Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Announcement

ATTENTION: The blog Contentious Politics Russia has moved to the new website www.rubcacenter.com. Please continue to visit my blog there and make sure to check out everything else at rubcacenter.com as well!

Monday, July 29, 2013

Does The Levada Center Deserve Its Reputation?

The Levada Center is a well-known polling and sociological research organization in Russia, and it is easily the most prominent source for polling data about Putin's Russia in the Western media. In fact, is often the only source for such data taken seriously. Click the following links to view the group's official website in English and in Russian.


The reason for its status in the West as a bastion of respectability, amidst a landscape of state control & manipulation of broadcast media and public opinion, is succinctly summarized by the following quote taken from an RFE/RL article:

The Levada Center was established in 2003 by sociologists who left the state-owned All-Russian Center for Public Opinion Research (VTsIOM), citing political pressure. It has since established a reputation as Russia’s most independent and reliable pollster.

A quick Google search provides many more good examples of its stellar reputation: The Moscow Times considers the Levada Center to be the "top independent polling agency" in Russia. A recent article by The New York Times reads: "In recent years, when public opinion turned against the Kremlin, there was one main way to find out about it — the Levada Center, a respected group of sociologists who broke off their relationship with Vladimir Putin’s administration and set up the country’s only independent polling agency." The list of such quotes could go on & on, but you get the point.

The Levada Center's credibility in Western circles does not stop with major news sources, however, but also extends far into the heart of academia as well. For example, consider the excellent study Russia After the Global Economic Crisis, which was produced by the Peterson Institute, CSIS, and The New Economic School. Each chapter of this study was authored by a different Russia expert, and the chapters written by leading US academics Daniel Treisman of UCLA and Timothy Frye of Columbia both heavily rely on data from the Levada Center (see page 42 & 83 of Russia After the Global Economic Crisis, respectively).

Further, the Kremlin obviously regards the Levada Center as a threat, as evidenced by the fact that it has been under attack as of late. A new law passed last summer requires that politically engaged NGOs which receive foreign funding register as "foreign agents," a term with very negative historical connotations in Russia. The authorities have recently been using this new law to target major NGOs such as the Levada Center that have been in the habit of receiving at least some funding from abroad and are defiantly refusing to classify themselves as "foreign agents."

So the consensus appears to be that the Levada Center has been and should continue to be a respected and trusted source of information about Russia. As I began doing research for my senior thesis last year at Williams College, I had thoroughly absorbed this sentiment. Therefore, I was very disturbed when I came across the following:

In the lead up to the 2011 Duma Election held on December 4th (in which United Russia officially won ~49% of the vote), Levada pre-election polling found that the number of Russians planning to vote for United Russia in the upcoming election (of those Russians planning to vote) was:

57% in September 
60% in October
53% in November

Likewise, in the lead up to the 2007 Duma Election held in December of that year (in which United Russia officially won ~64% of the vote), Levada pre-election polling found that the number of Russians planning to vote for United Russia in the upcoming election (of those Russians planning to vote) was:

53% in September 
68% in October
66% in November

I came across these numbers after I had just written an entire chapter compiling evidence which persuasively indicates, in my opinion, that both the 2007 and 2011 Duma elections in Russia were permeated by significant degrees of fraud (for more, read chapter 2 of my thesis via the link near the top of the right sidebar).

This suggests that either the the allegations of Duma election fraud or the Levada Center pre-election polling numbers are a lie.* And since I am fairly convinced that there was significant fraud in both the 2007 and 2011 Duma elections (feel free to take issue with chapter 2 of my thesis if you disagree), it seems that perhaps Levada should not be trusted, or at least not in certain highly sensitive political contexts such as national elections. From this perspective, the Levada polling numbers in the lead up to the 2007 and 2011 Duma elections do seem to suspiciously converge toward the ultimate official result in a way that indicates the influence of irresistible political pressure or even outright collusion with the authorities.

*A third possibility is that even completely honest pre-election polling in the Russian context can be misleading for various reasons. These reasons are considered in detail in chapter 2 of my thesis as a way to explain the discrepancy between the Levada numbers and my finding that there likely was significant fraud in both 2007 & 2011. While this remains a possibility, I do not find it overly convincing.

