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Current Research

“Complaining to the Kremlin: Responsiveness during Authoritarian Consolidation”

Sasha de Vogel with Hannah Chapman (University of Oklahoma) and Lauren McCarthy (UMASS Amherst)

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In autocracies, appeals systems allow citizens to raise everyday, resolvable grievances to the government through a sanctioned process. These systems contribute to regime stability by providing a mode of political participation that serves as an alternative to collective action, and by gathering information about the performance of subnational officials, grievances and governance problems. But how do appeals systems function when everyday politics is disrupted by crises that may alter citizens’ submission of appeals? Crises may overtax the capacity of the appeals system to respond, disincentivizing appealing. Public narratives of sacrifice may lead citizens to withhold quotidian appeals, while increases in repression may discourage complaining. We explore the effect of crises on appeals systems by descriptively examining anew dataset of 1,692,559 appeals submitted to the Presidential Administration of Russia from 2017-2023.  This period covers three crises: the pension reform of 2018, a policy crisis; the COVID pandemic, beginning 2020, an exogenous public health crisis, and the war with Ukraine, beginning 2022, an international military, economic and political crisis. We find that the appeals system functioned as normal during pension reform and COVID, but since the invasion of Ukraine, appeals on military topics have predominated, while appeals on other topics and regional issues have been reduced, limiting the system’s informational function. We conclude that when crisis narratives emphasize public sacrifice, appeals systems become less effective.

“Measuring Power Sharing in Autocratic Legislatures”

Bryce Hecht

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Canonical theories claim that legislatures stabilize authoritarian rule by helping leaders credibly commit to sharing power with regime insiders, but empirical evidence supporting this argument is weak. Data limitations make it difficult to directly measure the extent of legislative power sharing across time and space, leading scholars to use the presence or absence of a legislature as a proxy. I use a dynamic Bayesian latent variable model to develop the first time-series cross-sectional measure of legislative power sharing for all authoritarian regimes from 1946 to 2021. After validating the measure, I use it to replicate Boix and Svolik’s (2013) analysis of the relationship between legislative power sharing and autocratic survival and find that their results do not hold. Legislative power sharing makes leaders more, not less, vulnerable to being removed from office by coups and revolts. These findings suggest that scholars may need to rethink existing theories of authoritarian institutions.

Labor Unions and Democratic Unrest in North Africa: Protest and Resistance in Tunisia and Morocco

Ashley Anderson

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Since the industrial revolution first united workers and politics, labor activism has been a key driver of not only economic progress but also of political change. Yet the reasons why some unions engage in political mobilization while others remain on the sidelines are as yet unknown. Drawing on original data from North Africa, I show how political institutions are decisive in influencing the character and success of labor militancy. Political institutions “shape the arena” in which labor unions can mobilize; where unions are given access to official channels for demand-making, coalition-building between labor leaders and partisan elites induces unions into quiescence and away from the street. By contrast, where unions are excluded from the policy-making process, the absence of regular access to influential political elites radicalizes labor agendas and leaves unions to develop as political outsiders. 

However, what happens inside a union’s internal bureaucracy is equally important for labor militancy. I argue that democratic unions are better able to gain cooperation from their rank and file for policies that involve personal cost, thereby making them better equipped to sustain radical protest campaigns that impose severe risks for their membership. Importantly, I link the organizational structures that unions form to their foundational past. When fledgling unions are excluded from formal channels of political influence, labor leaders have little choice but to wed themselves to the rank-and-file and undertake the difficult work of building an autonomous organization. At the heart of the book’s argument, therefore, lies a paradox: exclusionary policies meant to weaken and depoliticize labor are precisely those that engender politically militant labor organizations. By casting unions into the institutional wilderness, autocrats who rely on exclusionary corporatism unintentionally empower their enemies, giving them the autonomy, incentive, and capacity to successfully challenge the regime.

“Lessons from the COVID Pandemic in Russia”

Grigore Pop-Eleches (Princeton University), Graeme Robertson and Bryn Rosenfeld (Cornell University)

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A crucial question for scholars of contemporary authoritarianism is when regime supporters broaden their information diet, potentially exposing themselves to new ideas that might challenge the regime. We argue that emotions, and specifically anxiety, are likely to play a critical role in this process. Using observational data from two nationwide surveys in Russia during the COVID-19 pandemic and an emotion induction experiment conducted face-to-face with a nationally representative sample, we investigate how anxiety affects the search for information. We find that heightened anxiety leads people to seek out more information about the source of their anxiety and to consume media from new sources. Anxiety prompts regime opponents to engage more with state media, but also increases regime supporters’ engagement with opposition media critical of the government. These findings provide evidence for a specific emotional mechanism that can drive increased information seeking of a potentially politically consequential character during crises.

