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Political Communication and Repression in Russia – Or What Do Alexei Navalny and Mitt Romney Have in Common?

- August 1, 2013

Alexei Navalny getting arrested

The following is a guest post from political scientists Graeme Robertson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Samuel Greene of King’s College London.


On Thursday  July 18, as anyone with more than a passing interest in Russia or the Monkey Cage already knows, Russian anti-corruption campaigner and Moscow Mayoral candidate, Alexei Navalny, was sentenced to 5 years imprisonment on charges of embezzling about $500 000 from a forestry firm for which he had never worked. The trial had been a long time in the works and the sentence was not surprising. Yet somehow, even if it was not surprising, it was still jarring – to us at least. That travesties of justice and political repression have become expected in Russia these days is no reason not to be horrified when they happen.

So much for the morality of the case, what about the politics? Repression, after all, is not just personal, but also political, and is intended not just to deal with a particular target, but also “pour encourager les autres”. Moreover, Navalny is no ordinary defendant, but a candidate right in the middle of a race to become mayor of Russia’s capital city – perhaps the third most high profile position in Russia after president and prime minister. The prosecutors themselves requested that the court release Navalny pending his appeal, giving him some time – maybe a month, maybe two – to campaign ahead of the September 8 ballot. So how did the political message of Navalny’s trial go down with ‘les autres’? As it happens, not much differently than a Mitt Romney ad in the U.S. — more about that in a minute.

There has been much debate about what the Navalny verdict and subsequent decision to release him pending appeal would mean for Russian politics. Fortunately, we have some data that allow informed (if clearly not definitive) analysis of these issues. The data come from two sources – daily telephone tracking polls looking at levels of support for the various candidates in the Moscow race (conducted by Synovate ComCon), and an Internet survey of educated, middle-class Muscovites that was in the field when the verdict was handed down (conducted by the authors with the generous financial support of the Smith Richardson Foundation).

The first thing to note is just how politically tuned in educated, middle class Muscovites are. In the 48 hours after the verdict (when the field work was completed), some 87 percent of respondents in our Internet sample reported being aware of the case against Navalny, and 70 percent said they knew the verdict. Interestingly, the high levels of awareness of the Navalny case do not seem exceptional – fully 89 percent of respondents said that they had head of the trials of the Bolotnoe protesters. Of these, only 15 percent thought the sentences handed down in these cases appropriate, while 53 percent saw the Bolotnoe cases as “political show trials”. In other words, the public message of repression in today’s Russia is “received and understood”.

So how is Russian repression like a Mitt Romney ad? Because the Navalny sentence produced more or less the same effect you get from launching a big television ad buy in a US presidential election – a short-lived bounce that dissipates in a week. For Navalny, being repressed by the Putin regime was worth about a 10-point bounce in the polls. In the internet survey, of the 492 respondents who answered either before the sentences were announced, or who were unaware of the verdict, 12 percent said they intended to vote for Navalny in the mayoral election. Among those who answered after and knew the verdict (151 people), Navalny’s support was 23 percent. Without a panel design, we can’t know who moved, but in aggregate all of that bounce seems to have come at the expense the incumbent and Putin-favored candidate Sergei Sobyanin, whose support fell from 34 percent to 24 percent.

Interestingly, the bounce we found in the Internet poll, which is not representative of the city’s population as a whole, is also there in the tracking polls, which are representative. According to the tracking polls, based on 1200-1300 telephone interviews per week, by Saturday July 20 the proportion of respondents intending to vote for Navalny had gone up to 24 percent, from 13 percent on the day of the verdict. This was the result of a huge (mostly Internet) media  focus on Navalny’s dramatic sentencing, the subsequent protests in Moscow, and his ultimate release and almost triumphant return to Moscow. Sobyanin’s support also fell 10 points in the tracking poll – albeit from 81 percent to 71. And yet, like the effects of a big ad buy, the bounce was fleeting. By the following Wednesday, Navalny was back to 16 percent and Sobyanin to 75 percent.

Why buying ads in a democracy and making a public example of the leading oppositionist in an electoral authoritarian regime should look so similar is an interesting question. Do citizens in authoritarian regimes just forget the news of the sentence, like citizens in a democracy might forget the ads? Or is something different going on, with initial outrage or encouragement turning back into passivity or fear? Getting at the underlying mechanism behind outward similarities would tell political scientists a lot about similarities and differences between democracies and electoral authoritarian regimes.

However interesting for political scientists, for Navalny, the short-lived nature of the bounce is depressing. Ten points for 6 days is little return for five years in a Russian jail. These data – as preliminary as they are – also suggest that to prosper in the longer term, the opposition cannot simply rely on the Kremlin making mistakes, but must find a way itself to bring larger numbers of Russians to its side. Navalny’s campaign is currently working hard to make this happen, with daily meetings with voters and a team of thousands of volunteers. However, Navalny is working largely without help from the rest of the extra-parliamentary opposition, which seems to be sitting on the sidelines. Nevertheless, although the bounce was fleeting, Navalny’s base does seem to be slowly growing. Before the campaign proper began, polls suggested that Navalny enjoyed the support of only about 8 percent of likely voters. By the beginning of this week, this has risen to a daily average of around 16 percent. Where things go from here, of course, is anyone’s guess, but one thing seems sure; like the Duma elections of 2011, the 2013 Moscow mayoral elections are turning out to be much more interesting than most had expected at the outset.

[Photo Credit: Accuracy in Media]