Linkages between Experiencing COVID-19 and Levels of Political Support in Russia

PONARS Eurasia published a policy memo “Linkages between Experiencing COVID-19 and Levels of Political Support in Russia”, written by Margarita Zavadkaya and Boris Sokolov (Higher School of Economics, St. Petersburg).

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has left noticeable traces in everyday life of Russian society. Eighty percent of Russians had to alter their lifestyles due to the virus, with half reporting that their incomes shrank, and this share keeps growing. Has the pandemic also affected how Russian citizens feel about their government? To explore how the pandemic has affected political support in Russia, we analyzed data from a representative online panel survey, “Values in Crisis,” carried out by the Laboratory for Comparative Social Research at the Higher School of Economics (LCSR, HSE).

We looked at four indicators of support: confidence in (1) the Russian government, (2) the health sector, and (3) the country’s institutions as a whole, as well as respondents’ opinions on (4) how well the government is handling the coronavirus crisis. We found that actual encounters with COVID-19 and the public healthcare system are negatively, although weakly, associated with all four indicators. We also found that the fear of getting sick moderately positively correlates with assessments of the government’s response to the crisis. Reported negative economic impacts do not seem to affect political trust and support. Strikingly, the most distrusting group of respondents are the so-called “COVID-19-dissidents,” who consistently scored low on all measures due to their refusal to take COVID-19 seriously.

This fascinating research can be read online.

Six myths about elections and protests in autocracies

Margarita Zavadskaya wrote an article for Riddle titled “Six myths about elections and protests in autocracies”. In the piece, which continues the discussion organised by All+Russia Civil Forum in October, Margarita discusses the mechanisms that lead to mobilisation after elections and ponders whether the upcoming 2021 election to the Russian Duma faces an increased risk of post-election protests. She achieves that by dismantling the popular myths about the elections in autocracies and the protests that might follow. The conclusion that Zavadskaya reaches is an open one:

The 2021 Duma elections will not be held in particularly comfortable conditions for United Russia. The situation is complicated by the economic consequences of the pandemic and the overall decline in support for the institutions of power. According to representative online surveys, in the summer of 2020 the respondents were extremely sensitive to economic fluctuations and expressed a high degree of concern (while being slightly less concerned about the pandemic). In the eyes of voters, the Duma is the most disliked body of federal power, which is why it will be difficult for United Russia to maintain its current number of mandates. However, no serious opponents will be allowed to participate in the elections anyway. And the probability of protests will largely depend on the strategies employed by the opposition and the degree of its organisation.

The full version of the text can be found on Riddle in both English and Russian.

The ‘Smart Vote’ Effect Outside Moscow and St. Petersburg: An Analysis of Russian Subnational Elections of September 2020

Alexei Navalny’s ‘smart vote’ initiative appeared effective in the course of Moscow and St. Petersburg elections last year. Russian subnational elections of September 2020 showed that, against common expectations, the ‘smart vote’ support boosted candidates’ electoral results outside the biggest cities as well. At the same time, the ‘smart vote’ pro-opposition effects are mitigated by the regime’s ability to rely on multi-day voting which exacerbates the spread of electoral malpractice. Mikhail Turchenko, associate professor of Political Science at the European University at St. Petersburg provides empirical evidence confirming these findings.

The ‘Smart Vote’ Campaign: A Background Story

Two years ago, on 28 November 2018, Alexei Navalny, the main Russian opposition politician, announced in his blog a new tool to oppose the regime’s electoral hegemony – the ‘smart vote’. At first glance, the ‘smart vote’ resembles Voting Advice Applications (VAAs), which have become popular in Western democracies since the 2000s. The ‘smart vote’ is designed as an electronic application as well as a webpage and a Telegram bot intended to give the voter advice, how to vote during the course of a given electoral campaign. However, if conventional VAAs compare the positions of the voter with the positions of parties/candidates on a range of policy issues to suggest the former the ‘optimal’ choice, the ‘smart vote’ operates in a more straightforward way. In the candidate-centered campaigns, it recommends the voter only the strongest non-United Russia candidate (or candidates) irrespective of his or her issue positions or party affiliation. Under the proportional representation system, the ‘smart vote’ advises voting for any party but United Russia. The rationale behind the ‘smart vote’, therefore, is to undermine the regime’s monopoly in the electoral realm by encouraging strategic behavior on the voters’ level.