If this is the case, then I believe that the Western opinion of the Levada Center needs to be seriously reassessed (perhaps my doubts can be entirely dismissed, and, in fact, I hope this is the case because I admire the courageous & demanding work of any NGO fighting to present an alternative to government propaganda and promote freedom of speech and public debate). But if the Levada Center fabricated pre-election polling to support massive fraud by United Russia in a national election at least twice, then it should not be treated as such a respectable and creditable cornerstone in the Western press and academic research. It could be the case that the Levada Center may still deserve its reputation except in highly sensitive political contexts, but this would be a major and significant caveat.

In light of the seemingly problematic pre-election polling discussed above, wouldn't it be a good idea to pause for a moment & make sure the Levada Center truly deserves the stellar reputation that it enjoys (especially in the West)? I think so.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Putin Regime Summer Report Card

As the hot summer sun drifts toward its midday peak, and I settle in for the slow roast of another late July day at my family home in Virginia, it seems as good a time as any to attempt to score the Putin regime's handling of recent developments from a broad perspective. The report card below eschews a normative approach, and instead attempts to judge the outcomes of regime actions on its own terms and to capture the cynical motivations, largely revolving around great power pretensions and personal interests, which appear to guide top-level decision making in Russia (while perhaps unappealing to some, this approach proves much more analytically revealing and valuable).

The photograph to the right was taken of Putin as he was submerging in a red submarine last week in the Gulf of Finland in order to examine the wreck of a 19th century frigate. This photo was quickly categorized by many online commentators, who were already worked into a frenzy by the unfolding Navalny saga, as a timely metaphor for the impending death of Putinism. Undeniably, this photo was a terribly timed optic for Kremlin propagandists, but how is the Putin regime actually doing on its own terms across a broad array of measures? Click on Read More Below for my Putin Regime Summer Report Card.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Navalny Verdict in 33 Tweets

After scrolling through Twitter early this morning to take in the coverage of the issuing of the Navalny verdict in Kirov, I have decided to compile a stream of the best English-language tweets in order to capture the experience before it fades away (scroll to bottom for my analysis of the verdict):








































My analysis of the Navalny verdict: I had thought that the best move for the Putin regime would be to put Navalny behind bars (check Twitter for proof), and on this hot summer morning in mid-July, Navalny was indeed led out of the Kirov courtroom by police, having just been handed a 5 year prison term (co-defendant Peter Ofitserov received a 4 year term, and the court also levied a 1 million ruble (~$31,000) fine to be split between the two defendants). 

As many have commented, such a move does have the potential to turn Navalny into a powerful symbol and martyr, who could wield significant political clout once released. But I believe that now that Navalny is in prison, he will remain there indefinitely until the regime has fallen (a la Khodorkovsky). And the verdict issued today in Kirov provides many benefits for the Putin regime. 

It takes Navalny off the streets. It takes him out of the Moscow mayoral race. It precludes a 2018 run for president. It clips his wings just before he had quite become a national figure. It deals a major blow to his razor sharp anti-corruption investigations and exposures. It suppresses his vast and ever-growing social media influence. It sends a message to all of Russia about who is in charge and who holds power. And Putin knows that many Western capitals will be all too quick to resume business as usual after some half-hearted objection for form's sake. 

Overall, I think that the Putin regime made the right tactical move for itself today. But it is up to the Russian people whether or not this will be seen as the right strategic play in the long run. The chance remains that this may greatly hasten the unraveling and regeneration of a flawed system, but it is also all too likely that Navalny may be largely forgotten by most Russians.

Regardless of what happens, however, today is truly tough for Navalny's many supporters and fans, much less his friends and family. It is safe to say, in my opinion, that Navalny's courage and conviction to fight for what he believes is right, and to not back down even when faced with such tremendous personal cost, make him a true hero.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Navalny Verdict Looms

Kirov judge Sergei Blinov
The Kirovles trial is drawing to a close, and judge Sergei Blinov will issue the verdict next Thursday, July 18. The prosecution has asked the court to sentence Navalny to 6 years in jail and fine him 2 million rubles (~$60,000) as well as jail co-defendant Peter Ofitserov for 5 years and fine him 1 million rubles.

