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The Other Presidential Election: Hamsters vs. Rabbits

- February 27, 2012

We are pleased to welcome back Graeme Robertson, an Associate Professor of Political Science at UNC Chapel Hill and author of a 2010 Cambridge University Press book entitled The Politics of Protest in Hybrid Regimes: Managing Dissent in Post-Communist Russia, with some observations on the run-up to the March 4, 2012 Russian presidential election.

While most political scientists in the US are marveling over Michigan and Rick Santorum gets laughs just for mentioning the words political science, some of us are entranced by another contest – hamsters versus rabbits. Hamsters, as we now know, not only store food in their cheeks but, in Russia at least, also like free elections. Rabbits, as the pro-Putin activists are being called, on the other hand, like stability, Vladimir Putin and driving in their underwear. The last two weeks have seen competing driving protests in Moscow (Saturday for Putin, Sunday against), some 100 000 rabbits gathering in the giant warren-like sports complex Luzhniki on February 23rd, or as we all know it Defender of the Fatherland Day, and hamsters creating a human chain around central Moscow.

Beyond the merits of the various protests, most of the commentary has focused on two classic issues: whose rallies are bigger, and whose are more authentic. While size clearly matters, authenticity is at least as important. Vladimir Putin was quick to allege that the State Department is behind the hamsters, and while this was perceived by many as a ridiculous charge, the charge had real resonance in Russia. More easily accepted in the West, were charges that the rabbits are inauthentic –paid or coerced students or employees of the Moscow city government. While there is almost certainly a lot of truth to charges that government resources and pressure have played a role in generating big crowds for Putin, it would be a mistake to ignore the fact that there are many real enthusiasts among the rabbits. Surveys taken in Moscow in advance of the Defender of the Fatherland Day festivities suggested roughly similar numbers of people planning to participate in pro and anti-Putin demonstrations.  If the survey data are anything to go by, the fact that the pro-Putin rallies are generally larger indicates significant use of “administrative resources” to turn people out.  On the other hand, there also seems about as much voluntary pro-Putin activity as anti-Putin activity. If true, in analyzing events in the streets around Russia, we neglect this real pro-Putin support at our peril, especially since, as the experts tell me, “one kick from a rabbit’s powerful back leg would kill a hamster.”