► Under Russian President Vladimir Putin, plebiscitary techniques have played a key role in politics as a way to manufacture the image of democratic legitimacy. Far from being opposed to elections, the current regime readily transforms them into plebiscites and produces impressive polling numbers while simultaneously demobilizing popular participation. On numerous occasions, the Kremlin resorts to plebiscitary polling in order to effectively manipulate public sentiments during political crises. Recently, however, this technique failed when it was applied in response to a mass protest in Yekaterinburg. This failure, argues Greg Yudin, might be indicative of the latent shifts in public perceptions taking place in Russia.
Is Russia a democratic country? This question has been debated for almost three decades of the existence of the Russian Federation as an independent state. Although the discussions were largely confined to the domain of political science, the issue is far from scholastic. In fact, what is at stake is whether current Russian leadership enjoys democratic legitimacy or, to put it bluntly, whether the Russian people truly support President Vladimir Putin and the Russian ruling elite.
There are surprisingly many ways to answer this question. On the one hand, Russian elections are unfair in many respects: those critical of the president are always securely barred from running except perhaps in lower-level local elections. Moreover, voting is always rigged. Various techniques from busing groups of trusted voters for repeat ballot-casting to outright forging are massively used to manufacture election results. Indeed, a broad range of manipulations presents convincing evidence that support for the regime is much lower than officially reported.
“Russia watchers sometimes wonder why the Kremlin political managers are so attached to voting, given its complete predictability.”
On the other hand, Russian authorities are not at all opposed to holding various kinds of elections. Russia watchers sometimes wonder why the Kremlin political managers are so attached to voting, given its complete predictability. Indeed, it would be much easier to abolish it altogether. In most cases, the abolition of voting would hardly cause significant popular protest.
The explanation that voting is a lip service paid to the international community is hardly convincing. In that case, one could at least expect the regime to be generally hostile to electoral politics. However, the Kremlin is eager to expand voting and benefit from it; besides holding regular elections at various levels, the government implements plebiscites through opinion polls, most famously during the annexation of Crimea in 2014. As recently as May 2019 Putin forcefully argued that democracy means holding a poll, something he has repeatedly emphasized during his extremely long presidency. One should admit that the Russian political regime feels comfortable about elections, and voting is its natural constitutive element.
Hybrid Regime vs. Illiberal Democracy
One theory to explain this paradox assumes that polities such as present-day Russia are combinations of democratic and authoritarian patterns. Since elections and institutions of political representation are not completely suppressed, they make for a democratic component of these regimes. Admittedly, this constellation proved to be much more resilient than expected by the previous generations of political scientists who expected these transitional forms to turn relatively quickly into democracies. However, the imperfect regimes have persisted, which gave rise to a series of new umbrella terms referring to their chimeric nature, such as ‘electoral authoritarianism’ or ‘hybrid regimes.’
According to this approach, the preservation of formal electoral procedures is a sign that the germs of genuine democracy are present if dormant. What is less clear, however, is why voting is so effectively and seamlessly integrated into otherwise autocratic systems, or why presumably autocratic leaders are willing to enhance public voting instead of eliminating it. This raises doubts whether elections can be straightforwardly treated as a democratic element of these regimes.
Another problem with this strand of thinking stems from the other side of the supposed democracy/authoritarianism dichotomy. As Russian government officials are never tired of pointing out, the countries that are usually believed to be democratic also tend to introduce restrictions on electoral participation. For instance, the two-party system in the United States can effectively prevent a strong candidate from running for the presidency, even if he enjoys political popularity that is comparable to that of an incumbent, as demonstrated by Bernie Sanders’ efforts to face Trump in the electoral race.
If democracy is compatible with eliminating oppositional candidates from running for the presidency, the whole distinction between democracy and autocracy becomes blurred. After all, in Russia, one always finds on the ballot several representatives of the ruling elite who are equally repulsive, and this is not so different from what a significant portion of the American population thinks is happening in the U.S. as well. Obviously, the degree of suppressing electoral competition is different in Russia and the United States. However, it becomes increasingly difficult to argue that what we deal with is substantively opposed underlying principles.