However, as I have posted about earlier, the official verdict may not be the most important outcome of the trial. The broken state of Russia's judicial system in such politically sensitive contexts means that the more important outcome may be how the trial and verdict are perceived by the general public. A Levada poll of Russians across the country published on July 4th sheds some light on this question:

Do you know who Alexey Navalny is, and, if so, are you following his court trial in Kirov?
                                                                                       April  May  June
I am closely following the case:                                              2%   2%   3%
I have heard a lot about it:                                                     18    15    19
I have heard something about it, but not sure exactly what:         24    29    29
This is the first time I have heard about the trial:                        23    25    19
I do not know who Navalny is:                                                 33    30    30

What do you consider to the aim of the Kirovles trial to be (for those who have heard about it)?

To shut up Navalny and his supporters, who 
are accusing high-level government officials of corruption: 44%

To punish Navalny and his associate, who are guilty 
of corruption and embezzlement: 23%

To keep Navalny from running for mayor of Moscow: 13%

Overall, this Levada polling data suggests that Navalny is doing pretty well in the battle for public opinion, especially in light of the fact that the state controls television, which is still the dominant news source in Russia by far. The Levada polling shows that only a quarter of the Russians who have heard about the Kirovles trial have swallowed the state line, while over half of the Russians who have heard about the trial consider Navalny's persecution to be a cynical political maneuver. And in June, just over half of all Russians had at least heard about the trial, while just under 1 in 3 Russians still did not know who Navalny was. Considering the recentness of Navalny's rise from relative obscurity, these Levada numbers are not bad at all. It is intriguing, however, that from April to June only 3% more Russians learned who Navalny was. I had thought that the platform offered by the Kirovles trial would increase general awareness of Navalny by much more than this.

It should be noted that these Levada numbers are representative of Russians across the country, and Navalny's profile is surely much higher in Moscow. In fact, Navalny supporters are planning to gather across from the Kremlin on July 18, the day the verdict will be announced. The Facebook page created for this event already shows over 6,000 "going," and it will be very intriguing to see how much more support can drummed up by next Thursday, as well as, of course, how many people actually show up. The Facebook page for the as of now unsanctioned event ominously emphasizes the right to free and peaceful assembly guaranteed by the Russian constitution. In my opinion, it seems unlikely that a crowd size on the scale of the winter 2011-12 protest outbreak will materialize (especially at an unsanctioned event), but it is also hard to imagine much better of a mobilization opportunity at the current time for the opposition than Navalny's sentencing.

Alexey Navalny delivering his closing speech
As the cold, hard reality of years behind bars looms for Navalny, he remains utterly defiant. To the right is a picture of Navalny delivering his closing statement on July 5th in the Kirov courtroom. For the statement, Navalny decided to transcend the specifics of his case, and instead angrily denounced the "feudal regime sitting like a spider in the Kremlin," before stating that he will not leave Russia or back down. Click on Read More below for a transcript of Navalny's closing remarks translated into English by Nikolai Khalip of The New York Times. Video of Navalny's speech can be viewed here.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Strategy 6

"Moscow, Red Square, July 6,
7 pm; Strategy 6; Return
Freedom to the May 6th
Prisoners; Will you able to
 come to the square?"
The political opposition in Moscow has launched a new street protest campaign called Strategy 6. The Facebook page for the group's July 6th event reads (translated into English): 

We will take to the street on the 6th day of each month until the government ends the illegal persecution of citizens in the so-called "Bolotnaya case." We will not stop until all the May 6th prisoners have been released!

Place: Red Square. If it is closed, then Manezhnaya Square or Revolution Square.

Time: 7 pm.

Our taking to the street (without flags, banners, posters, megaphones, etc.) should not be regarded as unsanctioned action. It should be remembered that all Russian citizens still have the right to be in public places and move freely around the city.

We hope that, sooner or later, on the 6th of each month, all of Red Square will be filled with people who have come to join hands and show solidarity with those illegally thrown into prison.

In the future, detailed information will be published on the following page: https://www.facebook.com/freedom6may. In some cases, additions to the specified event format may be made when possible.

Currently, the May 6th prisoners are being held hostage, serving time for "our and your freedom." Supporting them is the duty of every respectable citizen.

Prison is no place for our contry's best people. The May 6th prisoners need to be immediately released and fully acquitted!

TAKE TO THE STREET- RETURN THEIR FREEDOM!

