The dynamics of electoral authoritarianism in Russia
Photo courtesy SPUTNIK/KREMLIN/ALEXEI DRUZHININ/REUTERSLink to podcast on SoundCloud
Photo courtesy SPUTNIK/KREMLIN/ALEXEI DRUZHININ/REUTERSLink to podcast on SoundCloud
Dima Kortukov, PhD student in Political Science at Indiana University, talks with Mikhail Turchenko, Associate Professor in the Political Science Department at European University at St. Petersburg. Turchenko was a visiting scholar at IU in the fall of 2017.
The scholars discuss Turchenko's recent research on electoral politics in contemporary authoritarian regimes and the role of Russian politics in the discipline of political science. They discuss electoral malpractice in Russian politics, how political opposition leaders negotiate obstacles in order to gain seats in parliament and support from the public, and Turchenko's recent study of Alexei Navalny's Smart Vote strategy in the 2018 presidential campaign. Turchenko shares his findings from observing past elections in the regions of Russia where United Russia is not in the parliamentary majority, when looking at the role of state propaganda and biased media coverage on elections. The scholars also discuss the difficulties of doing research today in the age of COVID-19.
INTRODUCTION: Hello and welcome to a special interview series of the Russian Studies Workshop at Indiana University, made possible with support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. This series highlights the current work and research profiles of Russian studies scholars in the social sciences and humanities and looks at current events and directions in Russia. If you would like to learn more about the people here, or their work, check our webpage for links. Thank you for joining us.
DIMA KORTUKOV: OK, great. Looks like we are all set up. So, my name is Dima Kortukov. I'm a doctoral candidate in the Indiana University Political Science Department. And in this segment of the podcast series, the new podcast series of Russian Studies Workshop blog, I'm joined by Mikhail Turchenko, an associate professor in the St. Petersburg European University Political Science Department, and a Russian Studies Workshop visiting Scholar in fall 2017. And we will discuss Mikhail’s research on electoral politics in authoritarian regimes and his work on contemporary Russian politics in general. So, I would like to start and ask about your personal trajectory, kind of how did you become a scholar of this topic of electoral politics in contemporary authoritarian regimes?
MIKHAIL TURCHENKO: Well, to be honest, I started to study Russian politics when I [was introduced to it at] European University at St. Petersburg one semester as a student; and after graduation from my European University at St. Petersburg, I decided to continue my path as to be a scholar in Russian politics. [With] the help of Andrey Starodubtsev, I joined the [research team] of the National Research University Higher School of Economics, and studied Russian politics, electoral systems and electoral processes mostly in Russia, since 2013, [since] I became part of the National Research University at the Higher School of Economics.
DK: Yeah, great, so I wanted to ask you, like in terms of general state of discipline, what are the most important topics or puzzles in this kind of research?
MT: Since recent times, I decided to put my attention mostly on topics which are related with electoral malpractice, electoral malpractice in general. But I would like to develop this field -- I mean electoral malpractice, this puzzle of electoral malpractice, by studying Russian politics. Because, as you know, Russia is a contemporary electoral authoritarian regime with a lot of malpractice used by authorities. So currently, I’m mostly focused on studying different kinds of electoral malpractice in Russia. For instance, when I was a visiting scholar at Indiana University in Fall 2017, I succeeded to accomplish an article devoted to electoral engineering in Russian regions. I submitted this article immediately after returning to St. Petersburg, after Indiana. And last year this article was published in Europe-Asia Studies on studying how opposition forces, how political opposition in authoritarian regimes can handle the obstacles which are imposed on them by authorities. And now I study how electoral political opposition in Russia can overcome some obstacles to, to get more seats, to get more popular support from…ordinary people in authoritarian regimes, mostly Russian.
DK: Yeah, sounds great. So, I think it's probably a good opportunity to talk about your recent article, with Grigorii Golosov [EUSP political science professor], which recently got accepted into Post-Soviet Affairs. So, congratulations again.
MT: Thank you.
DK: If you can talk about the topic of this article and how it utilizes recent local elections in St. Petersburg to show the different strategies of opposition coordination in contemporary Russia.