“Prigozhin’s March: TikToking the Wagner Rebellion”

Graeme Robertson and Sasha de Vogel

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TikTok, with short, watchable videos, is largely an entertainment platform but has become an increasingly important source of information for its large and growing userbase. The app’s algorithms reward content that holds a viewer’s attention, through humor, outrage or emotion, but these features also contribute to the spread of conspiracy theories and misinformation. During complex, fast-moving events like armed conflicts or crises, where objective information can be scant, these problems may be particularly severe. To understand how information spreads over TikTok during the fog of war, we examine videos posted during Evgeny Prigozhin’s march to Moscow. From June 23-24, 2023, Prigozhin led his private military company, Wagner, from Ukraine, where they had been fighting on behalf of Russia, to occupy the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, and then on towards the capital. As this event unfolded, its meaning for Russia and for the war in Ukraine was not clear. We analyze the most-viewed TikToks posted during this two-day period originating from Russia, Ukraine and the United States, including imagery, language, battlefield information, humor, and support for parties to the conflict. We then analyze commenters’ reactions for agreement or skepticism of the content, as well as support for parties to the conflict. In doing so, we provide novel insight into how complex news breaks over TikTok.

“Pro-Regime Mobilization in Populist Authoritarian Systems”

Anil Kahvecioğlu

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I focus on the protest mobilization strategies used by populist governments. The prevailing argument in the scholarship is that these mobilization strategies are largely observed in authoritarian regimes, with a near-consensus suggesting it is a response to political threats against autocrats. However, recent cases show that pro-government mobilization is also increasingly evident in democratic regimes under populist leadership. In this context, I ask the following questions: What do populists do on the streets? Can contentious pro-government mobilization be a tool for populists in democracies as well? Is there a facet of populist governments’ policies that fuels these mobilization practices? How do these relate to the democratic trajectory towards autocratization? And what framing strategies do populists use to mobilize their base? Through examining these inquiries, I aim to contribute to a deeper understanding of the intersection between populism, regimes, and protest dynamics. My research is funded by the Turkish state institution TUBITAK.

“Repression, Emotions and Legitimacy: Evidence from a Survey Experiment in Russia”

Graeme Robertson, Grigore Pop-Eleches (Princeton University), Bryn Rosenfeld (Cornell University), Samuel Greene (King’s College)

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How does the repression of protests by authoritarian regimes affect political attitudes towards the regime and the likelihood of future protests? What role do emotions play in dissent decisions? To address these questions, we draw on an online survey experiment in Russia, which was conducted in the aftermath of the violent repression of massive anti-government protests triggered by the arrest in early 2021 of the Russian opposition leader, Alexey Navalny. We find that when primed with information about government repression of protests, opposition sympathizers reported larger increases in anger and outrage than fear, while all three emotional reactions were limited among regime supporters. Further, we show that anger and outrage mediate the relationship between government repression and opposition supporters’ attitudinal reactions (such as, lower support for Putin and greater support for Navalny), as well as behavioral responses (like greater willingness to join future protests). These findings highlight the mechanisms underlying the potential for backlash against repression in authoritarian regimes.

Understanding the Psychological Underpinnings of Support for Authoritarianism: Evidence from Russia’s War Against Ukraine

Graeme Robertson

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Traditional and contemporary literature in political science on support for authoritarian leaders focuses on economic factors and on how leaders might manipulate the information that citizens receive in order to improve their perceptions of economic performance. However, it is increasingly clear that many authoritarian leaders are able to generate substantial support even among those in the countries who do not benefit economically and who are well aware of the shortcomings of the political system. This fact raises deep questions about the psychological bases of support for authoritarianism. In this paper, we propose that system justification theory (SJT) provides key insights into why some people support authoritarianism even when it does not obviously serve their interests. Using the question of support for in Russia for that country’s economically and socially damaging war against Ukraine, we show that system justifiers, people whose identity is tied up in support for the Russian political system as much because of its failings as despite them, are more likely to support the war and more willing to pay higher costs to pursue it. We demonstrate these claims using a newly developed measure of system justification thinking and an online survey of 1500 Russians conducted in 2023.

