Environmental protests and elections in Russia

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.

All-Russia Civil Forum 2020

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.

The recording of the event is available below:

Exhibition of the Academic Research Achievements

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.

In the Eye of the Beholder:  Misperceptions of Electoral Integrity in Central-Eastern Europe

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.

Election system at the start of Russian State Duma elections: expectations, threats, and opportunities

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:

Authoritarian Governance and Reform in Russia

On the 9th of October PONARS Eurasia held an online event “Authoritarian Governance and Reform in Russia”. Vladimir Gel’man, professor at the European University at Saint Petersburg and the University of Helsinki gave a talk at the event based on his and Margarita Zavadskaya’s policy memo “Explaining Bad Governance in Russia: Institutions and Incentives”. The memo is available online and you can find the recording of the event below:

ElMaRB expert panel discussion on Belarusian elections and protests

ElMaRB project and the Aleksanteri Institute organised on 1st of September the first event of the new study year – panel discussion “Belarusian election 2020: unexpected outcomes. What is happening and what is to come?”. For this timely event, we invited experts from political science and international relations fields: Ryhor Nizhnikau (Finnish Institute of Foreign Affairs), Vladimir Gel’man (Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki), Kristiina Silvan (Finnish Institute of Foreign Affairs and University of Helsinki) and Katri Pynnöniemi (Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki & National Defence University). The discussion was moderated by ElMaRB project leader Margarita Zavadskaya.

The event started with a brief introduction to the conflict from each expert. Ryhor Nizhnikau’s talk “Knight with rakes: the EU’s way and response to the crisis” dealt with European Union policy towards Belarus in recent years and its dissatisfying reaction to the ongoing events. The next speaker, Katri Pynnöniemi, in her talk “Russian strategic narratives and the crisis in Belarus” explained how the Kremlin applies the same “colour revolution” narrative they used with Ukraine during the Euromaidan and how the Kremlin sees the situation in Belarus in general. Kristiina Silvan, whose Doctoral dissertation is dealing with state youth activism in Belarus and Russia, spoke about the changing attitudes of the youth in her presentation ““From apathy to activism? Young people’s mobilization in 2020””. From the scarce poll data available and based on her research, Silvan revealed that the modern generation in Belarus becomes more politically active. What is interesting, however, is that during the current crisis the Belarusian Republican Youth Union had been rather inactive and did not refer to the protests in their social media channels. The last talk was Vladimir Gel’man’s ”Democratization by Mistake? The Limits of Authoritarian Strategies in Belarus”. Professor Gel’man focused on the problems Lukashenka’s regime faces in the aftermath of the fraudulent elections, how it deals with them, and what can be expected in the future.

The presentations were followed by a discussion with questions from the moderator Margarita Zavadskaya and the online audience. The covered themes included but were not limited to a comparison of the current protests with the recent Venezeualan, Armenian, and Ukranian contention and Russia’s response to them; the repertoire of protest action and its strengths and weakness; the shocking level of violence to which the law enforcement resorted and the loyalty of siloviki to Lukashenko; the role of COVID-19 in the weakening of Lukashenko’s support, and many other related issues. While the experts were rather careful and pessimistic in their assessments of the ongoing post-election protests, they all agree that the regime was significantly weakened by them, and if it withstands, it wouldn’t happen without Russia’s assurance of possible help.

The Belarusians continue to go on marches and strikes every day, and while it is not clear that the democratisation of Belarus will be the result of this contention, what is know for certain is that the citizens are ready for free and fair elections, and without them, there is no democracy.

The recording of the panel discussion is available on Tiedekulma’s website and will be soon published on the Aleksanteri Institute Youtube channel. In the meantime, our project continues to closely follow the post-election contention in Belarus and will be getting back to it in our future publications and events.

