PONARS Eurasia member Graeme Robertson presented his book, “The Politics of Protest in Hybrid Regimes: Managing Dissent in post-Communist Russia” (Cambridge University Press, December 2010), at a recent roundtable discussion at the Instititue of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies (IERES), the George Washington University. Nadia Diuk joined Graeme as the event's discussant.
In his book, Robertson argues that we should look to protests in hybrid regimes as “windows” on the political system that expose its workings in ways that traditional studies have neglected. These protests constitute direct interactions between state and society, and the types and motives of protest can shed light on the nature of state power. In order to gain greater leverage on this issue, Robertson looks at protests in two periods in post-Communist Russia: the Yeltsin period (1996-2000) and Putin (2001-2008). Within these two periods, Robertson identifies three key points. The first relates to patterns of protests within the Yeltsin period, the second relates to how protest changed under Putin, and the third relates to the theoretical trends and aspects from this shift.
By exploiting new data sources from MVD stations throughout the Russian Federation, Robertson challenges the main conception that Russians were generally passive concerning protests in the Yeltsin era. The MVD sources document massive strikes, demonstrations, and railroad blockades throughout the Russian Federation with enormous variation in degree of mobilization and tactics used. The three main areas of high mobilization were in Vladivostok in the Far East, in the Urals, and in Smolensk. Not only did workers protest, but educators and miners were highly represented. Robertson stresses that the Russian repertoire of protest was highly strike-oriented during this period. These strikes and protests can be seen as the result of a combination of high levels of wage arrears and regional elite manipulation to gain attention and resources from Moscow.
Patterns of protest changed in the Putin era, Robertson asserts. One of the primary lessons learned from the Yeltsin era is that regional governors needed to be controlled in order to limit successfully the leverage the periphery has on the center. Putin also learned directly from the experience of the popular mobilization in Ukraine during the Orange Revolution and subsequent mobilization from St. Petersburg to Moscow. Following this political turmoil, the development of the pro-government agitation group, Nashi, accelerated. Pro-regime groups bring in reconcilable elements of civil society, while forcing others underground with tighter organization, eventually creating their own respective protest cadres.
By contrasting patterns and the nature of protests in these two regions, Robertson posits that “organization matters” and, ironically, that effective protest has arisen out of the Putin era, where tighter controls have forced better organizational control for the opposition. Organizations also matter in their relationship to the state and the top-down development of “ersatz social movements,” such as Nashi. Furthermore, the changes in protest that occurred in the Putin era have also altered the dynamic of elite competition from what it was in Yeltsin-era Russia. Robertson concludes that while the Putin era’s notoriety for repression is well-founded, democratic development still exists in the Russian Federation. NGOs now have tighter organization and better capabilities than they had in the Yeltsin era. While he warns against expecting broad-stroke democratization in the current political environment, Robertson closes by challenging the commonly held conceptions of politics in contemporary Russia.
Following Robertson’s presentation, Nadia Diuk of the National Endowment for Democracy offered her questions and comments about this research agenda. Broadly, Diuk wondered if Robertson’s research more captures the maneuvers of political elites or a poorly functioning civil society. Furthermore, she cautioned Robertson from conflating the presence of NGOs with civil society. While Robertson stresses the levels of organization and its relationship with protest, Diuk inquired whether geographic and poulation size of states also impacts the nature of protest. If organization matters, do the timing of organization and the personalities of the organizers affect the nature and level of protest? Finally, as Robertson challenges commonly held assumptions about politics in contemporary Russia, Diuk stressed what degree political culture and “exceptionalism” might drive the organization culture of protests in the Russian Federation.