A Short Post on the Long Game in Russia

While the recent trial, conviction, and incarceration of Pussy Riot have refocused Western attention on the sham that is “managed democracy” in Russia, the long game rumbles on. Two recent developments warrant some attention as portents of political change on a time scale the 24/7 press rarely discusses.

First, the opposition continues to get organized. On the eve of the Pussy Riot frenzy, an assemblage of opposition groups announced plans for an online election this October. If all goes according to plan, voters will choose a Coordination Council that will try to hash out some of the differences among Russia’s fractious opposition groups and lead a more effective campaign against the “power vertical.” To enhance its validity and heighten the contrast with politics as usual, the intra-opposition election will be publicly audited by experienced observer groups.

Second, Putin’s popularity continues to decline. According to a recent survey by the highly respected Levada Center, the president’s approval rating has slipped to 63 percent, about where it stood in the wake of December 2011’s scandalous elections. More telling, though, were the answers to a question about who respondents would like to see in the president’s post six years from now. On that score, only 22 percent named Putin, while 49 percent said they would like to see a new face as head of state.

In contrast to Joshua Foust, I’m not convinced that the elevation of Pussy Riot to Western cause célèbre is a bad thing. The group’s plight certainly isn’t novel, and some of the reactions of their case have been misguided or downright laughable, but the spectacle of the trial and the absurdity of the trio’s sentences may have helped sharpen many outsiders’ understanding of just how authoritarian the Russian regime really is.

At the same time, I can’t help but think that the Pussy Riot frenzy has basically been a distraction from the long game on which democratization in Russia really depends. This episode is to Russian politics what the scandal of the week is to the American presidential race: a momentary digression from a process that actually turns on deeper, slower-moving processes which are harder to see and less exciting to talk about.

The fact is, international outcry and diplomatic squeezes will not end Putinism. This regime will not come undone without serious pressure from its own citizenry. Of course, it’s hard to generate this kind of pressure—and, more important, even harder to sustain it—against a president who’s widely liked with an opposition that’s disorganized. Those two variables still tilt in Putin’s favor for now, but the developments highlighted above suggest they are trending against him.

Cats and Mice, Regimes and Oppositions

On Monday, Russian provocateur Alexei Navalny posted something on his English-language blog that caught my eye. Over the weekend, more than 100,000 Russians had gathered in a Moscow stadium to support President Putin’s re-election bid. You could forgive a Putin opponent for being disheartened by the scene, but where others might see these massive pro-Putin rallies, or “putings,” as signs of an impending defeat, Navalny saw opportunity:

All these putings are a great gift to us.

Look: 200 thousand people gather in one location. And 80 per cent of them are those very ‘people of the off-line’ whom we can’t reach via the Internet.

Now there’ll be no need to drop leaflets into mail boxes, or stick them in doorways, or hand them out near subway stations. They’ve gathered 200 thousand voters together in one place and nudged them to talk politics.

We are unaware whether they’re pro- or antiputinists, we only know that they’re employees of state-financed business or state-run companies.

And now it’s us who’re getting the inside track: these people have already faced the bold lie and hypocrisy of the Chief Thief Putin & Co. They know quite well that they’ve been forced to attend the rally. They know how they’ve been fixed. How they’ve been carried by buses. They’re discussing that “at the head office they’ve given the staff two compensatory days off, while at out branch, only one”. The’re discussing, “At Moscow Electric Power Co. they’ve been paid a 3000 roubles bonus for the rally, and we – 1500. What an outrage”.

200 thousand people as well as their families (one million all in all) know for sure how they’ve been gathered and delivered; yet at the rally they hear from the stage, “We’ve gathered here with our own motion, in order to support blah blah blah”, and afterwards they listen with a grin to TV reports: “Tens of thousands of excited Moscovites, as one man, have come to the rally”.

All this creates favourable conditions for anti- Crooks And Thieves’ campaign, as it would be carried out amid shamelessly foul play.

So in case there are volunteers to go to the puting and agitate against Putin there, that would be a great idea.

Navalny’s judo-like attempt to redirect the force of pro-Putin mobilization against the regime is a brilliant example of the creativity, learning, and strategic adaptation that makes political mobilization so interesting to study and yet so difficult to explain and predict.

For the sake of convenience (and, perhaps, sanity), social scientists usually think of the phenomena we study as occurring in independent “cases,” which can be analyzed, compared, and contrasted as distinct and largely independent episodes. Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan. The USSR in the 1980s vs. China today. Democratization in Turkey, Tunisia, and Egypt.