The ‘smart vote’ was employed for the first time in September 2019, when Navalny’s team chose two main targets for the ‘smart vote’. There were electoral campaigns in two biggest cities of Russia: regional legislative elections in Moscow and municipal elections in St. Petersburg. As a result, candidates supported by the ‘smart vote’ won 20 out of the Moscow City Duma’s 45 seats, which was the best opposition’s victory since the beginning of the 2000s. During the St. Petersburg 2019 local elections, the ‘smart vote’ support gave candidates 7 percent of additional votes on average, as Mikhail Turchenko and Grigorii V. Golosov showed. Despite the fact that the ‘smart vote’ had, undoubtedly, an impact on the outcomes of Moscow and St. Petersburg electoral campaigns last year, the question remained, whether this tool is effective outside the capital cities. Russian subnational elections of September 2020 shed light on this question.

Overview of September 2020 Elections in Russia

In September 2020, there were no remarkable elections in terms of media campaigns or political stakes, as it was the case in 2019, keeping in mind Moscow and St. Petersburg. At the same time, some important contests had still taken place: there were by-elections to the State Duma in four single-member districts, gubernatorial elections in 18 regions, legislative elections in 11 regions, and city council elections in 22 regional capitals. In addition, there were plenty of local contests including city council elections in 12 cities with more than 200,000 inhabitants.

Navalny’s team proposed ‘smart vote’ candidates for all contests mentioned above[1], but city council election in Sterlitamak (more than 275,000 inhabitants), which is the second-largest city in the Republic of Bashkortostan. In sum, there were selected 1155 candidates to be included in the ‘smart vote’ list for 1171 seats to be distributed in the Duma by-elections, regional legislative elections, and city council elections both in regional capitals and cities with more than 200,000 inhabitants (with the exception of Sterlitamak).

It is noteworthy that, as in 2019, Navalny’s camp chose to focus on two elections for the ‘smart vote’ campaign – city council elections in Novosibirsk and Tomsk. In the run-up to the elections, Navalny himself visited both cities. It was exactly Tomsk where he was poisoned on 2 August by the toxic chemicals structurally similar to those prohibited by the OPCW.

Was the ‘Smart Vote’ Campaign Effective in 2020?

Moving back to the question of whether the ‘smart vote’ campaign had an impact on the September 2020 elections, which took place in different parts of Russia, it is useful to look at Figure 1 showing the average electoral results of the ‘smart vote’ candidates compared to non-‘smart vote’ ones[2] both in general and broken down by different party affiliations. It is clear that the average electoral results of candidates backed by the ‘smart vote’ campaign are in all instances better than those of non-‘smart vote’ ones.

Figure 1. The structure of the ‘smart vote’ support and average results of candidates backed by the ‘smart vote’ (SV) and those without one (non-SV)

Figure 1, however, cannot indicate, whether some candidates obtained higher electoral results due to the ‘smart vote’ support or they performed better simply because of their personal characteristics or previous electoral experience what, in turn, were taken into account by Navalny’s team when deciding upon including given candidates into the ‘smart vote’ list.

A proper way to understand whether the ‘smart vote’ support boosted candidates’ electoral results, would be to consider only those candidates who took part in both the 2020 elections and previous ones and did it with the same affiliation (or the lack thereof). Figure 2 displays the electoral results of such candidates, 213 in sum. The mean electoral result of these candidates in the 2020 elections – 26.63 percent – was higher than in the previous elections, 21.44 percent. And this difference is statistically significant (Wilcoxon signed-rank test, right-tailed, p < 0.001). This evidence allows concluding that the ‘smart vote’ campaign boosted candidates’ electoral results during September 2020 subnational elections in Russia.