Another theory plays on the distinction between liberalism and democracy. The democratic model that has been accepted in recent decades as the most progressive worldwide is in fact an alliance between democracy and liberalism. Now, this uneasy marriage is arguably crumbling, which results in the rise of the so-called ‘illiberal democracies,’ and Putin’s Russia is a strong representative of this species. Contrary to the hybrid theorists denying Russia the status of a democratic country, the illiberalism theory readily admits that the regime is indeed democratic and its leadership enjoys real popular support.
“Liberals tend to portray the Russian people as a cruel ochlos adoring the leader and eager to tear every dissenter to pieces.”
Interestingly, this view unites both anti-Putin liberal critics of excessive democracy and pro-Putin critics of political liberalism. In fact, Putin himself has recently declared liberalism to be obsolete, and this statement coupled with his multiple endorsements of democracy arguably betrays his desire to lead the parade of illiberal democracies. Staunch liberals readily concede – to their regret – that Putin is in fact supported by a vast majority of Russians. For liberals, what is lacking in Russia is not a democracy but liberalism, that is, respect for individual rights and freedoms. They tend to portray the Russian people as a cruel ochlos adoring the leader and eager to tear every dissenter to pieces. While liberals admit that elections are currently unfair, they also believe that honest elections would show a similar or even higher level of support for the current authorities.
Sometimes the cleavage between the democratic majority and the liberal minority is even described as an anthropological difference. This kind of othering is performed by pollsters from the Levada Center who simultaneously criticize Russians for remaining essentially “Soviet people” and provide evidence for overwhelming popular support for the regime. The two elements add up to a picture of the oppression of a small pro-Western minority that truly values freedom by the illiberal and underdeveloped, quasi-barbaric majority. Needless to say, this picture mirrors perfectly the divisions created and reinforced by the official propaganda juxtaposing the patriotic Russian people to a small fraction of liberal traitors.
How Democracy Got Electoralized
All disagreements notwithstanding, both the hybrid and the illiberalism approach share one crucial assumption about politics in general and the Russian regime in particular. Both approaches regard elections as the key attribute of democracy. For hybridists, elections are a democratic component of an amalgam controlled by authoritarian leaders, while according to the proponents of the illiberalism theory, elections are a democratic weapon against liberals. Consequently, the former expect that fair elections will eventually transform the system into a true democracy, and the latter predict that elections can only consolidate democratic tyranny of the majority.
“Referendums, plebiscites, and other forms of electoral politics are beneficial for autocracies because they simultaneously manufacture popular support for the decisions made by the elites and paralyze active civic engagement.”
From the viewpoint of political theory, the assumption that “democracy equals elections” is hardly warranted. In Aristotle’s classic typology of regimes, one finds that election is either an aristocratic or oligarchic institution, depending on who is allowed to run. This is also demonstrated by Bernard Manin in his famous analysis of representative government. He argues that elections are undemocratic by definition. He presupposes that the best are selected to rule the inferior, whereas democracy requires that everyone is simultaneously the ruler and the ruled. Using elections as a means for filling offices inevitably results in the rule by a small elite and the ensuing alienation of the majority from politics, a well-known disease of contemporary liberal democracies.
‘Electoral fetishism,’ as Belgian author David van Reybrouck calls it, results in multiple forms of democratic participation falling into oblivion. Among them are public debates, town hall meetings, imperative mandate, recall, petitions to representatives, demonstrations and, last but not least, the institution advocated by van Reybrouck – filling offices through a lottery. The idea that voting can be channeled into manufacturing democratic legitimacy while barring dangerous masses from decision-making gives rise to plebiscitarianism, a doctrine based on the belief in the necessity of a strong leader and the deep despise for the general public. Curiously, this view became central to the contemporary understandings of democracy. Voting that was meant to operate as an institution limiting and suppressing democracy is now believed to be a basic attribute of democratic regimes. Both common sense and mainstream political science judged the development of democracy by looking primarily at elections.
