The Rise and Decline of Electoral
Authoritarianism in Russia
Vladimir Gel’man
(European University at St.Petersburg / University of Helsinki)
Colloquium “The New Authoritarianism: Russia and China in
Comparative Perspective”, Amsterdam, November 2013
The Rise and Decline of Electoral Authoritarianism in Russia
• Russia’s political regime as the case of electoral
authoritarianism
• What are the major features of such a regime in
the case of Russia, what are its institutional
foundations and political pillars?
• How did its life cycle – the emergence,
development, and further decay change over
time?
• And which ways might it evolve in the
foreseeable future?
The Rise and Decline of Electoral Authoritarianism in Russia
• The rise of “electoral authoritarianism” (Schedler, 2002)
is a global phenomenon;
• These regimes are based upon meaningful elections, but
the essence of these elections is an uneven level playing
field (prohibitively high entry barriers, unequal access of
competitors to resources, abuses of power of the state
apparatus, and multiple instances of electoral fraud);
• Why “electoral” authoritarianism replaces “classical”
forms?
• (1) elections as a tool of monitoring of elites and citizens
by the ruling groups (risk-aversion strategy);
• (2) elections as a tool of domestic and international
legitimacy of the status-quo regime;
The Rise and Decline of Electoral Authoritarianism in Russia
• Why in some countries electoral authoritarian regimes
survived for a long while (Mexico under PRI, Egypt
before the “Arab Spring”), while others are short-lived
(victims of “color revolutions”)?
• Post-Soviet Russia as a “crucial case”, which might
shade light on sources of strengths and/or weaknesses
of electoral authoritarianism in a comparative
perspective;
• Scholars tend to focus on causes of failures of electoral
authoritarian regimes (international linkages/leverages,
strength of the state/ruling party, role of the opposition,
etc.) but paid less attention to their “success stories”
The Rise and Decline of Electoral Authoritarianism in Russia
• Russia (until the rise of the mass protests in 2011-2012)
- a “success story” of electoral authoritarian regime?
• Russia’s rulers invested tremendous efforts into building
their political monopoly (hierarchical subordination of the
state apparatus (“power vertical”) and the dominant
party, UR);
• Regime averted challenges to the status quo through
high entry barriers on political market, implementation of
divide-and-conquer tactics, cooptation of loyal “fellow
travelers” and coercion of “non-systemic” actors;
• Although the rise of protest activism in 2011-2012 did
somewhat shake the previous equilibrium, there is no
grounds to consider the inevitability failure of electoral
authoritarianism in Russia, at least, in the short run
The Rise and Decline of Electoral Authoritarianism in Russia
• Major institutional sources, which provided the basis for
the status quo regime:
• (1) superpresidentialism;
• (2) subnational authoritarianism;
• (3) dominant party
• Superpresidentialism - the zero-sum nature of
presidential elections (Linz, 1990) dramatically increased
the cost of the incumbent’s loss, which might affect the
political as well as the physical survival of the rulers and
their entourage: additional incentives to hold power at
any cost
• Russia’s temptation to abolish presidential elections
(1996) and risk of open elite conflict during “the war of
the Yeltsin succession” (1999) – never again!