“Why do local authorities allow dissent in autocracies: the evidence from 2017-2018 Navalny protests in Russia”

Aleksandra Rumiantseva

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Quite surprisingly, Navalny’s 2017-2018 protest campaign in Russia was not met with uniform repression across the entire country. In fact, in some cities rallies were officially sanctioned, although most localities, as one could expect, saw arrests and beatings. To account for this variation, I rely on principal agent theory and look into the context of regional politics. Initiated in 2006, a municipal reform in Russia has eliminated mayoral elections in numerous cities, so that a mayor’s re-appointment in such localities is now decided by higher-level authorities. Furthermore, Russian local elites are highly controlled with such instruments as a high level of rotation and even criminal persecution. Thus, those mayors who are appointed or govern the city with unstable rotation levels are expected to satisfy the interests of those sitting above them rather than those of ordinary citizens. Drawing on an original data set on Navalny’s 2017-2018 protests in 163 Russian cities, I, therefore, hypothesize that mayors who face unstable political conditions in their cities had more incentives to ban rallies and resort to open repression (in order to avoid subsequent punishment from their subordinates), as compared to elected mayors or those who hold their power for a longer time. My findings suggest that the probability of an allowed rally was on average 20% higher in the localities with the mayors who stay in power longer. These results may expand the existing knowledge of how autocrats select and calibrate repression strategies in the face of rising protest mobilization, especially on regional and local levels.

Collaborative Projects

#Data4Ukraine – Real Time Event Detection for Human Rights and Refugees

Graeme Robertson, Silviya Nitsova and Elena Sirotkina, with researchers from the Kyiv School of Economics, Olga Onuch and MOBILISE (University of Manchester), Ernesto Calvo (University of Maryland’s iLCSS), and the DevLab@Duke’s Machine Learning for Peace project.

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#Data4Ukraine gathers data on civilian resistance, human rights abuses, displacement of people and humanitarian support/needs across Ukraine, with the intention of providing timely information for private citizens, NGOs, INGOs and policymakers responding to the Russian invasion and war. To do so, it uses hourly data from the Twitter API to report on the incidence of important events. Learn More.

PONARS Eurasia Task Force: Russia in a Changing Climate

Graeme Robertson, co-chair with colleagues from Notre Dame and George Washington University.

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As the climate emergency escalates, we have seen an accompanying growth in research on climate change in the social sciences. Russia is the largest country on the planet and a key producer of fossil fuels, yet minimally represented in this expanding research. Much remains to be done to understand both the processes and politics of responses to a changing climate in a country so central to planetary health. The effects of Russia’s war against Ukraine, Western sanctions, and the resulting uncertainty in international efforts to address climate change also require deeper understanding. The aim of the PONARS Task Force on Russia in a Changing Climate is to address this lack of evidence-based research by convening a group of scholars with expertise in different aspects of politics and policy in Russia. Learn more.

Select Recent Publications

“Crisis Bargaining, Domestic Politics and Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine”, Conflict Management and Peace Science, forthcoming

Sasha de Vogel, with Jessica Sun (Emory)

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How do domestic political considerations constrain or enable the initiation of interstate wars? We answer this question in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. While prominent theories predict domestic constraints reduce the likelihood of conflict, we show how structural features of Putin’s regime rendered these concerns moot. Fighting was not likely to shift the domestic distribution of power favorably for Putin, though invading stood to enrich certain domestic groups and Putin himself. Instead, the invasion is more consistent with evidence Putin perceived Ukraine to be bluffing, or expected fighting to yield pro-Russia shifts in Ukrainian domestic politics.

Ambition without democracy: when the cautious seek office“, Democratization, 2024

Guzel Garifullina

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When studying the erosion of democratic institutions – such as elections – researchers often focus on elite co-optation or regime dynamics. Yet changes in political selection may also have long-term effects on the types of individuals seeking a political career, defining the dominant features of decision-makers down the road. I design a lab experiment to explore the effects of changes in political selection that accompanied authoritarian backsliding in Russia. Using a series of experiments, I show that creating an unfair playing field in elections and replacing elections with appointments for the local offices leads to self-selection of the risk-averse individuals into political careers. This happens because selection features like low costs of running (for regime candidates) and the absence of public evaluation for the appointees attract individuals who are more risk averse. This study demonstrates a causal mechanism connecting elements of authoritarian backsliding with citizen political ambition and contributes to our understanding of the long-term effects these changes may have on political participation, elite quality, and regime functioning.

Reneging and the subversion of protest-driven policy change in autocracies“, Democratization, 2024

Sasha de Vogel

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In autocracies, low-capacity protest campaigns that lack material and political resources are common, but these weaknesses make them vulnerable to reneging – the deliberate failure to implement concessions as promised. Reneging is critical to how and whether protests actually influence policy. Why are some autocratic concessions to low-capacity campaigns undermined by reneging? I argue concessions are most likely to be implemented when they matter least for meaningfully altering policy. Concessions that provide isolated conflict resolution without constraining state actors elsewhere are more likely to be implemented, while reneging affects concessions that would constrain state agents elsewhere. I find support for this argument using an original dataset of low-capacity protest campaigns in Moscow, Russia, from 2013 to 2018, which includes a novel approach to concessions data. Additionally, I show that reneging is less likely when the campaign demobilizes after the concession, though the effect on constraining concessions is limited. I also address why campaigns about some issues, like labour disputes, experience less reneging, and show that concessions from higher levels of government are just as prone to reneging as lower levels. This article advances scholarship on authoritarian responsiveness and non-violent political control by highlighting reneging as an overlooked response to protest.

