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The last chapter that focuses on individual decisions, discusses activism in rallies and protests as a national conversation over Russia’s future. The first section of the chapter demonstrates that the protest actions in Moscow framed this conversation and provided a focal point for increased participation. The findings support information cascade theories of mobilization in the protest movement but not in the rallies, where increased participation continued to rely on regime incentives. The second section of the chapter focuses on the competing frames that the opposition and regime developed to characterize the national conversation. Relying on the data, the final section focuses on frame resonance, exploring the effectiveness of state and opposition framing in shaping protesters attitudes.
This chapter lays the foundation for the study of the role of elections in non-democratic regimes. Using VDem data, the analysis in the chapter shows that while stability is the most common response to electoral autocracies, elections can produce change in a liberalizing or autocratizing direction. This introductory chapter describes this process of voter mobilization in Russia in 2011–2012 and in terms of the existing literature on autocratic stability. It creates the foundational framework for the empirical study that brings together important studies of autocratic elections, hybrid regime stability, and post-election protest. This foundation supports the central argument of the book: when controlled elections reveal information about the lack of regime accountability, voters protest at the ballot box and on the streets. Societal mobilization provides opportunities for opposition growth and forces regimes to respond to maintain stability. The final section of the chapter outlines the plan of the book and summarizes the arguments in each chapter.
Chapter 3 begins with a cross-national statistical test of the implication of the formal model. Designed to show the external validity of the model, the analysis explores the effect of different opposition and regime strategies on the likelihood of post-election protest. To illustrate that the information value of these signals varies according to the nature of the information environment, I analyze the outcomes in two types of non-democracy electoral regimes: electoral autocracies and closed autocracies. The results show that regime and opposition strategies do influence the potential for protest and that these effects vary according to the context in which elections are held. Given this finding, the second half of the book focuses on regime efforts to change that environment in the inter-election period, highlighting the propensity to manipulate the factors that alter popular perceptions about the regime its opposition, and the nature of state–society relations.
Chapter 5 explores social response to the 2011 parliamentary election. These chapters are central to my explanation that links regime change to citizens’ action through opposition and regime strategies in elections. Based on unique original data supplemented with national surveys, this analysis provides the first systematic investigations of individual responses to the information revealed through electoral contests and the opposition call to protest. A crucial innovative feature of each of the chapters is that it considers the behavior of three groups: protesters, regime rally participants or ralliers, and nonparticipants. The first section of the chapter discusses opposition contestation over the vote protest concept and the most efficacious strategy to express dissent at the ballot box. The second section of the chapter explores the individual decision to engage in different protest strategies, showing that while vote protest did undermine regime support, the lack of opposition agreement on one strategy, obscured this information. Nonetheless, the vote protest laid the groundwork for post-election protest by raising awareness and engaging individuals in the process.
Chapter 8 returns to state and opposition contestation between national election cycles. It describes how the regime uses the advantages described in the formal model in Chapter 3 to respond to different electoral contexts, sometimes allowing the opposition to compete and banning them in other cases. In response, the opposition continues to innovate its strategies to generate new information about regime manipulation and the lack of electoral accountability. This process creates a perpetual campaign as the regime and opposition clash over elections at every level of the political system and between elections to shape information environments. The regime is forced to be nimble as it seeks to limit the diffusion of successful opposition strategies and avoid having to reveal new information in national elections. The focus on the Russian case describes regime success in 2016 and 2018 when it engineered victories without provoking protest. It also demonstrates that these efforts moved the regime incrementally in an autocratic direction, generating new political tensions and opposition opportunities. Victory did not end the potential for a breakthrough in the next election.
The formal model presented in the chapter underscores that control over ballot access conveys a significant power advantage to autocratic incumbents. This control leaves electoral oppositions with few options. Yet, even with this power asymmetry, the model demonstrates that elections force autocrats to make strategic choices that reveal information about regime strengths and weaknesses. Banning strong opponents signals regime weakness. Committing fraud to secure victories signals that elections are not mechanisms of accountability. When opposition parties amplify this information, they can generate focal points to foster societal coordination, forcing the regime to respond with concessions or retribution. Depending on the size and structure of the mobilization, these changes can be sudden or incremental, generating uncertainty that has to be addressed in the inter-election period. Through this process, tightly controlled elections contested by weakly organized opposition parties can prompt regime shifts in a liberalizing or autocratic direction. The first part of the chapter presents the model discursively, and the second part formalizes the argument.
Chapter 6 returns to the social movement literature to create a framework to understand who joins post-election rallies and protests. Engaging the complex literature on differential participation, this analysis highlights the critical role of information in mobilization, and explains protest using life cycle variables such as age, education, and income; political interest; personal networks; regime support; and media consumption. This analysis demonstrates that both protesters and rally participants are more interested and better informed about politics than nonparticipants. The analysis also shows that while the regime incentivized pro-regime participation, the ralliers did support the regime and President Putin. The study also highlights the importance of micro-mobilizing structures such as networks on individual-level participation. Among protesters, online discussion helped build mobilizing personal networks and frame alignment. The second part of the chapter explores the meaning of inaction. This analysis shows that popular disengagement in Russia does not signal regime support but it is linked to perceptions that President Putin is crucial to addressing shared grievances.
Chapter 4 focuses on the Russian case, showing that even weakly organized oppositions can influence electoral outcomes. The chapter demonstrates how central concepts in social movement theory, social movement organizations, opportunity structure, and mobilizing frames also influence the information environment in which elections are held. The narrative illustrates that between 2008 and 2011, the Russian opposition altered popular perception by creating a coalition across different types of protest groups. It also underscores that the opposition’s unwillingness and inability to work with labor organizations limited the reach of the nascent movement and precluded cross-class coalition that is central to regime breakthrough. Nonetheless, these changes generated new information about the structure and reach of opposition as the 2011 election approached. The regime response included organizing new, state-sponsored organization, the articulation of competing frames, and the judicious use of repression. While these efforts shored up core regime support they failed to stifle opposition signals and may have demonstrated growing fears as the next election cycle approached.
This chapter places recent events in the context of the theoretic framework. In 2024, President Putin and his government face the same challenge that it faced in 2008. Constitutional term limits mandate that Putin leave office, prompting broad speculation about its effect on the 2021 parliamentary elections and the presidential race. Consistent with the formal model, the regime banned the opposition in Moscow’s 2019 municipal elections and the opposition unified to send a protest signal. Popular response kicked off some of the largest protests in recent years. In response, the Kremlin increased the use of repression against protesters, a move that provided new information about the regime type. Voters carried the protest into the voting booth and sent a strong signal in support of opposition candidates. In addition, the Kremlin moved to manage the next national election cycle by instituting signification constitutional reform and launching new social welfare programs. The final section of the chapter highlights the contributions of the study for comparative politics and Russia regional studies.