Belarusian election 2020: unexpected outcomes

Political developments in Belarus have shaken the world this summer: elections marred with an overwhelming fraud and violations lead to unprecedented large-scale political mobilization. Subsequent state-sponsored violence triggered the protests further and resulted in strikes, marches, meetings, and performances. The situation is developing rapidly and the conflict resolution remains uncertain. At “Belarusian election 2020: unexpected outcomes. What is happening and what is to come?” panel discussion, organised by the ElMaRB project, the experts in the realms of Belarusian politics, social movements, governance, and international relations will discuss the current situation and its impact on the future political landscape.

Tune in at Tiedekulma Live on Tuesday, September 1st at 1 pm to follow a panel discussion with Ryhor Nizhnikau (Finnish Institute of Foreign Affairs), Vladimir Gel’man (Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki), Kristiina Silvan (Finnish Institute of Foreign Affairs and University of Helsinki) and Katri Pynnöniemi (Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki & National Defence University). The discussion is moderated by Margarita Zavadskaya (Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki).

You are welcome to participate in the event by sending in comments and questions either prior to the event by emailing them to niina.into@helsinki.fi, or real-time via Twitter, using hashtag #belarusianelections.

Recording of the event will be available later on the Aleksanteri Institute YouTube channel.

About the speak­ers:

Dr. Ryhor Nizhnikau is a Senior Research Fellow at the Finnish Institute of Foreign Affairs. His area of expertise includes the EU’s Eastern neighbourhood, Russian policy in the post-soviet space, domestic and foreign policies of Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine

Dr. Vladimir Gel’man is a Professor of Russian Politics at the University of Helsinki. His areas of expertise include Russian and post-Soviet politics and governance in a theoretical and comparative perspective with a special emphasis on political regime dynamics, political institutions, policy-making, electoral and party politics, regional and local government.

Kristiina Silvan is a Research Fellow at the Finnish Institute of Foreign Affairs in the field of Russian and Belarusian domestic policy and social movements, and politics and society in Central Asian states. As a doctoral candidate at the University of Helsinki, she studies youth activism and government-organised youth organisations in post-communist Russia and Belarus.

Dr. Katri Pynnöniemi is an Assistant Professor of Russian Security Policy at the University of Helsinki and National Defence University. Her current research focuses on Russian foreign and security politics, with emphasis on changes in strategic thinking (doctrines, strategies and concepts), conceptualization and implementation of information warfare tools as part of Russian foreign policy, and the analysis of treat perceptions and enemy images in Russian strategic communication/deception.

Dr. Margarita Zavadskaya is a Postdoctoral Researcher and leader of the Electoral Malpractice, Cyber-security, and Political Consequences in Russia and Beyond (ElMaRB) project at the University of Helsinki. Her research focuses on how perceived electoral malpractice affects electoral turnout and other politically relevant outcomes, and how Russian voters consume and process political information translated by the media.

Political Consequences of the COVID-19 in Russia: Another Blame Game?

Yesterday Aleksanteri Institute organised a discussion panel at Tiedekulma on COVID-19 in Russia and its effects on politics, Central Asian migrants, and prisons. The event was streamed online and consisted of three presentations by postdoctoral researchers at the Aleksanteri Institute – Margarita Zavadskaya, Sherzod Eraliev (“Covid-19 pandemic on Central Asian labour migrants in Russia”), and Olga Zeveleva (” Prisons and punishment in Russia during the COVID-19 pandemic”) and was chaired by Mikhail Nakonechnyi, also a postdoctoral researcher at the Aleksanteri Institute. After the discussion, the participants answered the questions that were sent by the audience online.

ElMaRB project leader, Margarita Zavadskaya gave a talk titled “Political Consequences of the COVID-19 in Russia: Another Blame Game? “. The talk in many ways reflected what Margarita was exploring within the “Politics and Pandemics” special series that we started at the beginning of April in our blog. Margarita discussed how Russia is dealing with the pandemic, and what are the economic and political consequences of it.

Dr. Zavadskaya pointed out some interesting features of the political support dynamics in Russia. For instance, from social studies, we know that events like natural disasters, external threats usually provide rallying around leader effect. However, we do not observe it in Russia. Even state-sponsored pollsters report stable figures around 67% (i.e. no rise). According to the independent pollster Levada Center, political support for V. Putin reached its historical low of 59% in May. Moreover, before April, Levada registered a rise in support for regional governors.