MT: Yeah, thank you for this question. Actually, I started to think about the Smart Vote campaign when I was at a meeting in the Higher School of Economics. During that meeting, it was at the outset of 2019, one person from the Higher School of Economics told us, it was a meeting of some scholars from the Higher School of Economics, and we discussed which research topics are most prospective, most valuable for moving political science forward, and the like. And that person told us that it's impractical and it's useless to study Russian politics. I was completely disagreeing with him. At the same time, I did not tell him [anything], and I decided that it would be interesting to study the Smart Vote which was announced by Alexei Navalny just very, very recently. This campaign, I mean, the Smart Vote campaign, was launched by Alexei Navalny at the end of 2018, and this campaign was firstly implemented in Russian politics in September 20…oh, my gosh… 2019, I guess, in the previous year.
There were two main targets for this campaign: Moscow city, election to the Moscow City Duma; and municipal elections in St. Petersburg. Despite the fact that in Moscow city elections, there were no candidates from United Russia, all United Russia affiliates around the electoral campaign as independents. But at the same time in St. Petersburg, there were a lot of there are plenty of candidates who are affiliated with the United Russia party, and there was a huge variation in the electoral campaign, candidates and the like. So, in September the previous year, previous year, I decided to collect all this data. It was the same I see right now. It was a very smart decision, because those data disappeared shortly, shortly after the campaign has ended. So, having collected this data, I decided to merge this data about the candidates which were supported with the Smart Vote campaign with the actual electoral data. After having merged these data, I found some very interesting…relationships. After that, I decided to ask Grigorii Golosov to help me handle with these data. We worked on this project. This project was devoted to the question of how the Smart Vote campaign [would influence candidates’ success] during local elections in St. Petersburg. We started to work on this project in February this year after the COVID pandemic. And we succeeded this article just one week…before the general quarantine was implemented in Russia. So, we submitted this article to Post-Soviet Affairs on March 18th of this year. So, successfully this article was approved, and it was approved by the Post-Soviet Affairs. So, we have found some…obtained three different main findings.
The first one is that the Smart Vote campaign did influence voter behavior. Voters, ordinary voters, voted in line with Smart Vote recommendation. [This was] the first output of our article, at least in [regards to] St. Petersburg. So, the second output of our article was that the Smart Vote-supported candidates showed… more successful electoral results than other candidates, both independent and non-United Russia party candidates. And finally, we found that the Smart Vote campaign significantly reduced the vote share obtained by candidates from United Russia in St. Petersburg local elections. So based on those data, we concluded that the Smart Vote campaign could be…potentially very harmful…for Russian authorities. It could be very…supportive for independent candidates. So, in a nutshell, that is the main content of this article.
DK: That sounds amazing. And also like fantastic time from idea, to like draft, and to acceptance is just…very, very nice. And so I wondered about the first finding -- well basically, the idea that smart voting helps to improve, I guess, number of votes. So, what do you think is the reason for it? I mean, is it just like a signal, is it like something [that can be attributed to] coordination, or is it maybe a testimony to the fact that Navalny and his organizations enjoy kind of, I guess, moral authority? Or is it just like the likelihood of change that people like really, really hate United Russia, so they will center on any candidate with the most chances of success. So, what do you think was the main factor behind this result?
MT: That's… actually a good question. From my point of view, Russian politics [have lacked] voter coordination [for a] very long period of time. This campaign, which was launched by Alexei Navalny (I mean, the Smart Vote campaign), is, to the best of my knowledge, the first, solid attempt to unite opposite-minded voters around a common candidate. And as we may see, based on findings obtained by me and Grigorii Golosov and based on electoral results…for the Moscow state Duma election, this campaign was…successful. This campaign, from my point of view, was very urgent. It was very actual in terms…that it helped voters unite against United Russia candidates, and unite against United Russia candidates not just around a different kind of candidate, but by choosing target candidates. In this sense, this campaign was very urgent and of course, I agree with you, that this campaign coincided with a very big dissatisfaction of Russian voters, some poor portion of Russian voters, with a United Russia and Vladimir Putin's hegemony across Russian politics.
