-being appear to be priorities for the majority of Russian citizens.

This insightful paper can be read in English or in Russian online.

Norbert Kersting: Direct democracy integrity and the Russian Constitutional Plebiscitarian Referendum 2020

In October, we organised our International workshop Electoral Integrity and Malpractice in Russia and Beyond: New Challenges and Responses. The event was sponsored by the ElMaRB project, funded by the University of Helsinki 3-year grant for post-doctoral researchers, and INREES network. 20 scholars from Finland and abroad participated in our workshop and around 40 people more watched the streamed keynote lectures. We discussed electoral malpractice and integrity in Russia, Ukraine, Estonia, Italy, Eastern EU, and Central Asia. The two days were filled with fascinating presentations and discussions, and we are planning to compile a special issue based on the workshop in the future.

But now it is time to start sharing the recording of the keynote lectures. The first speaker was Norbert Kersting, Professor in Comparative Political Science at Local Muenster University and Chair of Comparative Political Science – Municipal and Regional Politics’. His research focuses on comparative political science, political culture, modern instruments to promote political participation and discourse, local politics, parliamentarism, e-democracy, regional integration, and sport. He published various articles and books, such as the edited book “Electronic democracy” (2012) in the IPSA series: World of Political science. He co-authored a book on “Local Governance reform in global perspective” (VS-Springer 2009). During the workshop, Professor Kersting will give a talk ‘Direct democracy integrity and the Russian Constitutional Plebiscitarian Referendum 2020’.

Referendums at used in modern authoritarian systems as well as in democracies. The new Direct Democracy Integrity Index is a newly developed empirical instrument to evaluate the variety and integrity of referendums. Based on the electoral cycle a referendum cycle was defined in order to evaluate the implementation and the integrity of referendums. It covers electoral laws and electoral procedures as well as thematic limitations of referendums in different political systems. It highlights voter registration and the initiation of referendums. It focuses on campaign and media coverage as well as on campaign financing. Furthermore, the voting process itself, the post referendums vote count, and the role of the electoral authorities are important areas for evaluation. The new instrument was used to analyse constitutional referendum as in the Turkish, Russia, etc. What is the level of integrity in Russia and elsewhere? Where is integrity and what kind of malpractices exist?

If you missed his brilliant talk, here is the recording of it:

Watching Russian Political News for Three Months: Experiences of University of Helsinki Scholars Studying Elections

Six years ago, New York Times journalist Gary Shteyngart spent a week in a Manhattan Four Seasons hotel exposing himself to the Russia Today news channel 24/7. He described his experience daily and in the end reported severe emotional exhaustion, fatigue, and astonishment at how people who are forced to consume highly politicized and low-quality content can remain decent human beings. This summer, from the second half of June until the 18th of September, our project team conducted media monitoring of the 2021 State Duma elections for the Movement for Defence of Voters’ Rights “Golos” – a Russian organisation established in 2000 to protect electoral rights of citizens. Unfortunately our team was not provided a 5-star hotel, but on the other hand, we were luckily not exposed to 24/7 media observation. We took up the task of monitoring the five main Russian TV channels from June to September this summer to evaluate the media coverage of all political parties participating in the State Duma elections. In this brief post, written by Elena Gorbacheva and Margarita Zavadskaya, we share our experience and observations with you.

Pictures by Sasha Yudaev and Ksenia Telmanova

On the 18th of August 2021, Golos was labeled a ‘foreign agent’ by the Russian authorities, however, this was not the first time. In 2013 the authorities registered Golos as a domestic election monitor on the list of foreign agents as a nonprofit organisation.  After 2013, Golos continued to work as a non-registered movement and as of 2021 the organization officially became the first entity to be put on the list of foreign agents covering unregistered groups. “Golos” still remains the only independent election watchdog currently active in Russia.

For 13 weeks in a row, our project together with six student volunteers from Russia and Finland watched every newscast on five Russian TV channels – Channel One (Pervyi kanal), Russia 1 (Rossiya 1), NTV, RenTV, and Fifth channel (Pyatyi kanal). On average, every week there were around 150 newscasts across these channels lasting from 5 minutes to 2 hours.

Continue reading “Watching Russian Political News for Three Months: Experiences of University of Helsinki Scholars Studying Elections”

Does co-optation matter for protest mobilization?

Today we held another ElMaRB seminar, during which Margarita Zavadskaya and Alexandra Rumyantseva, data analyst at the Center for Advanced Governance (Moscow) and lecturer at the EUSP presented the research they have been working on – ‘Does co-optation matter for protest mobilization? Evidence from the Russian protests against the pension reform in 2018’. Andrei Semenov, Senior Researcher at the Center for Comparative History and Politics at Perm State University and Aleksanteri Institute former Visiting Researcher, acted as a discussant.

The Russian pension reform in 2018 put an end to the ‘rallying around’ the political leader V. Putin and pulled down his rating back to the usual 60%. The reform revised the retirement age and suggested a five-year increase from 55 to 60 for women and from 60 to 65 for men. This lead to a massive outcry and protests in almost all Russian regions. Tens of thousands of protesters took into the streets claiming that the state reneged on its basic social obligations and that given the average life expectancy it is unlikely to most of the would-be retirees would live up to the pension age at all.

This research addresses the question of whether the in-system political parties affected the frequency and scale of protests in Russian regions. There is evidence that some systemic opposition supported the protesters, while most of the observers argue that systemic parties cooperated with the state and promoted demobilization of the protest movement. In other words, does political co-optation decrease protest?

Zavadskaya and Rumiantseva’s preliminary findings suggest that in-system parties, against expectations, favor the scale and frequency of protest: a larger share of systemic opposition in local legislatures is positively associated with a protest on a city level. They collected an original dataset of 616 municipal districts from which in 317 there were protests. They measured protest through its frequency per region and locality as well as a number of coalitions between opposition actors.

Expert discussion on the 2021 State Duma Elections at the Aleksanteri Institute

If you missed our discussion on the elections held on the 8th of October, worry no more – now you can watch it with subtitles in our blog! The event was moderated by Margarita Zavadskaya, who gave a brief outline of the 2021 election results. Her introduction was followed by a presentation by Vladimir Gel’man, who spoke about how differently (or not) these elections were compared to the previous ones. Olga Dovbysh continued the conversation, discussing what was the role of online media and global international platforms such as Google in this voting. Elena Gorbacheva spoke about traditional media and shared what the media monitoring of five TV-channels ElMaRB project conducted for Golos revealed about the election campaign in Russia. Markku Kangaspuro spoke about Finnish-Russian relations from a historical perspective and pondered, whether these elections change anything for Finland. During the Q&A session, the researchers discussed the issues of Smart Voting, the real popularity of the United Russia party, and other themes. Were there any alarms or surprises this year? Is there anything positive to look forward to? Watch the recording and find out.