Figure 2. Electoral results of the same candidates in 2020 elections compared to the previous ones[3] (only those candidates were selected who kept the same party affiliation)

Despite this, and the drop of victory rate from 90 percent in previous elections to 83 percent, United Russia candidates succeeded to win a majority in all regional assemblies and in most city councils. The only city councils, where United Russia failed to get a formal majority were the ones of Novosibirsk, Tomsk, and Tambov. If in Tambov poor United Russia’s results are rather due to idiosyncratic factors – a broad coalition has occurred around an ex-mayor of the city and the Rodina party, then both in Novosibirsk and Tomsk United Russia’s relative failures can be attributed to the ‘smart vote’. The number of ‘smart vote’ candidates got elected in these cities was bigger than elsewhere but Tambov.

The relative success of United Russia candidates in the light of the pressure imposed by the ‘smart vote’ campaign can be explained not only by the skewed playing field but also by a novel multi-day voting scheme when the main election day, September 13, was preceded by two days of early voting. Figure 3 shows that the vote share of United Russia affiliated candidates was positively associated with the share of early voting, while the correlation between the vote share of candidates backed by the ‘smart vote’ campaign and early voting was negative. In Russia, early voting limits the effectiveness of electoral observation, facilitates the task of mobilizing state-dependent voters to go to the polls, and, after all, simplifies the use of electoral malpractice. Numerous irregularities during the early voting phase of the Russian subnational elections of September 2020 were reported by the ‘Golos’ movement.

Figure 3. Early vote helps United Russia candidates: UR vote share by early voting (left pane) and SV candidates’ vote share by early voting


It seems that the ‘smart vote’ campaign boosts electoral results of candidates even outside the two biggest Russian cities. It is definitely bad news for the Kremlin and an encouraging one for the opposition. The ‘smart vote’ can potentially damage United Russia’s score during the Duma elections next year. No doubts, however, that the regime will respond. At least, the provision of three-day voting during all electoral campaigns has already been brought into Russian legislation.

[1] In the case of gubernatorial elections, the ’smart vote’ advised voting for any other candidate than either incumbent or the Kremlin’s nominee which were explicitly named. The reason was that gubernatorial elections were held according to a two-round system when a candidate in order to get elected must collect more than 50 percent of the valid votes cast.

[2] Figures 1-3 are based on aggregated data on legislative elections in 11 regions and city council elections in 22 regional capitals and 11 cities with more than 200,000 inhabitants (except for Sterlitamak).

[3] The author analyzed the previous elections, which took place in 2015, and all by-elections between 2016-2019.

Election observation of the 2020 presidential elections in Belarus, part 2

This is the second part of the paper “Election observation of the 2020 presidential elections in Belarus: main actors, electoral manipulations, and lessons for the future” by Dr. Alla Leukavets, a policy analyst at the Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies in Minsk. The first part can be read in our blog.

Menu of electoral manipulations

According to numerous reports, the 2020 presidential elections in Belarus were unprecedented in the amount of electoral falsifications and repressions applied by authorities towards representatives of the political opposition.

Analysis of the 2020 presidential elections demonstrates which strategies (or in Andreas Schedler’s words “a menu of electoral manipulations” (2002)) the Belarusian regime applied to break the “chain of democratic choice” to secure their desired electoral results.

The first set of strategies focused on breaking the “the range of choice” link in Schedler’s chain of democratic choice. The main strategies used by the regime dealt with the fragmentation of the opposition by restricting their access to the electoral arena. The means through which the regime excluded the competitors from the electoral game were manifold.

First, the Belarusian authorities developed cumbersome procedures to register political parties which provide broad discretionary powers to the registration authorities to reject the applications based on formalistic grounds. This burdensome registration process allowed the government to fully control the political environment and preclude or promote the appearance of new political actors if needed, limiting the right to freedom of association.

Second, the existing electoral legislation has a number of gaps and inconsistencies, including in the areas concerning the scope of restrictions on campaigning or grounds for removal of candidates. In numerous cases, during the 2020 presidential elections campaign, these provisions were interpreted and applied restrictively in relation to opposition candidates. As a result, the disqualifications of “unfavourable” candidates from the electoral game were often arbitrary acts by authorities and the result of fabricated politically motivated cases (for example, a case of embezzlement against Viktar Babaryka and a violation of order during campaign activities against Siarhei Tsikhanouski).