And so just one more comment…with regard to this Smart Vote campaign. Now we may observe that the Russian authorities decided to introduce [multiple-day] based voting instead of just…one day. From my point of view, I think that it is a reaction to the Smart Vote campaign. They decided to use…these [multiple-day] voting procedures in order to…force ordinary voters to vote in advance in order to fabricate electoral results and the like. And this response is entirely a response to the Smart Vote campaign.
DK: And so on the topic, I wanted also to invite you maybe to talk a little bit about the applicability of this campaign for the Russian [local elections]…that are scheduled at the end of the year. So, you mentioned in the article that St. Petersburg may be a very unlikely case because it [has a]… history of a somewhat liberal electorate and the liberal party has had some electoral success in the past. And I mean, one of the regions that [will vote in an election], I think, for the Legislative Assembly this September is Khabarovsk, which is now, of course, in the headlines. And the situation there is somewhat anomalous because the LDPR [Liberal Democratic Party of Russia] and United Russia virtually are both in some sense a party of power because one has the governorship and the other has control in the…regional family, right? So I wanted to ask you about this question, do you think that Smart Vote [campaigns] in Khabarovsk and maybe other regions that will elect a regional assembly later this fall will be successful as well, or maybe less successful because of the increased fraud and multiple-day voting or maybe some kind of other electoral engineering?
MT: So just to … correctly understood your question, are you asking me, may the Smart Vote campaign be successful in [other] electoral campaigns? You know, that's…a really good question. Indeed, we mentioned with Grigorii Golosov that St. Petersburg may be the most likely case for this campaign to work due to the fact that a lot of voters… that a lot of citizens… have some opposition feelings and the like. How this campaign could show itself in less democratic regions, that's the question. It's a question I actually cannot answer it. But my speculation is that this campaign… will have an impact on the voter or voter’s behavior, even in… less democratic regions, probably it’s just a bit later extent, probably.
But at the same time, we may be faced with a problem that's due to the fact that the Russian authorities introduced…multiple-day voting (I mean… in terms of the number of days when people may vote in polling stations). We may obtain very briefly results, which do not correspond to the actual… voting process, and due to this fact, we probably…we may not…be able to extract the Smart Vote influence on voters’ behavior, because I expect that the electoral results will be completely falsified in the next elections. That's my speculation.
DK: Yes, about the fraud and actually when I'm thinking of it, like Khabarovsk, of course, is an example of how the LDPR holds the governorship, but there are also other regions in Siberia, where KPRF (Communist Party of the Russian Federation) may have some claim to hold on power. So I wanted to ask you, are the electoral commission and the bodies overseeing elections, are they still kind of confront the United Russia expectation in a sense? Or I mean, maybe elections there are freer because there are no clear signals like who's the party of power that is in charge in the region? What do you think about this?
MT: So, may I ask you to put this question another way in order to I fully understand.
DK: Yeah. So I mean, our intuition is that in Russia, I guess mostly electoral fraud has benefited the party of power, United Russia (or independents that are running behind…the label of independents, but actually affiliated with United Russia). So how does this intuition change in the regions or cities when other parties are in charge? Like Khabarovsk is the famous example, where KPRF holds the post of governor? Or the majority in the Legislative Assembly.
MT: So, are you asking me how a Smart Vote campaign may work in places – regions and cities alike – where not United Russia but other political players have majorities in the executive branch and legislative branch, correct?
DK: Yes, like, the Smart Vote campaign and also the dynamic of electoral malpractice in general, like that are less common or just as common in other regions that works in the other direction.
