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:

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:

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.

(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

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:


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!

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.