(No) alarms and no surprises? Aleksanteri Institute experts discuss recent Russian State Duma elections

On the 17-19th of September, the Russian people elected the new Duma. However, elections were marred with fraud, forced mobilisation, and controversial use of electronic voting. What does it suggest for the future of the Russian political regime? What does it mean for the Finland-Russia relationship? Does it compromise the use of innovation such as e-voting? Why no protests followed the election? Has the ‘Smart Vote’ strategy been efficient this time? What does it mean for the Russian civil society? With increasing pressure on media, what is the future for the Russian opposition?

Our ElMaRB project together with the Russian Media Lab organises an expert discussion on the recent Russian elections on the 8th of October, Friday, from 15:00 to 17:00 in Zoom. The panel of experts – Olga Dovbysh, Vladimir Gel’man, Elena Gorbacheva, Markku Kangaspuro, and Margarita Zavadskaya – will discuss these and other questions from the perspectives of electoral manipulation, media, internal and external politics.

The event will be organised in Zoom, join us on the 8th of October, 15:00 sharp at https://helsinki.zoom.us/j/61039024561?pwd=bFRaMXJudWErUmxiUWU0OTI5Z3NBdz09

Disunited Russia: The Kremlin, the Opposition and the 2021 Duma Elections

We continue to analyse the 2021 Duma election and its results within our ElMaRB project, and today we want to share with you a recording of the discussion “Disunited Russia: The Kremlin, the Opposition and the 2021 Duma Elections” in which Margarita Zavadskaya participated on the 22nd of September. The event was organised by the King’s Russia Institute and among other speakers, there were Regina Smyth (Indiana University), Ben Noble (UCL-SSEES), Andrei Semenov (Perm State University), and Sam Greene, King’s College London.

Russians head to the polls on 19 September, for the first parliamentary elections since the Kremlin initiated a dramatic shift in its handling of the country’s political opposition. With Alexei Navalny in jail, many leading activists in exile and key media outlets shuttered, those who offer an alternative to Vladimir Putin’s vision for the country have struggled to mount an effective challenge. And yet support for United Russia has waned, in the face of the ongoing pandemic and seemingly intractable economic stagnation.

What did the experts say about the election results, the place of the Duma in Russian politics, and the evolving relationship between Russian voters and their state? Watch the video below:


Smart Vote strategy during 2021 elections

Yesterday the three-day voting at the Duma elections has ended in Russia, and while we still wait for the official final results, already a lot of concern has arisen about the quality of the elections. Margarita Zavadskaya was interviewed about the Smart Vote by Yle Radio programme MPA (Maailmanpolitiikan arkipäivää), where she said that this strategy has been so far the most powerful strategy of combating United Russia candidates. The Smart Vote strategy seemed to be working in Moscow, until electronic voting results were added to the offline ones. Listen more about Smart Vote on Yle starting from the 21st minute and follow our blog for upcoming analytics on the 2021 State Duma elections.

A sovereign nation or souvenir people?

Last week we had our ElMaRB and New Perspectives on Russia and Eurasia seminar this study year – Stanislav Shkel, Academy of Finland Visiting Fellow at the Aleksanteri Institute, Professor of Political Science at the Higher School of Economics – St. Petersburg gave a talk ‘A Sovereign Nation or Souvenir People: Volatility of Electoral Behavior of Titular Ethnic Groups in Russian Regions’.
Stanislav presented the research he is working on now, the goal of which is to establish the role of ethnicity on electoral support in Russian ethnic republics:

Among the regions of Russia, many ethnic republics are distinguished by a higher level of electoral mobilization and political loyalty. However, in some of them recently, at the level of official statistics, a decrease in electoral support for incumbents from the titular ethnic groups has been recorded. Why is the stability of the political behavior of voters maintained in a number of ethnic republics, while in others there is volatility of this indicator? Why do a number of ethnic republics consistently reproduce an electoral super-majority for incumbents, while others do not differ in this indicator from most Russian regions? To answer these questions, the study uses both quantitative data from official statistics and original qualitative data collected by focus groups in five Russian republics: Bashkortostan, Tatarstan, Komi, Chuvashia, and Yakutia. The analysis of the collected data made it possible to identify the main factors that determine the variation in the electoral behavior of titular ethnic groups after the 2017 language reform. In particular, it is shown that the structure of regional elites is a key factor in electoral volatility. Its transformation from monolithic to fragmented leads to an increase in the activity of independent national organizations, which undermine the monopoly of the head of the region on framing national problems and controlling the electorate. The economic factor in the form of the level of industrial development determines the difference between the regions in terms of the reproduction of the electoral super-majority. Republics with a monolithic elite and a developed industrial sector are able to maintain the stability of electoral behavior, providing an electoral supermajority. While in the republics with a monolithic elite structure in the absence of a developed industrial sector, only stability can be maintained without the reproduction of an electoral super-majority for incumbents.