MT: Yeah, got it, thanks. So when we are talking about the electoral process in Russia, we should understand that we are faced with two kinds of malpractice. The first kind of malpractice is the so-called media malpractice. When we observe that media resources, state propaganda are heavily skewed in favor of the incumbent -- national incumbent and regional incumbents, mostly in favor of United Russia and Vladimir Putin initiatives and the like. So, the second kind of malpractice we observe are malpractice at the voting, like ballot-box stuffing, multiple voting, and the like. So as… the results of the constitutional referendum in Khabarovsk showed us, we may see that without both electoral malpractice, and based on electoral data from Khabarovsk, we may conclude that there [wasn’t any] ballot box stuffing in Khabarovsk, only biased media coverage. So in this in this sense, we may see pretty high… support rate for Putin's constitution in Khabarovsk, but at the same time pretty low electoral turnout. It signals to us that there [was no] ballot-box stuffing or electoral misconduct at the local level. So…it was the case… that Khabarovsk was controlled by a team of politicians which were not formally affiliated with United Russia. Moreover, it was controlled by those people which were at odds with the state authority, to some extent. So therefore, if we are talking about a handful of places where United Russia does not enjoy a… parliamentary majority, or where the executive branch is controlled by guys not from United Russia, from my point of view, we will not observe a lot of ballot box stuffing, a lot of electoral misconduct at the local level. In those places, the electoral process will likely be done without any without any malpractice at the local level. But at the same time, we will observe high and very intensive biased media coverage. So, in short, in those places, I expect that a Smart Vote campaign could be very successful. I expect that in those places we will not observe a lot of grassroots manipulation. But at the same time, the results could be…in favor of the state authority due to biased media coverage.
DK: Yeah, that sounds fascinating. I guess we'll see what happens in the fall. So, I’d like to ask a kind of different general question about the reality of doing research in times of Covid. I mean, some parts of activity are obviously very solitary – you think about stuff, you download data, you analyze it, and you write a paper, but for many others you kind of need collaboration, you need conferences to present. So for you personally, the reality of the lockdown and of the virus, how has it affected you as a researcher or scholar?
MT: Yeah, thank you for this question. Actually, I am a lucky person because I work not with the experimental data. I will not work with, you know, those data which could be collected [in person] and I [do not] work with interviews and the like. The only kind of data I work with are electoral data, which could be quite easily extracted from my official website. So for me, this Covid lockdown wasn’t very harmful. During this period of time I was working on my research projects. Now I work on the project devoted to the spread of electoral malpractice on the St. Petersburg local elections. So in this… sense I use the same electoral data [results] which I have already collected, and … now I am only trying to merge these data… if [there’s some] spatial data, and I created some maps. So in a nutshell for my work, the covid lockdown did not harm my work, because I work mostly from empirical data.
DK: That's certainly reassuring. And I wanted to, I guess, continue on the more general line just to kind of to think about in which way the study of contemporary Russia and the Russian regime could be interesting and important for scholars to study in other regions, like other authoritarian regimes or maybe even like a hybrid regime, like the issue of election malpractice, transitions, constitutional changes, … legislative executive dynamics. What are the top two or three things that for them Russia is kind of a laboratory for scholars of other regions?
MT: Yeah, thank you. As such, Russian politics, of course, cannot be interesting to anyone as such. But based on the data extracted from Russian politics, we indeed wait may propose some hypotheses about the dynamics of electoral authoritarian regimes. For instance, in my article, which was published in Europe-Asia Studies, which was mostly prepared when I was a visiting scholar at Indiana University, I showed that subtle forms of electoral malpractice - like electoral engineering – could be in demand to those autocracies which lack the capacity to rely on tough forms of electoral law, like voter intimidation or ballot-box stuffing. So this hypothesis can be… checked by a more broad sample of countries, and is probably my next step with regard to this topic.
So, also based on Russian data, we may propose some… hypotheses with regard to successful or not successful attempts by the opposition to unite voters against regime candidates. In the article,we have already discussed, co-written by Golosov, we show that the Smart Vote campaign could be very… promising for opposition forces in electoral authoritarian regimes. So, we put forward this hypothesis, and actually this hypothesis could be based upon different circumstances, of course if… in those circumstances, similar campaigns will be launched by political actors. So therefore, to conclude, Russian politics as such is not interesting, but based on data from Russian politics, we may indeed propose some very, very promising hypotheses to test on broad samples of [autocracies].
DK: Yeah, it sounds… absolutely fascinating. So thank you so much, Mikhail, and thank you for those who may listen to us. Goodbye.
This interview series highlights the current work and research profiles of Russian-studies scholars and researchers in the social sciences, and looks at current events and directions in Russia. Made possible by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.