This independence, however, is often an illusion born of our need to simplify in order to understand. That’s especially true for phenomena that involve rapid and deliberate imitation and adaptation. Marc Beissinger calls these “modular” phenomena, where modular refers to “action that is based in significant part on the prior successful example of others.” In his incisive analysis of the wave of “color” revolutions that swept the post-communist states in the 2000s, Beissinger points out that modular phenomena

present a challenge for social science theorizing, because the cross-case influences that in part drive their spread violate the assumption of the independence of cases that lies at the basis of much social scientific analysis…Modular phenomena based in the conscious emulation of prior successful example constitute only one form of cross-case influence; spillover effects, herding behavior, path-dependence, and reputational effects are other ways in which cases may be connected with one another. Not all social phenomena are modular, and Galton’s problem [of inferring causes from comparisons of interdependent cases] is not a universal one. But in a globalizing, electronic world in which local events are often monitored on a daily basis on the other side of the planet, the challenges posed to social scientific analysis by Galton’s problem (and by modular behavior in particular) are growing in many spheres of activity.

Beissinger goes on to show how modularity was evident not only in the diffusion of protest strategies and tactics across countries and over time, but also in the diffusion of authoritarian regimes’ responses to those protests:

Example exercises its effects not only on those who would look to it in support of change, but also on those who would potentially oppose it…Established elites opposing modular change learn the critical lessons of the model from its repeated successes and failures and impose additional institutional constraints on actors to prevent the model from succeeding further…This is evident in the growing restrictions on civil society organizations in Russia, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan…Moreover, regimes have increasingly turned to manipulating elections without engaging in outright fraud, thereby avoiding aspects of the model that might fuel opposition mobilization…The role of democracy-promoting NGOs like Soros and Freedom House in fostering modular democratic revolution has also precipitated a backlash against them from a number of post-Soviet states, which have begun to view them as revolutionary organizations and to restrict their activities.

These processes of imitation and adaptation can be powerful enough to help popular uprisings overwhelm structural conditions that would seem to tilt heavily against them. At the same time, these processes can also help apparently frail authoritarian regimes stifle and survive those challenges. In an article in the latest issue of Democratization, Evgeny Finkel and Yitzhak M. Brudny see the Russian government’s response to the uprisings that happened around it in the 2000s as a quintessential example of successful authoritarian counter-adaptation. They write:

The colour revolutions, and especially the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, are widely perceived as major international setbacks to Putin’s Russia. The Ukrainian events alarmed Russian elites, who feared the possibility of a local colour revolution during the 2007–2008 electoral cycle. To thwart the perceived colour revolution threat, Russian authorities adopted strategies that combined a political, administrative and intellectual assault on the opposition and Western ideas of democracy promotion. An integral part of this assault was, first, an attempt to create a mass youth movement, Nashi, as a counterweight to the various youth movements that were the driving forces behind the colour revolutions in Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine. Second, it was an attempt to delegitimize the idea of liberal democracy itself, labelling it subversive and alien to the Russian national character.

That strategy seemed to work well for several years, but the reformist movement that has emerged in Russia in the past few months reminds us that these victories are never permanent. And, if Navalny’s blog post is any indication, the cunning regime is now confronting some equally shrewd opponents.

Political sociologists Donatella della Porta and Sidney Tarrow see similar dynamics at play in protests against global trade and financial regimes in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In a fascinating recent paper, they write about the transnational diffusion not just of new forms of protest behavior, but also of police practices in response to them, and of the interplay between those two streams of learning. Intriguingly, the authors–two of the greats in the study of social movements–find that

the mechanisms that cause protester and police innovations to diffuse are remarkably similar, even though they can combine in different ways at different moments: promotion, the proactive intervention by a sender actor aimed at deliberate diffusion of an innovation; assessment, the analysis of information on past events and their definition as successes or failures, which leads to adaption of the innovation to new sites and situations; and theorization, the location of technical innovations within broader normative and cognitive frameworks.

As della Porta and Tarrow’s work shows, these dynamics are not unique to authoritarian regimes. Over at Plastic Manzikert, blogger Kelsey Atherton sees evidence of similar learning across police forces in their responses to Occupy encampments in the United States, and he thinks that learning helps explain why the movement has petered out.

What St. Louis did, more effectively and less violently than New York, was unoccupy it’s camp by taking advantage of protester exhaustion and finite capacity to respond. When one side plays nonviolent in the face of an aggressor, the contest becomes one of public perception. When the nonviolent protesters found themselves outmaneuvered by nonviolent police, there was no battle of public perception to be had. The violence and resistance of Zuccotti made for compelling media–unusual tactics, contended public space, seemingly out of proportion crackdown, and a clumsily aggressive handling of the situation made the action look brutal and the protesters come across more as heroic victims than the public menace the police needed them to be.