Third, the ruling regime weakened and split the opposition by creating divided structures of contestation. By allowing some of the opposition forces to compete in the elections or even advancing some of them into political offices, the incumbents provided mixed incentives to the opposition leaders by dividing them into the so-called “outsiders” and “insiders”. For example, Hanna Kanapatskaya and Siarhei Cherachen (often dubbed as “spoilers”) acquired more support from the ruling regime than the opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.

The second set of strategies focused on breaking the “formation of preferences” link.  In order to prevent voters from acquiring information about the opposition candidates, the regime obstructed the opposition from disseminating their campaign messages.

During the campaign period, the opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was denied a space for her pre-election picket in the capital Minsk due to a dubious reason – this space was allocated for celebrating one of the state holidays which had never before been widely celebrated in Belarus.

Furthermore, recent amendments to the Law on Mass Media introduced additional regulations for online media. According to the changes, the Ministry of Information, which is the primary regulatory body for media in Belarus, was granted wide discretionary powers to restrict access to websites on the basis of its own monitoring or notification from other state agencies. In addition, the new amendments obliged online media operators to collect, store, and provide to law-enforcement organs personal data of those individuals who comment on online articles. As a result of these measures, public discussion about elections was severely restricted. Thus, the regime attempted to skew the playing field by capturing institutions which should promote political pluralism and severely limiting the opposition’s access to the public space. In response, the public discussion moved to more secure social media platforms, such as Telegram channels, which played a crucial role in mobilising people against the regime and galvanising the post-election protest movement in Belarus.

The third group of strategies concerned breaking the “expression of preferences” link, i.e. influencing voters to express their preferences in a certain way through voter intimidation and voter buying.

According to a wide-spread practice, the Belarusian regime puts pressure on specific groups of the population, including civil servants, military personal or students to cast their vote in advance of the E-day, i.e. during the early voting (5 days before the E-day) which provides a lot of opportunities for falsification of election results. The authorities apply a mix of threats and rewards to realise this strategy: in some cases, for example, the students were promised a day-off from attending classes, whereas in others they were threatened with losing their place at the dormitory. The latter approach especially targets students who come to study in bigger cities from the periphery and are particularly vulnerable to pressure as they depend on the volition of the administration to have a place to stay at the student accommodation.

The fourth group of strategies focused on breaking “the aggregation of preferences” link.  It manifested itself in electoral fraud, including ballot stuffing, increasing turnout rates among the loyal population (especially during early voting and home-bound voting), mistakes in voter registration, falsifications during counting and tabulation processes as well as depriving independent election observers of entering the premises of the polling stations and detaining them.  One of the key mechanisms which facilitates the electoral malpractices is the composition of precinct electoral commissions: the members of most of them belong to one institution, e.g. a school, hospital, or enterprise, and are usually chaired by the head of these institutions. Such commissions function efficiently and unanimously as the members are aware that the results of their “work” can have an impact on their future employment at the institutions which they represent.

Thus, The Belarusian regime has used a variety of strategies to manipulate the election results, consisting of both hard repression measures, including detentions and prosecution of opposition candidates and independent election observers as well as more subtle mechanisms, including ballot stuffing, falsifications during the counting and tabulation, manipulating the rules governing media and access of the contestants to the public space.

What Went Wrong for the Belarusian Regime This Time?

However, the rich menu of electoral manipulations consisting of massive falsifications, detentions, and arrests of observers and representatives of the political opposition was not accepted by the Belarusian citizens and they came out into the streets to protest against the fraudulent results of the elections. Several factors contributed to triggering this result.

The first one was the mishandling of the pandemic by the authorities.  Lukashenka and his entourage adopted a ridiculous approach to fighting coronavirus. Lukashenka called it a corona psychosis and recommended saunas, working out in the fields, and drinking vodka as the best remedy to fight the virus. The anxiety and anger of the population started to grow as many people were taken to hospitals and died there, sometimes because of a lack of necessary treatments and the old infrastructure. The message sent to the general public was that wearing a mask is unnecessary and even shameful. This narrative was emphasized not only by Lukashenka himself but also by other officials, for example, by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Uladzimir Makei, who said that he feels embarrassed to wear a mask when shopping.