If you missed the seminar, you can watch the recording below:

Workshop 2021: less than three months to go

Summer vacation is over for the majority of Finnish residents, and we are also back to work. Today we are happy to present you our last keynote speaker, Regina Smyth.

Regina Smyth is a Professor of Political Science at Indiana University.  Her primary research interest is in the dynamics of state-society relations in transitional and electoral authoritarian regimes. She has also has written extensively on political development in the Russian Federation, including her recent book Elections, Protest, and Authoritarian Regime Stability: Russia 2008–2020 (Cambridge University Press, 2020). At the workshop, Professor Smyth will give a talk “Electoral Manipulation, Information, and the Path to Post-election Protest”:

Empirical studies of the effect of electoral competition on post-election protest often reveal relationships between state manipulation, institutional constraints, and outcomes on protest events. In this paper, I return to a formal model developed in my recent book that conceptualizes post-election protest as a product of the interaction between the state and the opposition that shapes voters’ electoral behavior and perceptions of electoral fairness. This approach underscores the role of opposition forces even in periods when they are under-institutionalized or banned from formal politics. I explain these individual-level decisions using individual cross-national data combined with national-level data on institutions, economic conditions, and electoral malpractice and opposition actions. In the second stage of the analysis, I test the effect of these different outcomes on the likelihood of protest. Signals from aggregate outcomes (turnout, vote switching, support for state party, and attitudes about elections) describe different states of the world and identify different mechanism that might spark post-election protest. Yet, these distinctions are rarely examined in a comparative framework. When the state allows opposition parties to run, the most likely path to protest is an electoral revolution, or action rooted in campaign mobilization and opposition coalition. In contrast, when the state ban opposition parties and candidates protest emerges from mechanisms of coordination that are more dependent on clear signals about the electorates’ preferences that kick-off an information cascade that quickly escalates protest actions.

Professor Smyth joins the other five keynote speakers, who will be all giving their lectures during the workshop on 25-26th of October, in addition to acting as discussants during the workshop panel sessions. The preliminary programme can be found on the designated page.

More information on the workshop will be coming during the next weeks, so stay tuned!

Exploring Varieties of Governance in Russia: In Search of Theoretical Frameworks

Another article of the special issue Good and Bad Governance in Russia: Actors and Institutions (2021, vol.73, N6), edited by Margarita Zavadskaya and Vladimir Gel’man, was published today. Zavadskaya and Gel’man wrote together an introduction “Exploring Varieties of Governance in Russia: In Search of Theoretical Frameworks” to the Europe-Asia Studies special issue.

It is a given that the quality of governance makes a difference. It determines the developmental trajectories of states and it influences the everyday lives of their citizens. Why are some countries governed worse than others? In particular, why is contemporary Russia governed so much worse than one would expect, judging by its degree of socio-economic development? In comparative perspective, Russia is an example of a high-capacity authoritarian state, which exhibits the major features of bad governance, such as lack and/or perversion of the rule of law, rent-seeking, corruption, poor quality of state regulation, widespread public funds abuse, and overall ineffectiveness of government (Gel’man 2017, p. 498). These features have been demonstrated in numerous recent assessments of Russia vis-à-vis other countries, conducted by various agencies. For example, Russia ranked as 137th out of 180 countries in the 2019 Corruption Perception Index.1 In 2020, the composite evaluation of the rule of law index by the World Justice Project ranked Russia as 94th out of 128 countries.2 In the period 1996–2015, the average indicator of corruption control in Russia, according to the World Bank, was −0.86 on a scale from −2.5 (lowest possible grade) tо +2.5 (highest possible grade).3 This is why the overall picture of patterns of governance in Russia remains rather gloomy even vis-à-vis some of its post-Soviet neighbours (Zaostrovtsev 2017) and the BRICS countries (Taylor 2018, pp. 159–60). However, one should go beyond these statistics and address two more basic questions: what are the sources and mechanisms of governance in Russia? Is bad governance doomed to persist endlessly, or can the quality of governance be improved over time by certain policies?

To find answers to these questions, read the full article online.

