The international conference ‘Explaining Contentious Politics in Russia: Innovations in Theory and Data Collection’ was dedicated to analyzing the protest activity. The event was organized by the HSE Laboratory for Political Studies and took place in Moscow on June 26-27, 2013.
Compared to Moscow, political activity in the Russian regions after the 2011 Duma elections was initially weak and calmed down much faster than in the capital. It was not difficult for the authorities to extinguish protests in the regions. This was carried out through, among other means, co-opting of opposition leaders in the power structure. This process was analyzed in the study ‘Co-optation and Legislatures in Contemporary Authoritarian Regimes’, presented by Ora John Reuter from the University of Rochester (USA).
The idea of co-opting in the case of protest activities is that opposition leaders get leading positions in the authorities in exchange for loyalty to the existing regime. The results of the study presented by Dr. Reuter prove that in case of co-optation, the level of protests in the region decreases, which seriously undermines the opposition’s strength. ‘Legislatures help authoritarian regimes buy social stability through co-optation’, Dr. Reuter explained. As examples of co-optation, he mentioned members of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) often being assigned leading positions in Duma committees. But leadership in the key committees, the researcher emphasized, stays with United Russia.
Most of the Russian protesters believed that multiple cases of falsification took place during the December 2011 Duma election, which allowed United Russia to take the majority of places in the parliament by dishonest means. This falsification was the topic of a study carried out by a team of researchers from the Higher School of Economics and the New Economic School, which was presented by Alexey Zakharov in his report on 'Field Experiment Estimate of Electoral Fraud in Russian Parliamentary Elections’.
The researchers based their study on data received as a result of independent observers’ work as part of the ‘Citizen Observer’ project, which was initially started as a research experiment. The data came from the work of observers at polling stations in Moscow. The study authors concluded that about 11% of votes in Moscow were received by United Russia dishonestly: about one third of them through stuffing ballot boxes with false voting papers, and the rest – through ‘transfer’ of votes given to other parties.
Nevertheless, citizens’ indignation with unfair elections, even with serious proof of electoral fraud, doesn’t explain the reasons for protests. ‘All the theories so far have failed to give a good explanation as to why protests take place, why some elections cause protests and the others don’t’, one of the conference participants, Brendan J. McElroy from Harvard University, said.
The case of Russian protests is interesting since it took place in a context where people had already experienced the impact of the financial crisis. ‘Why, during the Duma elections in 2007, did no one believe in electoral fraud?’, Konstantin Sonin, HSE Professor, asked. He said that in 2009, when the economic crisis had occurred, the population, according to surveys and research, had seriously limited access to the purchases of food and other basic products. This was probably the reason for the 2011 protests, the researcher suggested.
At the same time, some of the protesters went into the streets for one very simple reason – to show their political activity off to others. And social networks were largely responsible for this. The topic of social networks’ influence over the population’s political activity has become a popular research topic in the context of Russian and European political protests.
Alexey Makarin from the HSE presented his study on ‘Social Media and Protest Participation: Evidence from Russia’, which was carried out by a team of researchers from the HSE and NES. One of the most interesting results received as part of the study, which was carried out in 318 Russian cities, is that many protesters had thought before going to the rallies about how they would tell their friends about their participation. Twenty percent admitted it, and 10% had had a clear intention to blog about the rally.
Who are the protesters? This also was another question which was of particular interest for researchers.
Alexey Titkov, Associate Professor at the HSE Faculty of Politics, spoke on ‘2011-2012 Protests as Viewed by Local Officials’. The paper was prepared using the results of the project ‘Officials’ Outlook’ by the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration Centre of Federal Studies. In this study the authors tried to, among other things, find out how the local officials view the protesters. To this end, state and municipal governmental officials were interviewed in May-August 2012.
The researchers assumed that state officials’ attitudes to the protests and protesters were influenced mainly by their experience of professional communication with ordinary citizens, as well as, those practices which are usual for officials in justifying their activity, A. Titkov explained. These practices are part of the industrial order of values by L. Boltanski and L. Thévenot. ‘As part of the industrial order, where the values of professionalism and effectiveness play the key role, the state officials define themselves as professionals, and also as professionals of “emotional labour”. Ordinary citizens, on the other hand, are perceived by them as incompetent and emotionally unstable’, A. Titkov said.
These professional stereotypes defined the attitude to the protests to a larger extent than the unmasking campaign in the official media. The surveyed officials, as a rule, were calm about the fact of protest rallies, since, they believed, ‘there is always someone who is unsatisfied’ and rarely expressed the idea that the rallies had been ‘organized by someone from outside’, A. Titkov said.
What is the difference between the protesters and the supporters of the existing regime? The answer to this question may be surprising. Irina Soboleva, Junior Research Fellow at the HSE Laboratory of Political Studies, presented a paper ‘A Well-Organized Game: Symbolic Policy and the Effect of Pro-Putin Rallies’ prepared jointly with Regina Smyth from Indiana University (USA) and Anton Sobolev from the HSE. The authors found out that by demographic, economic, and social parameters the participants of opposition and pro-Putin rallies have almost no differences. Opposition and government supporters are divided by their views on specific political issues. They include: support for Vladimir Putin, acknowledgment of electoral fraud, and evaluation of the country’s development policy. In all other aspects the gap between the opposition and the government’s supporters is almost invisible. And this allows us to make a conclusion that differs from the opinion that the burst of political activity in Russia took place primarily due to Russians being dissatisfied with the country’s and their personal financial situation. According to the authors, the protests were ultimately political rather than economic.