Strategy 6 is modeled after Strategy 31, the long-running effort to hold gatherings in cities throughout Russia on the 31st day of every month in order to fight for the right to free assembly granted by Article 31 of the Russian constitution. Strategy 31 began in July 2009. In Moscow, attempts to hold Strategy 31 gatherings on Triumfalnaya Square
Strategy 31 gathering in Moscow on May 31, 2013 
have regularly been hindered by the authorities. City officials have consistently withheld permission for the gatherings, and have often scheduled conflicting events, such as car rallies, or blocked off the square, for reasons such as construction work. The number of protesters at Strategy 31 events has varied from several hundred to occasionally even several thousand, but riot police roughly break up each event, usually detaining and fining many of the participants.

"Free the May 6th Prisoners! Take to the Street, Return their Freedom! Moscow, Red Square, July 6"

Monday, July 1, 2013

Navalny's Political Platform for Moscow Mayoral Election

Today, on his official websiteAlexey Navalny published his political platform for the Moscow mayoral election, which is scheduled to be held on September 8th. To read the full platform translated into English, click on Read More below.

Abstract: Overall, Navalny's platform is a populist appeal to harness Moscow's huge budget of just under $50 billion in oder to build a modern, clean, efficient, orderly, safe and vibrant city that does not pale in comparison to leading European capitals. Navalny wants to create a Moscow that is controlled by the people through decentralized and democratic insitutions and that serves and takes care of all its citizens in an equitable and respectful manner under the management of a highly transparent, accountable and honest city government structure. As implied by the slogan below, Navalny's platform not only lays out a plan and set of principles by which Moscow can be transformed, but puts forth a vision that Navalny hopes will one day come to guide all of Russia.


"CHANGE RUSSIA, START WITH MOSCOW"

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Navalny Musters Volunteer Army To Take Moscow Mayor's Office

Alexey Navalny is trying to make the jump
from Internet star to real political leader
Sergei Sobyanin's recent decision to resign and force a snap election in September for the office of Moscow mayor has opened the door for rising opposition star Alexey Navalny to seize real political power. Navalny has been officially nominated as the RPR-Parnas candidate for mayor, and Navalny's team is currently working around the clock to gather the 110 district deputy signatures needed to actually get on the ballot in September, as well as to get his election campaign up and running.

Many things could bring the whole house crashing down in an instant. Navalny's unfolding embezzlement trial in Kirov could result in a suspended sentence banning him from running for public office, or in a long jail term. The "municipal filter" crafted by those in power to undermine real opponents could keep him off the ballot. But, if against all odds, Navalny finds a way to actually run in the Moscow mayor's race this September, could he win?

Navalny's election campaign is just shifting into gear and he is planning to raise a volunteer army to support his run for mayor. Part of a LiveJournal post today on his blog, which I have translated into English, provides more detail on his thinking for the upcoming campaign:

"Everyone is asking: how are you going to conduct your campaign? You will be excluded from TV, billboards, and local newspapers.

Well OK, haven't I always been excluded from these things?

We have something much better.

Question:
What kind of help can a candidate for Moscow mayor expect if he is an normal guy who lives with his family in a block of flats in Marino, sits in traffic three hours a day, uses the district hospital, and has children attending the district school and kindergarten?

Answer:
He can count on the help of ordinary Muscovites who live with their families in ordinary homes, sit in traffic for three hours a day, use the district hospital, and have children attending the district school and kindergarten.

This is better and stronger than any zombie-box (TV).

I am just like you, and therefore represent your interests, and I am counting on your help.

As I posted about before, we are creating a volunteer headquarters. Some of you have already received an email newsletter about this.
It will be the largest experiment with volunteer work in Russia.
Together with you, we will try to organize the work of thousands of people who do not agree with the fact that power in our city and country appoints itself with one purpose - to steal.

We have the people and we will make our opinion heard without TV. We will be heard through you instead." 

In today's world, online campaigns such as this can go viral, spreading like wildfire practically overnight. And, as of late, Moscow has been a hotbed of discontent full of many relatively well-off Internet users who seem to be awakening politically. House money and expert opinion still, of course, remain on Sobyanin reaffirming his grip on power in September. However, Navalny's attempt to muster a volunteer army should make for a fascinating study in the political power of the Internet, no matter the ultimate result.

As expected, Navalny is mustering his forces by way of social network, and you can check out these efforts via the links below:

VKontakte: http://vk.com/teamnavalny
Twitter: https://twitter.com/teamnavalny

To read the full LiveJournal post from today quoted above click on Read More below. You can also read the original post in Russian here.