But without the violence, there isn’t that narrative. Polite, unthreatening police calmly restoring a public square in shirtsleeves de-escalate the scene, and manage to make protest the one thing it shouldn’t be: boring.

The global interplay of regimes and oppositions evident in all of these “cases” is a bit like a bunch of interconnected games of cat and mouse, all happening at the same time. Within each domain, each family of mice is busily trying to outwit its own cat, and each cat is  diligently trying to catch its own mice. All the while, though, the cats and the mice are learning from what happens everywhere else–sometimes just by watching, but other times by talking and conspiring and even lending a hand. Often that aid passes from mouse to mouse or cat to cat, but sometimes it’s the cat in one arena lending a hand to the mice in another, and vice versa. As communication and international organization get easier, the whole process only thickens and accelerates.

With this much interdependence at work, it’s no wonder we had such a hard time anticipating the Arab Spring (and the “color” revolutions that preceded it, and the collapse of communism that preceded it, and…). As social scientists, we can try to learn things from this latest wave that will help us anticipate where and when the next one will occur. As we do, though, we have to bear in mind that the potential agents of those future events will probably be learning and adapting and evolving even faster.

Forecasting Democratic Transitions in 2012

2011 was a year of remarkable democratic ferment, as citizens in an unusually large and diverse set of countries took to public spaces to demand more dignity in their lives and more accountability from their governments.

In nearly all cases, the democratization those protesters are demanding remains incomplete. While Occupy participants in the United States rightly decry the occasional act of police brutality against them, the gap yawns widest in countries ruled by authoritarian regimes, which still “occupy” more than two of every five countries, including some of the richest and most populous.

Which of those authoritarian regimes are “ripest” for transitions to democracy in 2012? To help answer that question, I used a statistical technique called Bayesian model averaging to identify and weight a number of risk factors and then applied those weights to the most recent data available. The result is a set of probabilistic forecasts of democratic transition for all countries worldwide currently under authoritarian rule.

For purposes of this forecasting exercise, political regimes are categorized in “either/or” fashion. A regime is considered to be a democracy when it meets all of the four conditions enumerated below. A regime that fails to satisfy any of these conditions is considered to be an autocracy.

1. Elected officials rule. No unelected individuals (say, a king, like Abdullah II of Jordan or Mohammed VI of Morocco) or organization (say, a military junta, like Egypt’s SCAF) determine or direct policy outcomes.

2. Elections are fair and competitive. Elections offer voters a meaningful choice between candidates and are free of widespread fraud and abuse.

3. Politics is inclusive. All adult citizens–male and female, without regard to racial or communal identity–have equal rights to vote and participate in politics.

4. Civil liberties are respected. The government generally recognizes and protects freedoms of speech, association, and assembly.

A transition to democracy occurs when a government chosen by fair, competitive, and inclusive elections takes office (assuming the other conditions enumerated above hold as well). The transition is dated to the installation of the new government, not the elections. This rule avoids treating aborted transitions, such as the one that occurred in Algeria in 1991, as equivalent to the establishment of democracy. Conceptually, the idea is that the authoritarian regime remains in place until a new government is actually installed, and as such, that authoritarian government may veto the transition at any moment until that handover of power.

The chart below plots the estimated likelihood of transition in 2012 for all autocracies worldwide, based on preliminary data from 2011. One thing that’s immediately noticeable about these scores is that they are all pretty low. If you check the scale on the bottom axis, you’ll see that most scores are under 10%, and many are approximately zero. To some extent, that’s an artifact of the rarity of these events. On average, only a few democratic transitions happen worldwide each year, so the easiest way to make a forecast that’s about 95% accurate is simply to say they won’t happen anywhere. The point of an exercise like this one is not to identify precisely which countries will transition when, a task that’s still well beyond the reach of current data and methods (and will probably remain so forever). Instead, it’s better to think of the list as an attempt to identify which of the world’s authoritarian regimes are most likely to experience the few transitions we might expect to see over the course of 2012.

I hope the forecasts stand on their own, but I’ll offer comments on some the results that I found most surprising or intriguing.

