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.

Putin vs. People

Yesterday Sakharov Center organised a Zoom discussion with Graeme Robertson, Sam Greene,  Ilya Yablokov, Boris Grozovsky, and Margarita Zavadskaya, where Russian version Greene’s and Robertson’s book ‘Putin vs. People‘ was presented. The speakers discussed some of the main arguments of the book and why they recommend everyone reading this work.


According to Margarita Zavadskaya, this book is a great example of how to really understand the mechanisms of popular support without resolving to the overused stories like historical path-dependency. She praises the book for its emancipation of Russian citizens – the authors suggest that instead of Putin’s Russia there really is Russia’s Putin’. Zavadskaya pointed out how elegantly “Putin vs. People” and its Russian version avoid following the popular concepts of preference falsification, the power of state propaganda, “homo soveticus” or claiming that Russian people really enjoy the regime and therefore deserve it. This book instead offers a very honest look into the nature of political support in Russia.

This engaging discussion can be watched on Youtube:

ElMaRB panel discussion ‘Can democracies exclude and autocracies include? Lessons from municipal elections in Finland and Russia’


On the 14th of June our project organises the last event before the summer break – ElMaRB panel discussion ‘Can democracies exclude and autocracies include? Lessons from municipal elections in Finland and Russia’, The event will take place in Zoom, from 16:00 to 18:00 Finnish time.

The postponement of municipal elections in Finland in 2021 due to a worsening pandemic 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. What lessons can we learn from Finland, an established democracy which enjoys one of the best in the world media freedom, and Russia, a peculiar authoritarian state where some local elections sometimes are pretty competitive. How do municipal candidates deal with the challenges in both countries? What topics are important in 2021 except for the pandemic and its consequences? What is the state of elections in Finland and Russia and 2021?

We invited four speakers from Finland and Russia to discuss these and other questions:

Vsevolod Bederson is a coordinator of “+1” electoral coalition at the Perm City Duma election 2021. He has a PhD in Political Science and is a Research Fellow at the Center for Comparative History and Politics, Perm State University.  He organises popular science projects in Perm and hosts a podcast on political science topics.

Josefina Sipinen has just defended her doctoral dissertation about the recruitment of immigrant origin candidates in Finnish local elections. She continues her studies on ethnic and migrant minorities’ (EMM’s) political engagement in Tampere University as a postdoctoral researcher. Currently, she is studying whether EMM candidates in the 2021 Finnish municipal elections faced more harassment than native-origin candidates.

Jesse Jääskeläinen is an SDP candidate at the Helsinki municipal election 2021.  He works as a senior specialist at the Eurooppalainen Suomi. In 2017-2020, he served as a municipal councilor in Muurame, Central Finland. He is a Master’s Student of Political Science at the University of Helsinki.

Anton Shirikov is a PhD Candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He studies propaganda, misinformation, and perceptions of media in Russia, as well as post-communist politics more broadly. Previously, he was a journalist and an editor at various Russian independent media.

The event will be moderated by ElMaRB project leader Margarita Zavadskaya. To register for the event, please fill in this E-lomake.

Liberal values in Putin’s Russia

Last week Margarita Zavadskaya participated in the discussion “Liberal values in Putin’s Russia: demand for novelty?”, organised by Riddle and Liberal Mission Foundation. Together with Olga Irisova, Stepan Goncharov, Timur Atnashev and with Irina Chechel’ as a moderator, the experts discussed whether there is a demand for liberal values (and which?) in modern Russia and whether different generations have different attitudes towards them. Below you can watch the full recording of the discussion in Russian:


Gender quota effectiveness in Ukrainian municipal elections: institutions and actors

On the 5th of May, we had yet another ElMaRB seminar, this time with Melanie Mierzejewski-Voznyak, Visiting researcher at the Aleksanteri Institute, who gave a talk ‘Gender quota effectiveness in Ukrainian municipal elections: institutions and actors’. Valeria Umanets, Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, served as a discussant.


Over the past few decades, legislative gender gaps gradually decreased in political systems around the world with the introduction of gender quotas that have fundamentally changed political competition. While today gender quotas are common in Europe, only one-third of former Soviet states adopted such measures (Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and most recently Ukraine and Georgia).  Melanie Mierzejewski-Voznyak’s research analyses the 2020 Ukrainian local elections and the impact of the Electoral Code adopted in 2019, particularly as concerns the new gender quota requirements. According to Melanie Mierzejewski-Voznyak, the 2020 local elections present an interesting puzzle; while these elections included an enforceable gender quota that led to an increase in women elected in bigger communities, the overall impact of the quota was limited with fewer women being elected to local councils where they have historically performed very well.