As soon as one drops the plebiscitarian (and openly antidemocratic) assumption that democracy means elections and elections equal democracy, one easily comprehends why autocratic regimes are happy to embrace voting. Democratic legitimacy has become a prerequisite for the sustainable rule in almost all countries of the world, and the easiest way to ensure it while denying people any leeway is to limit their part in politics to casting ballots. Referendums, plebiscites, and other forms of electoral politics are beneficial for autocracies because they simultaneously manufacture popular support for the decisions made by the elites and paralyze active civic engagement. Numbers are hard to challenge, and if a vote shows overwhelming support for a leader or a policy, democratic institutions are disarmed and emasculated.
Vladimir Putin and his political managers realized the power of plebiscitarian institutions quite early. This is why in the 2000s, they turned public opinion polls into their key political technology. As opposed to elections that are costly and separated by large intervals, polls are easy to take every week. Therefore, announcing the approval ratings of Putin on a weekly basis significantly enhances the legitimizing power of electoral procedures. Imagine a plebiscitarian vote on support for the leader and his policies taken constantly – this would effectively eliminate any room for popular dissent for an indefinitely long period. This is exactly what polling does: as Putin himself has admitted many times, he heavily relies on the polling numbers between elections.
Besides using opinion polls strategically to produce legitimacy and suppress democratic resistance, the Kremlin has invented a new technology for conducting plebiscites through polling. It was implemented for the first time during the Crimea crisis in 2014. According to the Russian Constitution, incorporating new members (in this case, the Republic of Crimea and the autonomous city of Sevastopol) into the Russian Federation requires popular approval by the Russian citizens. At the same time, announcing a nation-wide referendum was obviously impossible, for it would immediately make the plans of annexation public, thereby invalidating them. This is why taking a nation-wide poll with an immense sample of 48,590 respondents was chosen as a solution. The poll was conducted immediately after the Russian military occupied the peninsula and it provided convincing evidence that all Russian regions without exception almost univocally supported the accession of the Republic of Crimea and the Sevastopol. The national average for the oddly and aggressively formulated key question “Do you agree or disagree with the opinion that Crimea is Russia?” was 86 percent, and this number would soon become a meme in Russia for years to come. Mysteriously, for quite a long period of time any major poll demonstrated the 86 percent support for various governmental policies, and Vladimir Putin’s approval rating, too, remained at 86 percent.
As it typically happens with plebiscites, the poll is a no-risk undertaking for the government. The technology operates like this: first, a preliminary poll is conducted that contains a set of related questions. The results of this poll are not reported publicly but used as a benchmark to design the final questionnaire. The task is to formulate the questions in such a way as to ensure a sufficiently high rate of approval. After that, another poll is taken with preordained results, and its outcome is widely publicized. This technology requires close collaboration between the political administration and a polling agency, which is secured by major Russian pollsters VCIOM (All-Russian Center for Public Opinion Research) and FOM (Public Opinion Foundation) that are largely dependent on contracts with various government agencies.
“The Kremlin resorted to plebiscitary polling when Moscow and Kiev got engaged in a protracted conflict over the energy supply to Crimea.”
The Kremlin resorted to plebiscitary polling again two years later when Moscow and Kiev got engaged in a protracted conflict over the energy supply to Crimea. The Ukrainian government made supplies conditional on signing a new contract in which Crimea would be officially called Ukrainian territory. Once again, Putin publicly suggested ‘to ask the people’ by conducting a poll among the Crimean population. The technology worked perfectly. 93 percent of respondents in Crimea answered ‘no’ to the question “Do you support signing a commercial contract with Ukraine for energy supply to Crimea and the city of Sevastopol in case this contract stipulates that Crimea and Sevastopol are part of Ukraine?,” while 94% answered ‘yes’ to the question “Are you ready to temporary inconveniences caused by minor blackouts during the next 3-4 months in case this contract is not signed?” The numbers were high enough for Putin to demonstrate that by refusing to sign the agreement he implemented the will of the people.