In addition to coronavirus, the economic situation in the country had been worsening for some time leading up to the elections which contributed to increasing social dissatisfaction with the Lukashenka regime and also considerably lowered the level of trust in the authorities.

Another factor is the role of social media, i.e. Youtube and Telegram channels which have led to the appearance of new faces on the political spectrum in Belarus. The authorities clearly underestimated the role of social media in politicising the Belarusian people. One of the figures that have emerged thanks to digital media was Siarhei Tsikhanouski  – a famous youtube blogger who had many followers at his channel titled, “Country for life”. Another famous social media persona is Styapan Putila who migrated to Poland and created a youtube channel Nexta (which stands for “somebody” in Belarusian). There are also several Nexta “channels” on Telegram where thousands of videos of what is happening in Belarus are being uploaded on a regular basis.  The videos from Nexta channels played an important role in galvanizing the protest movement in Belarus.

Finally, the role of technology, i.e the IT sector, was also crucial in these elections. Belarus is considered to be an IT hub in the post-Soviet space and there are many IT companies here which work as part of the Park of High Technologies. A group of IT specialists developed the online platforms (e.g., Golas, Zubr) for alternative counting of the votes.  These platforms provided the key evidence which contributed to delegitimising the official results of the presidential elections and clearly showed that Lukashenka did not win in the elections with 80 percent as the official results stated.

Thus, the combination of these factors, i.e., mishandling the coronavirus situation by authorities, the worsening economic situation in the country, and the role of digital media and the IT sector contributed to mobilising people against the ruling regime, raising Belarusian’s dissatisfaction with the results of the elections and bringing people in such massive numbers to the streets to demand changes.

In Lieu of Conclusion

Although many election observers in Belarus were threatened, detained, and imprisoned and the Central Election Commission made the outlandish report of Lukashenko’s landslide victory,  the work of observers made a crucial contribution to exposing the electoral fraudulence exercised by the regime. The grassroots initiative “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections”, “Honest people”, “Prava Vybary”, the online platforms Zubr and Golas as well as independent citizen observers managed to create a network for communication, support, and data-sharing. The work of observers put pressure for fair counting at some polling stations and presented essential data on the turnout, alternative votes, violations of voters’ rights and election procedures. Documented testimonies, systematic collecting and publishing of evidence helped to show the appalling scale of falsifications made by the ruling regime to ordinary Belarusians and the world at large.  This evidence inspired Belarusians to take to the streets in massive numbers to demand an end of repressions, the resignation of Lukashenka as well as the conduct of new free and fair elections.

Election observation of the 2020 presidential elections in Belarus: main actors, electoral manipulations, and lessons for the future.

We return with our regular posts about elections, electoral malpractice, and cyber-security, and this Summer and Autumn have been full of notable events we aim to uncover. Elections and protests in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan, single voting day in Russia – we will discuss all these and other cases in the following weeks.

Today we invited Dr. Alla Leukavets, who is a policy analyst at the Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies in Minsk, to write about the conduct of the presidential elections in Belarus on the 9th of August 2020. Alla Leukavets holds a PhD in political science from Bremen International Graduate School of Social Sciences and has recently finished a post-doc programme in electoral studies at the University of Tartu. Alla specializes in the domestic and foreign policy of Belarus and other Eastern Partnership countries, Eurasian integration, and energy relations between Russia and the European Union. Leukavets’ enlightening and rich contribution will be split into two parts, and today we publish the first one that deals with election observation in Belarus.

Election observation is the process of assessing the conduct of elections in accordance with national legislation and international election standards by one or more independent actors. It plays an important role in ensuring electoral integrity. This blog post will discuss the types of election observation, main actors, and kinds of electoral malpractices based on a case study of the 2020 presidential elections in Belarus.

Photo: Vyasna

Types of election observation

Based on the actors who carry out monitoring, election observation can be divided into international and national. International actors include, for example, observers delegated by other countries as well as missions deployed by international organisations (for example, OSCE ODIHR, OSCE PA, the EU, Council of Europe PA, CIS, SCO).