* Most surprising to me, Syria ranks among the 10 countries most likely to transition in 2012, while Egypt lands much farther down the list, barely cracking into the top 40. Beyond the nonviolent movements that arose in both countries in 2011, those estimates don’t account for recent events, and any subjective assessment would probably flag Egypt as the more likely case. Nevertheless, I think these estimates do hint at near-term potential for political transformation in Syria while reinforcing the need for caution and concern on the prospects for democratic government in Egypt. (Note: the Egypt forecast assumes that civil liberties improved in 2011 to a 4 on the Freedom House scale. The estimated probability would be slightly higher if that score were a 3, and it would be noticeably lower if that score were a 5 or worse.)

* The forecasts suggest that prospects for a democratic transition in 2012 in Russia improved substantially with the emergence of a nonviolent protest movement after fraudulent legislative elections earlier this month. It ranks 13th on the list, in the same neighborhood as Armenia and (surprising to me) Sudan.

* For China, the analysis confirms the prevailing view that the structural potential for a democratic transition remains low, but it also underscores the point that China’s transition prospects will improve if and when civil liberties expand or the economy suffers a sharp downturn.

* Many of the countries found to be most likely to transition soon are in sub-Saharan Africa: Burkina Faso, UgandaMali, Kenya, and Senegal represent five of the top 10, while MozambiqueMalawi, Madagascar, and Guinea-Bissau can also be found in the top 20. Also notable is Nigeria‘s presence just a few notches further down the list, in the 23rd spot. These forecasts suggest that the good-news story of accelerating economic growth on that continent may coincide with another regional wave of fresh attempts at democracy.

* Where sub-Saharan Africa looks especially promising, Central Asia looks especially bleak. Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan land at the bottom of the list, and Tajikistan perches just a few notches higher. These grim forecasts are driven by those countries’ lack of democratic experience, their exceptionally repressive regimes, and their oil and gas wealth.

For readers who want a peek under the hood, I can tell you that these estimates are generated by an algorithm that accounts for just a few things. (Of course, all of the parenthetical statements about relative risk get the caveat, “Other things being equal.”)

* Whether or not the country has ever had a democratic regime (a transition is more likely if so)

* The age of the current authoritarian regime (the effect depends on prior democracy; risk increases over time for countries without democratic experience, but it’s more or less constant over time for countries with democratic experience)

* The scope of civil liberties the previous year, per Freedom House’s index (a transition is more likely with more liberties, but the association is non-linear)

* The share of the country’s gross national income generated from oil & gas extraction, per the World Bank’s World Development Indicators (a transition is less likely with more oil)

* Whether or not the country had a nonviolent popular movement the previous year, according to Erica Chenoweth‘s NAVCO data set (more likely if so)

* The annual rate of economic growth, according to the IMF’s September 2011 World Economic Outlook (more likely when growth is slower)

That list isn’t short because I lacked ideas about what else might help predict these events. Many other factors were also considered but were found to be poor predictors, while still others were left out of the analysis because there simply wasn’t enough data for enough countries or years (sometimes historical, sometimes current) to use them. Some of the factors I included in the call to BMA but found to be poor predictors of democratic transitions include:

* Per capita income (ditto for infant mortality rates)

* Literacy rates (normalized to the annual global median)

* Percent of the population in urban areas

* Youth bulge

* Trade openness (imports plus exports as a share of GDP)

* Mobile phone subscriptions per capita (normalized to the annual global mean)

* Ethnic or cultural diversity

* Ongoing civil war

I’d love to have readers use the Comments field to offer their own views on prospects for democratic transitions in 2012 and the factors and forces that will drive those events. Meanwhile, I’ll close with a wish: I hope I’m wrong and every one of these countries gets a democratic government very soon.

A Postscript on Election Protests in Russia

Since writing yesterday’s post on post-election protests in Russia, I’ve seen a lot of commentary along the lines of this piece in today’s Guardian. The thrust of these arguments is that pro-democracy activism won’t get off the ground in Russia because Putin, the man, remains fairly popular and most Russians are not politically active.

Those facts are true, but they don’t mean that a pro-democracy movement can’t emerge in Russia. Nonviolent movements are not referenda. Russia is a huge country, popular interests are distributed very unevenly across its landscape, and social movements always involve a small minority of the populations from which they draw and for whom they aim to speak. As many past movements show–from the US civil-rights movement to Egypt’s uprising this year–action by small but determined groups can change opinions and make tactical choices that have an outsized impact.

Before protests begin to snowball into a sustained movement, failure is always going to be the smart prediction. Uprisings occur rarely, even in societies with deeply unpopular governments and weak police forces. With such a low baseline rate of success, we will almost always be right by saying, “It ain’t gonna happen.” I said as much myself in yesterday’s post, for exactly those reasons.

