Saturday, April 10, 2021

‘The More Moscow Tightens the Screws on Ethnic Groups, the More These Groups Back the Kremlin,’ Three Russian Scholars Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 8 – It has long been observed that non-Russian republics deliver heavier majorities to Vladimir Putin and the ruling party than do Russian regions, but this difference reflects primarily the fact that the non-Russian republics are more rural and it is easier for officials to falsify the results, Stanislav Shkel, Andrey Shcherbak and Tatyana Tkacheva say.

            The three political scientists, the first at Perm State University and the second and third from Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, say that neither the predominance of rural voters nor national cultural patterns in these republics is sufficient to explain what is going on (

            Instead and on the basis of research in three rural centers in Bashkortostan and Tatarstan, they argue that what is occurring is what has become known as “the tragic brilliance of authoritarianism” in which groups under pressure from the center often prove more supportive of it than those under less pressure (

            This “paradox,” the three argue occurs because of the different meaning of political participation in authoritarian systems as compared to that in democratic ones. “In contrast to democracies where voters can punish the government for an economic crisis by voting for the opposition, authoritarian regimes can use crises for their own benefit.”

            “Here is the logic,” the three scholars say. “In a period of economic growth, every region gets subsidies form  the center with loyal ones somewhat more than less loyal ones. But during a period of limited resources and tightened central control, it become clear to all that less-loyal regions can see their economic lifelines reduced if not cut completely.”

            And that means that because regions must compete for subsidies, political loyalty to the rulers in Moscow as expressed in voting for Putin and United Russia, “becomes a key advantage,” and non-Russian voters rationally choose that tactic in order to gain an advantage or at least not lose it.

            “Under pressure of crisis and centralization,” these non-Russians “are less interested in expanding their political and cultural autonomy than preserving the status quo; and threatened with the loss of their remaining ethnic preferences, they are inclined not only to unite behind ‘their own’ regional head but also to follow his calls for vote for Kremlin’s favored candidates.”

            “This is the essence of authoritarian tragic brilliance,” they right. Tragic because ethnic minorities are forced to give up their ethnic and cultural rights; and brilliant because the tightening of screws by an authoritarian regime paradoxically reinforces the loyalty of the ethnic minorities.”

            They offer these conclusions after examining and dismissing in whole or in part many of the usual explanations for the reality that Putin and United Russia do better in non-Russian republics than in Russian regions despite the actions the Moscow leaders regularly take against them and that they don’t like.

            They call into question widespread suggestions that the ethnic minorities in Russia have tighter communication links and that these lead them to vote for those the leaders of these minorities call on them to back. But the three say that their research shows that “ethnicity does not influence one’s political choice and that ethnic minorities don’t vote for the regime any more than ethnic Russian ones do.”

            A much more influential factor is the share of people who live in rural areas. Non-Russians disproportionately do, and that affects both the level of their participation and their support for candidates from the party of power. People are more likely to vote because everyone knows everyone else in villages, and no one wants to embarrass or discomfort others.

            As to whom they vote for, that isn’t because of the ethnic cohesiveness but rather something else. People with whom the three political scientists spoke said they “try to elect those who can be most helpful for their village.” And “that is why the pleases of local officials to back candidates with status and resources can be influential.”

            “Given that almost all members of United Russia are in charge of an enterprise, people vote for them in the hope that they will provide material support to the village, and they avoid voting for the opposition out of fear that the head of the municipality will in that event punish the village by cutting back on financial support.”

            The votes of non-Russians for candidates of the party of power do not mean that the non-Russians support policies that they dislike because they hurt their ethnic rights. Instead, the three argue, the non-Russians vote as they do for the party of power for specifically materialistic reasons.

            There is one place where ethnicity drives voting and that involves the leadership of the region or republic. Non-Russians believe that the leaders of the places where they are the titular group should be members of the same nationality as they are. They will vote on ethnic lines in that case.

            For the non-Russians they surveyed, “the regional leader’s ethnicity [is] a symbol of preservation for their culture and special ethnic status,” something that “lifts there hopes that a regional leader who is ‘one of our own’ can ease pressure on them from the federal center and thus protect their culture.”

            And this has an important lesson for Moscow as well: “centralization and its tendency to reduce the political and cultural autonomy of minorities in Russia increase the motivation of members of these groups to support politicians who represent their ethnic group” even if in other cases they vote on class lines rather than ethnic ones.

            But this tendency is limited by the following factor in many cases: Non-Russians are quite prepared to listen to their regional leaders, even those of the same ethnic groups, who argue that failure to support Putin and United Russia will “anger Moscow” and put them at risk of losing even what they already have.

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