National actors allowed to carry out election observation of presidential elections, according to the Belarusian national legislation (art. 13 and 155 of the Election Code), include members of Parliament, representatives of local governmental organs, political parties, other public organisations, labour unions, proxies of the candidates as well as citizens (Table 1).

Based on the length of monitoring, election observation can be divided into short-term and long-term. Short-term focuses on the monitoring of early voting (five days before the main election day) as well as the E-day. Long-term observation includes the early phases of the electoral process, usually starting with the registration of candidates.

Table 1: Main election observation actors in Belarus and their participation in the 2020 presidential elections

International election observation

For the first time in the election history of Belarus, the presidential elections were not observed by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). It did not send its mission to Belarus because an invitation from the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to deploy a mission came more than two months after the start of the electoral campaign reportedly because of the risks of Coronavirus. Accepting an invitation and sending a mission so late would have prevented the OSCE ODIHR from carrying out comprehensive coverage of the electoral process. The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly also refused to send their missions to observe the 2020 presidential elections in Belarus.

The only international observation mission to the 2020 presidential elections in Belarus was deployed by the CIS Interparliamentary Assembly (CIS IPA). Consistently with its usual approach to monitoring the elections in Belarus, the mission did not raise any criticisms and declared that the 2020 presidential election was conducted in accordance with international election standards.

National election observation

The Central Election Commission issued several resolutions (No 15 in May 2020 and No 115 in July 2020) before the elections regulating the functioning of the national election observers. The resolutions were based on the recommendation of the Ministry of Health on sanitary and anti-epidemic measures during the presidential election. According to these resolutions, only 3 observers could be allowed inside the polling station during the early voting and 5 observers – on E-day. In addition, it was envisaged that at polling stations with precinct election commission (PEC) members below 8 persons, the number of observers could not exceed half of the commission’s size. By adopting these resolutions, the authorities artificially created conditions under which independent observation of the voting and counting was severely limited or completely impossible.

By the time the resolutions were adopted about 43.000 observers representing pro-government political parties and public associations (see Table 1) had been accredited with precinct election commissions (the total amount of polling stations for the presidential elections in Belarus was 5.767). These observers did not register any facts questioning the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential elections.

The right of observers to be present at polling stations was determined by the order of their accreditation with the election commissions, and the delegates from the civil society organisations or independent citizen observers in most of the cases were assigned numbers more than 5, which deprived them of the opportunity to be present inside the polling stations and monitor the process of voting and counting of votes. For instance, in the case of “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections” – a joint initiative of two human rights NGOs “Belarusian Helsinki Committee” and Human Rights Center “Vyasna” – a total of 798 observers were accredited with the PECs out if which only 93 observers (11,5%) were admitted to the polling stations and only for a limited period of time. Only one observer was able to fully observe the entire voting process (early voting, voting on the main day, and home-bound voting).

Initiative “Chesniya Lyudi” (“Honest People”) was advanced by the election campaign team of Viktar Babarika and became a multifunctional platform for fighting against the regime.  It delegated about 6.000-7.000 observers to monitor presidential elections, developed an online training course for observers, and launched a mechanism for helping those who had suffered as the result of the repressions during and after the elections. During the first two days of early voting, Honest People had registered over 3000 violations in the work of PECs. However, none of them had been addressed by authorities. Honest People observers in most cases were not allowed to enter the polling stations and were often deprived of accreditation and detained.

Honest People acted in cooperation with the two online platforms for alternative counting of votes – “Golas” (“Voice”) and (the website has been blocked by the Belarusian authorities). The platforms asked voters to take photos of the ballots at the polling places and submit them to the platforms. According to the final report of Golas, there were falsifications made at least in every third polling station which proved that the official results, according to which, Aliaksandr Lukashenka had won with 80.1%, were clearly false (data has been analysed for 1.310 polling stations out of a total of 5.767 polling stations across Belarus).