But improbable doesn’t mean impossible. The likelihood of unlikely occurrences can still change over time. What’s more interesting than reflexive skepticism, I think, is to adopt Beissinger’s “evenful” perspective and try to think about how the events of the past few days, and the government’s responses to them, might produce changes in the Russia’s political atmosphere that will become the causes of future actions.

On that front, I am an optimist. In a dispatch published today on Foreign Policy‘s web site, correspondent Julia Ioffe observes that, “The feeling of euphoria in Moscow is unmistakable, uplifting, and addictive.” In today’s New York Times, Ellen Barry writes that,

Many young people said this round of parliamentary elections had drawn them into political activism for the first time. A 19-year-old economics student, Dmitri Sherbak, related the story of his first arrest buoyantly, saying it had motivated him instead of frightening him. Dmitri Mikhailchenko, 23, who said he witnessed ballot-box stuffing at a Moscow polling place on Sunday, said: “People’s mentality has changed. I can’t stand being lied to anymore.”

This is new, and it could–could–be powerful.

“Putin’s a thief!” What’s Next?

Something amazing happened in Russia this week. President Putin’s United Russia party used every trick in the book to steal a fresh majority in Russia’s national legislature, but that was about as surprising as seeing the sun rise in the morning.

No, what was amazing was how many Russians apparently decided to vote against Putinism in spite of its well-funded sheen of power and inevitability and then responded to the election fraud by getting angry about it. Most notable, a demonstration near Moscow’s Chistye Prudy Metro station drew thousands of participants who decried the voter fraud and chanted “Putin’s a thief!” The Chistye Prudy protest was so striking because police have routinely blocked or broken up much smaller demonstrations in the past, and because the participants’ anger was so explicitly directed at President Putin and his Potemkin party, United Russia.

Of course, the big question is: What next? President Putin stands for re-election just a few months from now, and it’s hard to imagine him responding to this swelling popular frustration in any way other than redoubling his party’s efforts to ensure a big win. The only way real democracy will come to Russia is if it gets carried in on the back of the kind of popular uprising that has challenged autocrats across the Middle East and North Africa this year. As Frederick Douglass famously put it,

Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.

Russia clearly has the structural potential to produce and sustain a nonviolent movement for democracy, and stolen elections have helped to catalyze similar uprisings in post-Communist countries before. Even modest protests can succeed in sparking wider movements against authoritarian regimes when they signal that the opposition is stronger, and the regime weaker, than previously thought. In Russia’s case, the regime’s ham-handed efforts to control the outcome of legislative election have unintentionally helped to reveal its declining power, and the protests over those efforts have already spread beyond the expected liberal redoubts of Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Just as important, though, the Putinists have the means, and almost certainly still have the will, to harass and repress attempts to organize that kind of movement on Russian soil. It seemed telling that authorities allowed Monday’s demonstration in Moscow to carry on by the Metro, but when participants tried to march on the headquarters of the country’s internal security service, riot police stepped in with batons to beat some protesters and arrest others. More ominously, the government has responded to yesterday’s protests by deploying thousands of police and troops in Moscow, including the Interior Ministry division tasked with quelling mass demonstrations.

It would be foolish to try to predict exactly where this process will go from here. What Marc Beissinger wrote of nationalist mobilization in the USSR, quoting Jerry Hough, is true of all sorts of protest movements:

A period of heightened challenge events can ‘begin to move so fast and old assumptions become so irrelevant that the human mind cannot process all the new information’–a phenomenon I refer to in this book as ‘thickened history.’ By ‘thickened’ history, I mean a period in which the pace of challenging events quickens to the point that it becomes practically impossible to comprehend them and they come to constitute an increasingly significant part of their own causal structure.

Bearing the difficulty of accurate prediction in mind, my best guess is that Russia now is about where Egypt was in 2005. In national elections held that year, hopes were raised and then dashed that the Mubarak regime was ready to open the door a crack to real political competition. Led by the Kifaya movement, anti-government demonstrations remained modest in size but, for a time, became widespread. The regime soon quashed Kifaya, but the stirrings of popular activism helped to put the country on a trajectory toward the successful uprising of 2011. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Russia follow a similar “sedimentary” path in which experiences, emotions, and organizations that arise from today’s protests and their repression lay a foundation for the popular challenge that will eventually but inevitably bring Putinism’s reign to an end.

PS. After reading several commentaries more skeptical than my own of the potential for pro-democracy activism in Russia, I wrote a short follow-up post to try to better explain my cautious optimism.

  • Follow me on Twitter

  • Follow Dart-Throwing Chimp on WordPress.com
  • Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 13,614 other followers

  • Archives

%d bloggers like this: