New scholarship on Russia presented at the 2021 Virtual ASEEES Convention

Photo: ASEEES website screenshot.

How Putin Rules

This panel looked at the ways in which Vladimir Putin and his regime gain and maintain support. In the paper “Do Authoritarians Need a Foreign Enemy: Evidence from Russia,” Henry Hale (George Washington University) and Adam Lenton (George Washington University) theorized that the idea of a foreign enemy can win support for the leader and promote the sense that the country needs to rally around him, but found that this is not exactly the case with Russia. When the U.S./NATO are perceived as threats, Russians are only 5–10 percent more likely to support Putin. But support also comes from those who favor a cooperative, not hostile reaction. According to Hale and Lenton, Putin’s supporters believe he is actually pro-Western and favors cooperation. Russians who believe that he is anti-Western are 5 percent less likely to support him.

Changes in the Interaction between Civil Society and the State in Russia

To understand how the Putin regime maintains control, scholars Lisa McIntosh Sundstrom (University of British Columbia) and Elizabeth Plantan (Stetson University) looked at the reasons why Russian NGOs end up on the foreign agents list. In their paper, “Funding Foreign Agents,” they analyzed three key factors: links to particular foreign donors; whether these foreign donors are state-funded agencies or private foundations, American or European; and association with “undesirable organizations” or donors from the so-called “Patriotic Stop-List.” The National Endowment for Democracy was a top foreign funder of Russian NGOs until it was blacklisted as “undesirable” in 2015, prompting two other prominent donors (MacArthur Foundation and Charles Stewart Mott Foundation) to leave Russia that same year in anticipation of designation.

Public Opinion in Russia

This panel began with a paper, titled “The Demand for Democracy under Autocracy: Regime Approval and the Cancellation of Local Elections in Russia,” where Ora John Edward Reuter (University of Wisconsin-Madison/Higher School of Economics), Noah Buckley (Columbia University) and Quintin Beazer (Florida State University) looked at the cancellation of mayoral elections in Russia and its replacement with a system of appointment. Today, about 80 percent of mayors are Kremlin appointees — a significant uptake from under 20 percent in 2002, even though multiple surveys show that Russians prefer direct mayoral elections over appointments. Cancellations are often met with opposition and protest, and the study found that an appointment does, in fact, result in a candidate’s significant popularity decline. The authors argue that, with such results in mind, autocrats might want to retain elections, because voters demand elections and suppressing them would incur political costs.

Propaganda and Protest: How Russians Make Sense of Media Narratives

In her paper titled “Protests, Permits and Opposition in Electoral Autocracies,” Katerina Tertychnaya (UCL) analyzed changes in Russian authorities’ repressive strategies regarding protests. She argued that recently there have been more non-violent, pre-repression actions backed by legislative acts. For instance, protesters are required to be “sanctioned” by local authorities and such a permit is subject to denial on various pretexts — a preventive approach in the leadup to protests. This approach has had limited success: in 2017, a third of protests in Russia were not authorized, but still went ahead. The author also pointed out that changes in location and other bureaucratic hurdles create confusion among protesters, and coordination dilemmas distort their activity and help discredit them, which is why it is designed to be visible. According to Tertychnaya, non-violent protest repression is an important tool for political control, which increases autocrats’ power.

Making Russian Autocracy Work: Mechanisms of Political Control and Regime Stability

Continuing to speak about the media, in “Fake News for All: Misinformation and Polarization in Russia” Anton Shirikov (UW-Madison) noted that most autocrats use propaganda, censorship, and disinformation, but not enough is known about the public response to such manipulations. Shirikov also pointed out that propaganda works not by persuading, but by exploiting and reaffirming existing beliefs. It also works through constant repetition of pro-government messages on the widely available state news platforms. He found large political biases in news evaluation in Russia, which makes it easier for the autocratic regime to spread falsehoods among sympathetic citizens; independent information is thus less of a threat because the regime’s support is already biased against it. However, it is important to note that news perceptions are politicized on both sides: opposition-minded citizens are just as susceptible to false anti-government messages as government supporters to anti-opposition propaganda.

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Institute of Modern Russia

Institute of Modern Russia

The Institute of Modern Russia (IMR) is a nonpartisan US-based think-tank focused on policy analysis, research, and human rights.