Recent Developments in Russia: Two Competing Explanations that Might Both be Correct

I have an op-ed on Al Jazeera English in which I propose two different ways of thinking about recent events in Russia, both of which are based on theoretical arguments I have put forward in academic journals (see here and here) in recent years. One focuses on the ability of fraudulent elections to serve as a focal point for aggrieved citizens to coordinate in solving a collective action problem (ie., coming together to oppose the regime). The other suggests the possibility that the elections were an effort on the part of Russian citizens to communicate information to Putin, namely that he needs to shape up (improve on a “valence” dimension, in the political science terminology) in order to be re-elected. The two obviously have different implications for how we might interpret last week’s developments in Russia, although personally I do think both may be happening simultaneously.

Here are the first few paragraphs of the op-ed; the rest of it can be found here:


Two weeks ago, most Russia observers were approaching the current December 3, 2011 Russian parliamentary elections with a collective yawn: United Russia (the ruling party, now headed by current Russian president Dmitry Medvedev) would win; Vladimir Putin would be elected to a third (now six-year) term as president in a few months; and little would change.  But a funny thing happened on the way to the coronation of Tsar Vladimir: United Russia, despite maintaining majority status in the newly elected parliament, had by what all accounts was a dismal showing in the election despite major accusation of fraud (that would have inflated the party’s vote count), including concerns voiced by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Protests – aided by social media (e.g., here and here) – have broken out in Russia, culminating in today’s unprecedented protests throughout the country but especially in Moscow where, according to the BBC, as many as 50,000 people may have gathered in the largest protests in Russia since the collapse of communism.

These developments raise some immediate challenges for our understanding of Russian politics. Is a Colored Revolution – long dreaded by the Kremlin – finally coming to Russia? Are the winds of the Arab Spring blowing back to Europe? Might we finally see a true Twitter Revolution (@stopputin), growing out of the fact that the Russian state controls TV but not the blogosphere (e.g., see Yale University professor Jason Lyall’s comments here)? Or is this just a blip along the road to politics as usual in Russia, with Putin on his way back to the Kremlin for 6 (12?) more years of the same iron grip on power?

While undoubtedly both Kremlin and opposition elites will have a large role to play in determining how Russian politics unfolds in the near future, I want to focus for a moment on the motivations of the masses, about which we know little at the moment beyond anecdotal observations of journalists.  Political science theory suggests two possible – not necessarily mutually exclusive – explanations for what is going on now.

Click here to continue.

6 Responses to Recent Developments in Russia: Two Competing Explanations that Might Both be Correct

  1. Daniel December 12, 2011 at 1:09 pm #

    The New Yorker‘s David Remnick also has a piece on Russia in the latest issue, ICYMI:

  2. Nils-Christian Bormann December 13, 2011 at 9:15 am #

    What strikes me as interesting is why Putin and his allies got into this position in the first place. They used fraud and not in the most concealed way as it seems. Why didn’t they rig the elections so that the result would not have signaled weakness of the regime?
    So far I’ve come up with two explanations:
    Either they were misinformed about the amount of dissatisfaction or they were not capable of doing more. Could misinformation be a consequence of media restrictions that are especially likely in resource-rich countries (cf. Egorov et al. 2009 – APSR)?

  3. arin December 13, 2011 at 5:34 pm #

    Only “Two Competing Explanations”? Maybe there is a third one…
    How much hypocrite US are.

  4. Michael December 16, 2011 at 5:40 pm #

    I’d hazard a guess that this is less about Putin and his policy – and the personality cult that surrounds him is liable to draw one into thinking it is about him and how the voters feel about him – and more about the electoral fraud itself. People don’t like being cheated. That indignation is, to my mind, a great psychological source of emotion that can help overcome the irrationality of collective action to the average person.

    Overall, electoral fraud can be a tremendously tricky, dangerous strategy for a regime to employ. If I were in Putin’s place, I’d take the message the Russian people are trying to send more as “Don’t commit fraud in the upcoming election” or even “It would be strategic to make a show of tying your hands through non-partisan overseers of the next election” than “Do Better”. Now, protests of a Putin victory in the Presidential election, whether marred by fraud or clean…that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms.

  5. Michael December 16, 2011 at 5:41 pm #

    Or, heck, a third message: “be more clever and subtle with your fraud next time.”