Mierzejewski-Voznyak analysed the impact and effectiveness of gender quotas in the Ukrainian 2020 local elections by focusing on institutional factors – electoral law and policy design – as well as party preferences concerning gender equality. By adopting a rational choice approach, she accounted for both institutional constraints and individual action. Melanie came to the conclusion, that the impact of the gender quota in Ukraine was limited to achieving a more balanced representation of women in the election process, though not in overall elected officials. The positive effects of Ukraine’s gender quota were specifically a result of 1) high costs for non-compliance and 2) the inclusion of a placement mandate that forced parties to go beyond meeting quota size and place women in winnable positions. In a party system comprised of weakly ideologically motivated parties, such as Ukraine, institutions matter for the effectiveness of candidate quotas. Her findings thus suggest that in newer democracies in the post-Soviet context, pragmatism rather than ideology drives parties’ decisions to comply with gender quota requirements.

This research will be published as an article in the near future and we are looking forward to reading it.

Trust in governments during the COVID-19 pandemic

Our third ElMaRB seminar this spring took place on the 14th of April. Our project intern Valeria Caras gave a talk “Trust in governments during the COVID-19 pandemic: attributing responsibility and revealing the determinants”, which is based on her Master’s thesis. Maria Bäck, University Lecturer at the University of Helsinki, Political Science, acted as the discussant. Below you can find the abstract of the talk and the recording with subtitles:

I aim to explore factors that impact the formation of trust in governments during the Corona pandemic from a comparative cross-EU perspective. I apply multilevel regression analysis on survey data and find a significant impact of clarity of governmental responsibility on trust. The majority of citizens appreciate less polarized and more cohesive cabinets in crisis times. Respondents’ welfare emerges to be another critical factor since people who lost their jobs during the COVID-19 and experience financial difficulties tend to distrust the incumbents. However, the difference between such groups and people who kept their market positions is more substantial in higher governmental responsibility systems. Clarity enhances economic polarization: respondents who did not suffer or suffer marginally from the pandemic’s consequences trust more in united governments while people whose finances worsened since the pandemic’ onset distrust more in such systems. The finding indicates that the unemployed blame less polarized governments because they can establish a better link between personal welfare and governmental action when cabinets are united. The study also compares trust levels across EU member states, revealing Nordic countries as leaders in trust and Central and Eastern Europe as the forerunners in distrust. The pandemic’s economic consequences have intensified trust deterioration, especially in Poland and Hungary, where governments are mostly distrusted and punished for the economy. The current crisis might strengthen the ‘hyper accountability phenomena – a severe punishment by the population for an economic downturn present in the CEE region since the transition.

Litigating Election Integrity before International Human Rights Courts: Prospects and Limitations

We continue with publishing our ElMaRB seminars and today we want to share with you the recording of the seminar “Litigating Election Integrity before International Human Rights Courts: Prospects and Limitations”, which took place on the 7th of April. The talk was given by Dmitry Kurnosov, Carlsberg International Postdoctoral Fellow at the Faculty of Law, University of Helsinki. ElMaRB project leader Margarita Zavadskaya acted as a discussant.

During the last decade, the issue of electoral integrity has become increasingly prominent both in scholarly studies and in political discourse. On the one hand, we see the proliferation of competitive authoritarian regimes, which hold elections, but deny their participants a level playing field. On the other, advanced democracies experience increasing citizen dissatisfaction with the quality of democracy. In these circumstances, could international human rights courts play a constructive role?

The right to free and fair elections is enshrined in global and regional human rights instruments. Some of them can be relied upon by individuals in litigation against governments. My research looks into how this avenue is used, and whether international human rights courts can meaningfully improve election integrity.

I argue that the experience has been mixed so far. Litigation before international human rights courts has highlighted a number of important issues connected with election integrity. International judges have on many occasions addressed the challenges facing democracy in a contemporary environment. However, there are substantial limitations for litigating election integrity in an international setting. Often governments see elections as an essential part of their sovereignty. Therefore, they either ignore the decisions of international human rights courts or strike back against them. Mindful of these challenges, judges often adopt a cautious approach to election cases, limiting the potential scope of their decisions.

COVID-19 skepticism in Russia and its potential political effects

This spring our project seminars, where we talk about various issues, including electoral malpractice, cyber-security, and political consequences in Russia and beyond, returned with a presentation given on 31st of March by Margarita Zavadskaya. In her talk “COVID-19 skepticism in Russia and its potential political effects”, Margarita talked about the research she is conducting now with Boris Sokolov, the senior research fellow at LCSR HSE.

In this study, they explore how various socio-demographic attributes, values, attitudes, and personality traits of COVID-19 skeptics differ from those of the rest of the Russian population, finding several interesting contrasts in terms of values, trust, and political attitudes. The researchers use data collected during the first round of the international online panel survey “Values in Crisis” (in short ViC; fieldwork mid-June 2020, N = 1527). They operationalize COVID-skepticism as support for the idea that the Corona pandemic is a hoax and that all the lockdown measures are a hysterical overreaction, indicated by 38% of our respondents. Moreover, being a coronasceptic is a stronger predictor of political trust and political support than all the other pandemic-related variables available in the ViC questionnaire and most socio-demographic characteristics.

The comments to the research were provided by Anna Tarasenko, visiting researcher at the Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki and docent at the Department of Political Science and International Affairs, Higher School of Economics Saint Petersburg.

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

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.

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.