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Moscow allowed peaceful protests this summer. Here’s the surprising result.

Protesters trusted the government more when they were allowed to protest.

- October 3, 2019

This summer, after the Kremlin refused to put opposition candidates on the ballot for the Moscow City Council, tens of thousands of people turned out for weekly protests.

The authorities varied their responses to the demonstrations. They arrested more than 1,500 protesters and sentenced some to long prison terms, but at other times, they appeased the opposition by allowing protests to go on without incident. On Sept. 8, pro-government candidates swept races outside the capital but won only 25 of 45 seats in the Moscow City Council, a surprising loss of 13 seats.

Protests in Russia continue. On Sunday, about 20,000 protesters took to the streets to demand the release of those jailed during past demonstrations.

The protests raise a common dilemma for nondemocratic rulers: Is it better to repress or appease demonstrators? With Ekaterina Borisova, I conducted research on previous rounds of protests, publishing the results in the Journal of Politics. We found a surprising benefit to allowing anti-government protests: It can increase trust in the authorities.

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What happened during other recent protests?

In 2011-2012, Muscovites protested en masse against electoral subversion. Protesters called for new elections after a parliamentary election on Dec. 4, 2011, was widely seen as fraudulent. After some hesitation, the Moscow city government granted a permit for the protests. On Dec. 10 and Dec. 24, 2011, roughly 50,000 and 100,000 Russians gathered to call for new elections and protest egregious examples of election fraud.

The gatherings were large by Moscow standards and, to the surprise of many, took place without incident. The popular Russian newspaper Kommersant observed: “The organizers and participants of Sunday’s meeting in Moscow said that the civility (vezhlivost) and goodwill (dobrozhelatel’nost’) of the members of the police was unprecedented. A correspondent for Kommersant’ witnessed dozens of protesters thanking the police for keeping order. Participants even gave members of the security forces hot coffee in plastic cups and gave them flowers.”

The opposition activist and well-known writer Boris Akunin noted: “In general, the meeting produced a great impression. Everyone was polite, even the police. And by the way, there were very few of them.” News reports of the demonstration were broadcast on state television largely without comment.

Fortunately, my colleague and I happened to be conducting an in-person survey of 1,000 randomly selected Muscovites, with quotas to ensure representation across all districts of the city. To measure attitudes toward the government, we asked respondents to rate their level of trust in eight government institutions, the Russian Orthodox Church and the United Nations. Each was measured on a five-point scale on which 1 equaled “do not trust at all” and 5 equaled “trust completely.” By comparing the responses of those interviewed before and after the protests, we can examine the effect of exposure to the protests on trust across government institutions.

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Protesters trusted the government more when they were allowed to protest

Although the protests were clearly directed against the authorities, respondents interviewed in the two weeks after the protest expressed higher levels of trust than those interviewed before the protest in a range of governmental institutions. Those included the authorities most involved in allowing and policing the protests: the city government, the police, the army, the security services, the presidency and the federal government. Depending on the institution, respondents interviewed in the two weeks after the protests were between seven and 15 percentage points more likely to say that they “more or less trusted” or “fully trusted” the institution under study than those interviewed before the election.

However, respondents did not express higher levels of support in the Russian Duma, the institution most implicated in the fraudulent election. Nor did they express higher levels of trust in the United Nations — an institution unrelated to the fraud. This result suggests that respondents distinguished among political institutions in their answers and were not just in a better mood as the holidays neared.

Why would an anti-government protest increase trust in the authorities?

We found that respondents took their cues not from the content of the protests, but from the government’s unexpected decision to allow a peaceful protest.

Increases in trust came almost exclusively from respondents who least expected the government to allow the protest — those who had not voted for United Russia, the ruling party, in the parliamentary elections held a week before the first protest. Pleasantly surprised by the government’s decision to permit significant protests in central Moscow, these opposition-oriented respondents expressed higher levels of trust in the authorities. By unexpectedly allowing an explicitly political protest, the Russian government changed the views of some of its critics.

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Other research from Russia and elsewhere suggests that state crackdowns on protest reduce trust in government. Our research indicates that allowing protests can increase trust among opposition voters.

When opposition voters said they had more trust in the government, it didn’t exactly turn them into government supporters. They still expressed lower levels of trust in the government than did United Russia voters.

Still, because Moscow’s opposition protesters trusted government a bit more after being allowed to protest peacefully, they and the government might have been able to find some common ground. But instead of continuing to treat the opposition with forbearance, the Russian government became increasingly harsh toward future rounds of protest. By summer 2012, the government arrested protesters and gave them substantial jail sentences. That ended the possibility of reconciliation.

Demonstrations in Russia are likely to continue. Our research suggests that the opposition’s trust in the government will depend not just on what is said at these demonstrations, but also on whether the government allows protests to happen at all.

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Timothy Frye (@timothymfrye) is the Marshall Shulman professor of post-Soviet foreign policy at Columbia University and a visiting fellow at the Russell Sage Foundation.