Providing Goods and Votes? Federal Elections and the Quality of Local Governance in Russia

Europe-Asia Studies published a new article of the upcoming special issue Good and Bad Governance in Russia: Actors and Institutions (2021, vol.73, N6), edited by Margarita Zavadskaya and Vladimir Gel’man. The article published on the 21st of June is titled “Providing Goods and Votes? Federal Elections and the Quality of Local Governance in Russia” and is written by Margarita Zavadskaya and Lev Shilov (Director,  Urbanism & Participation Research Centre, European University at St Petersburg).

Does electoral support affect the quality of public goods provision? In this study, we explore the variety of governance patterns on the level of Russian municipalities from 2012 to 2018. We estimate the effects of budget autonomy and electoral loyalty during federal elections on public goods provision and explore whether elected heads provide better services. Our findings suggest that since elected heads have limited capacity to provide better services, electoral loyalty does not uniformly result in improved public goods provision in municipalities.

The article can be accessed on the publisher’s website.

Can democracies exclude and autocracies include? Lessons from municipal elections in Finland and Russia

On the 13th of June Finland held municipal elections that were moved from April due to a worsening pandemic situation. This decision at the time caused criticism from some of the opposition parties, who claimed that Finnish democracy was threatened. In Russia, in turn, the next municipal elections will be held in a number of regions on the all-Russia voting day on the 19th of September amidst worsening repressions against the opposition. We decided to invite four experts from Finland and Russia to discuss these elections and what can be learned from both countries – Finland, an established democracy that enjoys one of the best in the world media freedom, and Russia, a peculiar authoritarian state where some local elections sometimes are pretty competitive. 

Josefina Sipinen, who has just defended her doctoral dissertation about the recruitment of immigrant origin candidates in Finnish local elections at the University of Tampere, in her opening word talked about the harassment that municipal candidates face. especially women and representatives of ethnic minorities. Jesse Jääskeläinen, who ran as an SDP candidate at the Helsinki municipal election 2021 and served as a municipal councilor in Muurame (Central Finland) in 2017-2020, agreed with Sipinen. Jääskeläinen wondered whether there is an objective increase in hate speech or do the candidates just speak more openly about it. This issue maybe became more prominent this year also because the campaign was essentially moved online due to the pandemic.

Speaking about local elections in Russia, Vsevolod Bederson, coordinator of “+1” electoral coalition at the Perm City Duma election 2021 and a PhD in Political Science, pointed out that running an opposition’s campaign in modern Russia is challenging, which is further exacerbated by the recent court decision that classified Navalny’s structures and their supporters as extremists and forbade them to take part in the elections. Anton Shirikov, who is a PhD Candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, studying propaganda, misinformation, and perceptions of media in post-Soviet states, spoke about the foreign interference and the use of misinformation in elections. Based on the collected by the EU data he showed, that the foreign interference in local elections is low, especially in Finland, and stressed that the danger of misinformation is not in the thing itself, but rather how local politicians decide to use it in their advantage.

A low turnout at municipal elections is a problem that is witnessed in both countries. In Finland, there is lower voting among young people, who might prefer others forms of political participation.  Jesse Jääskeläinen noted that it is crucial for a young person to vote in their first-time elections in order to continue voting at the upcoming elections. This might be an issue for many children of Russian migrants in Finland. For Russian voters the role of the institutional heritage should also be taken into account: people are not used to political participation.

Low turnout in Finnish municipal elections among Russian speakers might be explained by the high heterogeneity of Russian speakers who live all over the country and are hardly reachable due to the geographical aspect. Moreover, it is challenging to run in the elections with a Russian background because of the language barrier and the need for an established network: in order to run from the party, a candidate should already have connections within parties and support within. Methods of the selection of candidates vary among parties and cities, bigger cities – tougher competition. 

Talking about the important topics of this year, surprisingly the pandemic is not a central issue. However, in Finland, the blame attribution is visible among entrepreneurs and workers of the cultural sphere which is hit hard by the restrictions.  While in Finland climate change is the most polarising topic at the local elections, in Russia the main rivalry happens between regime supporters and opposition, especially after the Anti-Corruption Foundation of Alexei Navalny was claimed as an extremist organization. 

At the end of the discussion, the speakers talked about Voting advice applications or VAAs (vaalikone in Finnish). in Finland, older people and residents of the smaller towns rarely use Vaalikone since they often already know whom to support or are not familiar with new technologies. Candidates note that such instruments do not always focus on the local level issues, which is challenging for elections of municipal level. VAAs are mostly beneficial for the media which creates news from it. In Russia, VAAs are not in use, and if they were, it would harm the ‘Smart Voting’ strategy and split the opposition votes.