When Plebiscites Fail
Does this mean that the Kremlin invented an undefeatable political technology? Recent changes in the Russian political environment suggest that this is not the case. In May 2019, the Russian government decided to resort to polling again in order to manage the conflict in Yekaterinburg, the main city of the Urals. The Russian Orthodox Church had made several attempts to start building a new cathedral in the center of Yekaterinburg only to face opposition from the city’s residents. In searching for a location the Church opted for a small centrally located public park, which had recently been redesigned and became one of the favorite public places in Yekaterinburg. This time the construction workers went as far as mounting a fence around the future construction site, which triggered a response from the park defenders: they tore the fence down. After ensuing scuffles, the conflict made national headlines and quickly turned critical for the Kremlin.
At this point, Putin decided to play his trick again. Pretending that he was unaware of the conflict, he suggested taking a poll. Before he voiced this suggestion, the city residents were already reporting that a large-scale opinion poll on this pressing issue was going on in the city. In addition to suggesting that a poll be conducted Putin added in a conciliatory tone that, in his opinion, the construction should go on, but other green areas should be built so that public concerns would be redressed. Most certainly, when he made his statement he relied on the numbers of the previously conducted poll to assume that the citizens would be ready to accept this kind of tradeoff.
Unexpectedly, the residents of Yekaterinburg declined the president’s suggestion despite its seemingly democratic character. The park defenders, who visibly prevailed over the proponents of construction, insisted on calling a referendum, which implied a real public debate, the right of every citizen to participate, and public control over both the wording of the question and the outcome of the vote. For both federal and local governments that were ready to implement the plebiscitary plan, this came as a surprise. The point of taking the poll consisted, as usual, in manufacturing popular support for a decision made earlier by the authorities. Suddenly the poll lost its legitimizing quality.
First the governor, and after him, the city mayor was forced to announce that the park was no longer considered among possible sites of construction (despite their earlier statements that the building of the church in place of the park was a done deal and the contract had been already signed). After the Yekaterinburg citizens’ victory, the large-scale poll became meaningless (VCIOM ended up releasing a small portion of the results of the previous, preparatory survey). Today, two months after Putin’s statement, the wording of the polling question is still being discussed by a special commission, but the public has lost interest – none of the new locations suggested for the church construction site has raised objections among the city residents. The poll will likely never be held.
What happened in Yekaterinburg can be seen as a defeat of plebiscitarianism by democracy. The park defenders rejected the idea that taking an opinion poll was a democratic solution. Instead, they envisioned democracy as an open coordination process where all parts have a right to campaign, formulate the questions, and control the procedures. Most importantly, they opted for a public debate in which collective interests were present and opinions formed, rather than a state-administered aggregation of individual preordained preferences. After the democratic frame was imposed, it immediately turned out that the lobbyists of the cathedral were outnumbered and not ready to enter a public debate. When plebiscitarian solution became unavailable, they chose to back off from the plans for construction.
This first failure of plebiscitary polling might be indicative of the latent shifts in public perceptions taking place in Russia. The road to democracy goes through overcoming the ideology of plebiscitarianism. Perceived cleavage between the undemocratic nature of the system and its claims for democratic legitimacy justified by manufactured numbers creates space for reconsidering the nature of democracy. This is a challenge for democratic politicians and democratic theorists alike.
Greg Yudin is a Professor of Political Philosophy at Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences. He studies political theory of democracy with the special emphasis on public opinion polls as a technology of representation and governance in contemporary politics. He holds a PhD in Philosophy from Higher School of Economics, Moscow and currently does the research on plebiscitarian politics for the PhD degree in Politics at The New School of Social Research in New York. He also contributes to major Russian media, such as Vedomosti and Republic.