Prava Vybaru – 2020 (“Right to Choose – 2020”) is a joint initiative of eight organisations, including seven opposition political parties and one social movement. The initiative sent about 600 observers to monitor the early voting out of which only 45 were allowed to be present inside the polling stations. During the first day alone, the observers registered 318 complaints concerning the malpractices of the electoral administrations – the major one being a large artificial increase in voter turn-out. . During the whole course of observation, the observers registered 1634 electoral falsifications and 28 observers from Prava Vybaru had been detained by the 9th of August.

Finally, national election observation was also done by independent citizen observers. In order to register as such, one needs to collect 10 signatures of Belarusian citizens in support of his or her candidacy. These elections witnessed a rise of civic activism resulting in many Belarusians expressing their wish to observe the elections. These observers, just as the representatives of the aforementioned civic initiatives, were not allowed on the premises of the polling stations. All they could do was to stay outside and sometimes look through the windows or doors at the work of electoral administrations. In spite of these limitations, the “outside independent observers” played a very important role in gathering evidence of electoral falsifications. Their main function was to register voter turn-out and to count voters wearing “white bracelets” – a symbol for demonstrating opposition to the ruling regime. This was particularly crucial during the early voting which is the usual time when the electoral administrations engage in vast falsifications. The data from independent observers demonstrated that the official voter turn-out during early voting presented by the authorities was twice as high in comparison to the actual results.

The second part of the publication will be published on Monday, the 12th of October.

COVID-19 and Russians’ political sentiments

Yesterday Riddle published an article “COVID-19 and Russians’ political sentiments” written by Margarita Zavadskaya and Boris Sokolov (Senior Research Fellow, Laboratory for Comparative Social Research, HSE). Based on the ‘Values in Crisis’ survey, they have compiled original data on how the coronavirus pandemic is changing Russian society and its political moods. The results show little sign of any ‘rally round the flag’ effect.

To sum up, Russians have not ‘rallied round the flag’ in response to the epidemic, as predicted by political science theories. On the other hand, the economic situation has not yet had a very noticeable impact on political sentiments. Here, the situation can change if the recession caused by the coronavirus and authorities’ response is protracted. The subjective perception of what is happening has a stronger impact (albeit small in absolute numbers) on the attitude towards the government than direct experience of the disease or its economic consequences. Interestingly, pandemic-related concerns are conducive to a favourable rather than negative attitude to the authorities; perhaps the government is perceived as a source of some stability and social guarantees.


The most interesting result is the close link between the perception of COVID-19 as a hoax and distrust in the government and state institutions. This may indicate that the authorities are suffering the greatest reputational loss among the conservative section of society, where the share of supporters of various conspiracy theories is quite high.

The full version of the text is available in English and Russian online.

Finland and its coronavirus strategy

Our project members Margarita Zavadskaya and Elena Gorbacheva not only write about the life and politics changed by the coronavirus for ElMaRB Politics&Pandemics series but also wrote an analytical note for European Dialogue expert group about how Finland deals with the outbreak and what can be learned from it.

In the paper titled “Борьба с пандемией в Финляндии: бесполезные уроки?” (Fighting the pandemic in Finland: useless lessons?), the researchers provide a detailed overview of how the state reacted to the emergency, what measures were undertaken, how the decisions are made, and when will the restrictions be lifted. They conclude, that even though the Finnish strategy seems to be efficient, it is not likely to be borrowed by states with a different political system. However, some things from Finnish experience can still be taken into account. Which ones? You can find out about them from the analytical note.

Should we trust Russian surveys?

In the latest issue of Baltic Rim Economics you can read an article written by our Doctoral student Eemil Mitikka – “Should we trust Russian surveys?”. Eemil has been using survey data in his Master’s Thesis and will continue to use it in his Doctoral dissertation. Russian surveys might indeed raise concerns of preference falsification and under-representation, but what if the situation is not that bad? Eemil in his piece discusses the common challenges that arise when working with survey data and comes to the following conclusion:

To answer the question posed in the title, it is obvious that we should not trust blindly Russian surveys. Yet, since alternative ways to study mass attitudes are limited, surveys maintain their functionality and relevance in public opinion studies. Naturally, it is possible that better methods to study public sentiments will occur in the future. In the meantime, however, traditional surveys serve as valuable tools in analyzing societies – including contemporary Russia.

Read the full article online here.