The Activist Personality: Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Opposition Activism in Authoritarian Regimes“, Comparative Political Studies, 2023

Jan Matti Dollbaum (University of Bremen) and Graeme Robertson

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Why do people become opposition activists in authoritarian regimes where dissent invites social censure and can be dangerous? We make a new contribution to answering this classic question: personality. For the first time outside of democratic contexts, we investigate the association between personality traits and opposition activism, arguing that some traits work universally, while others interact with political context. We propose that—as in democracies—high extraversion predicts political activism, regardless of its pro- or anti-regime orientation, and, in particular, that extraversion is critical to explain the shift from online to offline action. We also argue that—contrary to democratic contexts—low agreeableness predicts opposition activism in autocracies, because it reduces the perceived costs of non-conformity. We test these arguments based on two independent survey samples from Russia, a stable authoritarian regime. In a series of statistical tests, including two case-control designs, we find consistent support for all hypotheses.

The best among the connected (men): promotion in the Russian state apparatus“, Post-Soviet Affairs, 2023

Guzel Garifullina

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Bureaucratic promotion criteria create powerful incentives that shape the behavior of bureaucrats, governance, and regime legitimacy. Yet informal rules governing the functioning of the state apparatus are notoriously hard to uncover in authoritarian settings. Using a unique survey of Russian regional and municipal bureaucrats with an embedded conjoint experiment, I explore the criteria used for promotion decisions. I discover that personal connections to the future supervisor are a major favorable factor for bureaucratic promotions in Russia. For candidates with such ties, education and experience add extra advantage. Importantly, gender plays a crucial role; gender bias cannot be compensated by better education, experience, or a specific family strategy – and it is men with informal ties who drive the effect of personal connection on promotions. The study highlights the complex interaction between formal and informal criteria within Russian bureaucracy and contributes to our understanding of post-Soviet neopatrimonial politics.

Demolition and Discontent: Governing the Authoritarian City“, American Journal of Political Science, 2023

Sean Norton

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The presence of large cities increases the probability of authoritarian breakdown, but the literature has offered little empirical insight as to how challenges to authoritarian rule develop in urban space. I develop a theory of cities as complex sociopolitical spaces that are difficult to govern, particularly in the absence of democratic institutions. This complexity makes both co-optation and coercion difficult, meaning the very tactics that authoritarian cities use to control discontent can become its proximate cause. Using a large, city-financed housing project in Moscow targeted at rewarding regime supporters, I utilize a Bayesian semi-parametric model to demonstrate that even a seemingly well-targeted co-optive exchange contributed to a surprising defeat for the regime in a subsequent municipal election. My results suggest that the relative illegibility of cities plays an important part in the development of opposition to authoritarian rule.

Local Norms, Political Partisanship, and Pandemic Response: Evidence from the United States“, Perspectives on Politics, 2023

Keena Lipsitz (Quee’s College CUNY), Grigore Pop-Eleches (Princeton University) and Graeme Robertson

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A growing literature focuses on the role of political partisanship in shaping attitudes and behaviors during the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. We provide a different perspective, by developing a theory of how partisanship interacts with another important factor that shapes how people think and behave in the context of the pandemic—local norms. Using a combination of survey data and a survey experiment, we demonstrate the importance of norms in shaping both support for social distancing and reported social-distancing behavior, particularly amongst independents and Republicans. We then confirm that perceptions of norms are indeed tied to what is actually happening around people—that their partisanship does not blind them to reality. Our analysis is the first to examine how partisanship and norms interact with each other and helps to explain why partisan differences matter more in some places than in others.

Russia in a Changing Climate“, WIREs Climate Change, 2023

Graeme Robertson with fourteen others

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Climate change will shape the future of Russia, and vice versa, regardless of who rules in the Kremlin. The world’s largest country is warming faster than Earth as a whole, occupies more than half the Arctic Ocean coastline, and is waging a carbon-intensive war while increasingly isolated from the international community and its efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Officially, the Russian government argues that, as a major exporter of hydrocarbons, Russia benefits from maintaining global reliance on fossil fuels and from climate change itself, because warming may increase the extent and quality of its arable land, open a new year-round Arctic sea route, and make its harsh climate more livable. Drawing on the collective expertise of a large group of Russia-focused social scientists and a comprehensive literature review, we challenge this narrative. We find that Russia suffers from a variety of impacts due to climate change and is poorly prepared to adapt to these impacts. The literature review reveals that the fates of Russia’s hydrocarbon-dependent economy, centralized political system, and climate-impacted population are intertwined and that research is needed on this evolving interrelationship, as global temperatures rise and the international economy decarbonizes in response.