Staunton, March 24 – It is almost axiomatic among analysts of the Navalny protests earlier this year that many who took part did so because of his film about Putin’s palace and the other evidence has provided about corruption in the upper reaches of the Russian political system, Anastasiya Lapunova says.
But in fact, the analyst for Transparency International Russia says, knowledge about elite corruption can both mobilize and lead to apathy. She cites international research which shows that such knowledge drives men to take part in protests but women to participate in greater numbers in elections (vtimes.io/2021/03/24/korruptsiya-kak-motiv-golosovat-i-protestovat-a3986).
Lapunova also points out that despite the media attention that Navalny’s film has received, Levada Center polls this year and in 2017 show that there was not a significant increase in the share of those who cited elite corruption as a reason to take part in demonstrations. In fact, there was a slight decline: in 2017, 21 percent cited that as a cause. Now, only 19 percent do.
It is certain that for some Russians, the propensity to protest increases with knowledge about corruption. But that is not the case for all, the analyst says. “An excess of information about corruption crimes committed by selected individuals may lead to the demobilization of the electorate.” It may even “provoke absenteeism and disappointment in political institutions.”
According to some research on Russian protests, Lapunova continues, “those categories of citizens who in the opinion of sociologists are most inclined to take part in anti-corruption protests conduct themselves in a conformist manner” given their dependence on the state and their unwillingness to express their anger publicly (carnegie.ru/commentary/84052).
“In Russia, grand corruption mobilizes precisely the middle class in post-industrial cities while at the same time the part of the population most affected by corruption responds” to such reports with anger and conformist behavior rather than with action. This confirms that “a high level of corruption by itself cannot serve as the main moving force of protest.”
Cases of “grand” corruption like Putin’s palace may get a lot of media attention, but “personal negative experience arising from encounters with ‘everyday’ corruption more strongly motivate people to protest than big scandals and investigations of dirty business among ‘the upper reaches.’”
Corruption cases can also play a contradictory role in election competitions, Lapunova continues. Candidates of the party of power may be quite happy to have voters focus on big corruption cases rather than the more impactful day-to-day kind that could lead voters to turn against them.
And candidates from opposition parties need to recognize this reality and focus on playing up the day-to-day corruption in the system, an approach which will help them, rather than on a few big cases, a tactic that may not bring the benefits and support they have been led to expect.