Second, there is a rise of mass concerns with the economic situation, purchasing capacity, and employment prospects, especially among the vulnerable groups of the population, small business, and medical workers. The Russian economy has been experiencing problems before the pandemic – it was hit hard by the drop of oil prices on March 8th and earlier decrease in trade with China. The pandemic and subsequent lockdown aka ‘non-working days’ or even sometimes referred to as ‘holidays’ lead to an immediate rise in official unemployment, bankruptcies, and an overall slowdown of economic activities. As we know, people tend to “punish” their governments for a deteriorating economy and hold them accountable for the economic grievances. Thus, in Russia, we can observe two warring tendencies – the expected rallying effect and blaming the authorities for the declining economy.

What can be expected from all this? The experts generally agree that the implemented by the government supportive measures fell short of the Russians’ expectations. The official statistics number may show that the support of the government and the president is still relatively high, but actually, even the so-called pro-Putin loyal majority is unsatisfied with the current situation and the social contract has eroded. At the same time, there are no channels for Russians to express their discontent – while people in electoral democracies can just throw the rascals out with voting, Russian elections do not allow voters to punish the executive for the ‘bad governance’. Protest – another form of expressing political discontent – also seems costly under repressive regimes due to various restrictions on the public gatherings (especially during the pandemic), even solitary pickets. Besides that, people don’t tend to protest when the economic situation is hard. Therefore, all the grievances will be just accumulating for a while.

To finalise, the COVID-19 helped the regime to experiment with a new toolkit of manipulations and repressive measures – new restrictions on gatherings, new forms of voting. There are grounds to believe that the vote on constitutional amendments is better to take place as soon as possible because political support is not expected to remain high. On the other hand, this time the regime attacked its loyal voters. Loyal majority kept voting for the regime, but when the state was most needed, it backed down from its ‘duties’. Ironically, excessive regulatory intervention of the state in business and non-commercial sectors turned out to be a laisser-faire strategy when it was most needed. Thus, Russia will remain about the same, but poorer and more repressive.

The full recording of the panel discussion is available below:

Is it who is saying or what is being said? Mechanisms of disinformation under non-democracies. Evidence from a survey experiment in Russia

Self-isolation does not prevent research seminars from happening. Today, Margarita Zavadskaya together with Anna Shirokanova, senior research fellow, Laboratory for Comparative Social Research (LCSR) presented their research, that they have been doing together with Elena Sirotkina, doctoral student, University of North Carolina, at the Russian Media Lab Network cyber lunch. The paper they presented is titled “Is it who is saying or what is being said? Mechanisms of disinformation under non-democracies. Evidence from a survey experiment in Russia” and is a result of the research based on a nationwide survey, where the participants were asked how do they perceive two ideologically polarised media messages depending on the media outlet they are published in – Channel One or Ekho Moskvy.

How good citizens are in defining disinformation in an autocracy? Which information they name credible and what influences their perception of credibility? On a representative sample of the Russian population, we run a story-based vignettes experiment to find out how consistency of the message and the source influences credibility to the information provided given partisanship and perceived neutrality. We find that overall citizens accurately identify which of the polarized opinions is more likely to appear at a pro-government and a pro-opposition source. However, the message content and its tone coupled with the respondents’ partisanship define whether s/he deems the piece of information credible and trustworthy. Perceived neutrality is the main mechanism, which forces credibility to the message. This perceived neutrality proves to be a key heuristics for navigation in media for citizens from both pro-government and pro-opposition flanks. The results of the survey experiment suggests that respondents generally admit that the Russian media mostly transmit pro-government messages, while largely fail to spot the pro-government bias having been intentionally exposed to it. These findings adds up to the argument that public opinion under autocracies does not entirely result from the preference of falsification, but also from ‘the preference for propaganda’.