It’s hard to be a mayor

Riddle published a new piece by Margarita Zavadskaya titled “It’s hard to be a mayor”. In the text, Dr. Zavadskaya discusses constraints that Russian laws and regimes put on mayors’ governance in Russia, also from the point of elections.

However, adjustments must be made for the dominant form of political regime, which in Russia’s case can be termed a consolidated electoral autocracy. It is known that in such circumstances governors are forced to a certain extent to provide the requisite share of votes and increased turnout in federal elections. As municipal heads are de facto accountable to regional administrations for everything from the efficient use of funds, they also have a role to play in these electoral processes. Municipalities in Russia’s political conditions can therefore be considered an extension of the vertical of power. If this is so, then the survival of leaders at the most local level of government may also depend on election results and their success in ensuring the political loyalty of the population.

So how does political mobilisation affect local governance? Does it affect it at all? Two possible answers suggest themselves. The first is that the assistance which municipalities feasibly provide in ensuring turnout, votes, or both results in additional bonuses, access to financing and other programmes which in turn increase the budget available to local heads, giving them more room for manoeuvre. Essentially, political loyalty and budgetary autonomy are mutually reinforcing. The second answer is more pessimistic: if municipalities need to take extra efforts to ensure turnout and votes, they can potentially distract their staff, and divert their resources, away from solving pressing problems, thereby distorting the system of managerial priorities.

The work can be read both in English and in Russian.

With not great elections comes not great governance

PONARS Eurasia published a new policy memo “Explaining Bad Governance in Russia: Institutions and Incentives”, written by Professor Vladimir Gel’man and Margarita Zavadskaya.

What are the sources and mechanisms of governance in Russia? Is bad governance doomed to persist endlessly under authoritarian rule, or can the quality of governance be improved over time by certain policies? Recent discussions attempting to explain good and bad governance in various countries, regions, and policy areas have been quite extensive. How can we place present-day Russia onto this global governance map? And should we consider Russia as an outlier or, rather, as a laggard vis-à-vis many other developed states? We argue here that the Russian political regime provides insufficient incentives for good governance, and that attempts to improve the quality of governance without democratization will not ultimately prove fruitful.

Zavadskaya and Gel’man see one of the reasons for lack of sufficient incentives for good governance in the electoral nature of Russian authoritarianism, which, they say, is heavily dependent on political performance of the “power vertical”, rather than economic one:

The performance of regional and municipal authorities is judged by election results, not by socio-economic achievements. Furthermore, state enterprises and organizations perform functions of workplace electoral mobilization for the sake of the Kremlin and its sub-national agents. The mechanism of accountability within the “power vertical,” based upon prioritization of such political indicators as “degree of popular trust in the president” in a given region, is institutionalized. In other words, the delivery of votes can become a more important task for Russian local governments than the delivery of local public goods. Placing political loyalty above professional efficiency serves as the Achilles heel for a number of authoritarian regimes, and Russia is by no means an exception.

The authors discuss the solutions that Russian authorities offer to change this trend and get rid of bad governance. However, decentralization, deregulation, and digitalization cannot possibly solve the problem without initial democratization – an option that Russian top leaders seem not to consider:

The 4D solution, which goes beyond recipes of deregulation, digitalization, and decentralization and puts democratization as the number one item on the agenda of advancing good governance, remains beyond the current menu of Russia’s authoritarianism. This is why all other recipes for countering bad governance in the country may be considered at best partial and temporary solutions. Yet as the recent experience of Ukraine suggests, even the democratization of Russia’s political regime as such could not guarantee the diminishment of bad governance within the country. Nonetheless, without major political changes, there is no way to improve the quality of governance. Without these changes, Russia most likely will be doomed to muddling through numerous pathologies of bad governance while preserving certain “pockets of efficiency” in strategically-important priority sectors and policy fields, selectively picking up good apples fallen from the bad trees of ineffectiveness and un-rule of law. The question is to what extent these pathologies of bad governance could turn into chronic diseases, not curable under any treatment, and whether or not the “vicious circle” of bad governance in Russia may be broken in the foreseeable future.

Full version of the policy memo can be read online.