The Rise and Decline of Electoral Authoritarianism in Russia
• Lessons learned from the 1990s:
• (1) cooptation of local “political machines”, controlled by
regional governors and city mayors, into a nation-wide
Kremlin-driven “echelon” – centralization of sub-national
authoritarianism;
• (2) reformatting of the party system into a highly
controlled manipulative hierarchy under the dominance
of UR;
• These institutional sources as such cannot make the
status quo regime more attractive in the eyes of elites
and the population at large, but they diminished the
attractiveness and/or availability of alternatives to the
status quo - a “resigned acceptance” effect (Rose et al.,
2004)
The Rise and Decline of Electoral Authoritarianism in Russia
• “authoritarian equilibrium rests mainly on lies, fear, or
economic prosperity” (Przeworski, 1991: 58):
• Economic growth of the 2000s contributed to a high level
of popular support of Russia’s rulers (Rose et al., 2011;
Treisman, 2011);
• But the nature of the regime’s popular support was
specific rather than diffuse (Easton, 1975); Russian
citizens endorsed regime as long as it provided them
with material benefits but not because of mass beliefs in
its legitimacy – risks of political disequilibrium due to the
“dilemma of performance” (Huntington, 1991)
The Rise and Decline of Electoral Authoritarianism in Russia
• Fears of excessively high costs of political disequilibrium
among various social groups (especially after the
traumatic experience of turbulent reforms of the 1990s)
contributed to the preservation of the status quo;
• “Communist manifesto”: “proletarians have nothing to
lose but their chains: they have a world to win” - Russian
citizens have something to lose in the case of regime
change, the chains were not so heavy binding, while
winning after disequilibrium was not so obvious
(Ryzhenkov, 2011: 101)
The Rise and Decline of Electoral Authoritarianism in Russia
• Lies – the most visible element of Russia’s
regime because of the monopolist control over
major information channels, manipulative “virtual
politics” (Wilson A., 2005), a wide range of
propagandist techniques, etc.;
• Many voters evaluated the 2007-2008 national
elections in Russia as “fair” despite widespread
practices of fraud and manipulations: “everything
was fair… but 50% of the results were falsified”
(Wilson K., 2012: 152);
• … but do it mean regime’s consolidation?
The Rise and Decline of Electoral Authoritarianism in Russia
• political supply side - Putin as a dominant actor was able
to maintain a balance of sticks and carrots, which made
to any actor no choice other than subordination
(“imposed consensus” or “offer one can’t refuse”);
• political demand side - the increasing alienation of
citizens from politics - when Russian citizens were faced
with the regime, they preferred “exit” (Hirschman, 1970)
to any instances of “voice”, thus contributing to the
preservation of the status quo;
• All these features contributed to the rise of electoral
authoritarianism but also played a major role in its
subsequent decline;
The Rise and Decline of Electoral Authoritarianism in Russia
• 2011-12 - a new “critical juncture” for the regime’s
trajectory?
• inability to get 50% of votes for UR in December 2011,
wave of mass protests – “stunning election” effect?
• Political pillars of electoral authoritarianism were
questioned:
• (1) Economic prosperity no longer secured support of the
status quo regime from the “advanced” part of voters
(i.e., young-educated-well-to-do-big-city-residents) but it
was also insufficient for maintaining loyalty of
“peripheral” voters (i.e., aged-unskilled-relatively-poorsmall-town-residents);
The Rise and Decline of Electoral Authoritarianism in Russia
• Fear, to some extent, has been overcome due to the
demonstrative bandwagon effect of mass protests
(Kuran, 1991) and because of the spread of the Internet
and social media;
• Lies no longer effective as the “virtual politics” in the
2000s – “one can fool some of the people all of the time,
and all of the people some of the time, but cannot fool all
of the people all of the time” (Lincoln);
• To what extent the decline of electoral authoritarianism
in Russia is just a partial and temporary effect, or, rather,
is it faced with a systemic crisis?
• Lessons from 2013 Moscow city elections – risks of fair
competition as a threat to the status-quo regime
The Rise and Decline of Electoral Authoritarianism in Russia
• Possible regime’s further trajectories:
• (1) the preservation of the status quo regime (and its
further decay);
• (2) the turn to an “iron fist”, or systematic “tightening of
the screws” by the ruling group towards a more
repressive regime;
• (3) a step-by-step creeping (and quite probably,
inconsistent) democratization.
• The real practice of Russian politics could develop as a
combination of these trajectories or as a shift from one
trajectory to another.
The Rise and Decline of Electoral Authoritarianism in Russia
• Thanks for your attention!