The full recording of the discussion is available below. It was a great exchange of experiences and ideas between the Russian and Finnish sides and we hope that it can inspire researchers and practitioners to look at the municipal elections from a new angle.

All Doom and Gloom Before the Duma Vote? Russian Law Talk seminar

On Thursday 17th of June Margarita Zavadskaya was one of the invited speakers at the Russian Law Talk seminar ‘All Doom and Gloom Before the Duma Vote?’. The other speakers included Dmitry Kurnosov, Carlsberg Fellow at the University of Helsinki, and Vitaly Averin, Member of the Federal Council of the Golos Movement.

On 19 September 2021 Russians will go to polls to elect 450 members of State Duma, the lower house of parliament. Although it wields little real political power, elections to the Duma always had outsize importance. They test the ability of local authorities to ‘deliver’ results for the federal center and also gauge public opinion without resulting in real change. The period before elections tends to bring both heightened repression and increased welfare spending to scare and bribe the electorate. This year is no exception. A slate of new repressive laws has been adopted in the past month to specifically target the supporters of imprisoned regime critic Alexey Navalny, who encourages tactical voting. Several opposition figures have already been arrested or forced out of the country. The upcoming election also seems to discourage any pressure on citizens to improve the currently lagging Covid-19 vaccination rate. A technical innovation is the rollout of electronic voting in several regions, despite remaining concerns over its security from fraud. The experts will discuss these and other themes related to the upcoming election.

In her speech, Margarita Zavadskaya covered three questions: 1) What are expectations for political participation in the State Duma elections 2021? 2) How Russian voters see electoral malpractice? What are misperceptions of electoral integrity in general and in Russia specifically?

This year the integrity of elections does not seem to be too different from the previous ones, with the exception of recent laws and decrees that pronounced FBK and other Navalny’s political structures as extremist organisations and prohibited anyone connected to them from running in the elections. But it not the quality of the elections that is important, but how the citizens perceive it. In 2019, for example, when several major oppositional figures were not registered as candidates in Moscow legislative elections, the Muscovites organised a series of rather massive protests.


This year we will still get to see how the citizens will perceive the quality of the elections, but at least three things should affect it: Covid pandemic, aggravated economic recession and inflation, and growing repression. Based in that, Margarita Zavadskaya expects low or mobilised turnout rates and decrease in genuine political support. Although she believes that there is low likelihood of large-scale post-election protests, mainly due to the increased cost of protesting in the more and more repressive regime.

The discussion was recorded and will be available in the future in the Development of Russian Law blog.

Are trust in government and willingness to get vaccinated connected?

While almost half of the population in Finland has received the first jab of coronavirus vaccination, while others patiently wait to get their turn, in Russia, despite several Russian-produced vaccinations being available, the residents don’t hurry to get vaccinated. In the new article by Euronews, several Russians living abroad tell about their experience of Sputnik tourism – they decided not to wait for their turn in Finland, but rather get the jabs in Russia, where there is plenty of opportunities to do that.

Margarita Zavadskaya was asked what could explain such stark differences between the Russian and Finnish populations:

Studies have shown that COVID vaccine hesitation in Russia is as high as 62%, said Margarita Zavadskaya, a postdoctoral researcher at the Finnish Centre for Russian and East European Studies – the Aleksanteri Institute – at the University of Helsinki.

There are different reasons for the hesitation she said. Some distrust anything from the government, while others trust the Russian Sputnik V vaccine, but not that it is necessarily transported, handled and given correctly. And then, there are also just people, who are traditional anti-vaxxers as we know them from elsewhere: people generally opposing vaccination.

“The main explanation is, however, an extremely low level of trust in political institutions and authorities,” said Zavadskaya.

With a heavy legacy from Soviet times and recent optimisation reforms, some local hospitals have been closed; and there is a lack of funding in the health sector with outdated equipment.

“Russian health care institutions are in an obsolete state, and COVID-19 has exacerbated existing problems,” explained Zavadskaya.

Many Russians are not flocking to get a COVID shot because they’re not concerned about the virus. Surveys show that 38% of Russians think that the whole virus is a hoax. The central administration in Moscow has generally been hesitant to impose nationwide restrictions in order to reduce the spread of the virus. Instead, President Vladimir Putin has for the most part delegated the COVID response to the regions, which is very unusual in today’s highly centralised Russia, Zavadskaya noted.

“This is Putin’s way of keeping himself out of the political blame game if things go wrong,” she deemed.

The full article is available online.