Russia – poster child for electoral authoritarianism


Russia is the poster child for a type of governance termed electoral, or competitive, authoritarianism, analysts Erik C. Nisbet and Elizabeth Stoycheff write for The Washington Post:

These autocratic governments maintain power through the illusion of multiparty elections and restricted civil and political liberties. Nevertheless, these autocratic regimes still need to appear responsive to public opinion in order to maintain legitimacy.

Autocratic regimes like Russia realize that public opinion and legitimacy are important for maintaining power. Therefore, they try to control what information their citizens can access by tightly controlling the press and the Internet. This manipulation has been on display in Russia’s ongoing conflict with Ukraine.

Russia’s economic problems make the need for legitimacy even more pressing, the BBC’s Steve Rosenberg adds:

Eight years ago, the country’s national reserve fund stood at $140bn (£105bn). Last week, Russia’s deputy finance minister predicted the reserve would be exhausted in 2017. That means more difficulties in paying social benefits, pensions and the salaries of state employees. The government may have no choice soon but to embark on unpopular economic reforms.


This has implications for the vertical system of power Vladimir Putin has constructed in Russia, with the president at the top and all other institutions – including parliament – below and subservient to him. That system worked while the economy was working.

But the money is running out, social protest is on the rise. The danger for the Kremlin is that if Russians question the legitimacy of other institutions in their country – including their parliament – they pin all of their too many hopes on the one man at the top.

What are the public diplomacy implications for countering Russian disinformation for the United States, European Union, and NATO? Psychology literature and our findings suggest two message strategies for correcting Russian beliefs, Nisbet and Stoycheff suggest:

  • One approach would be to promote messages designed to affirm Russian nationalist identity while also providing information about the costs of Russia’s aggressive intervention in the region. For instance, a Russian version of Donald Trump’s nationalist “Make America Great Again” campaign that critiques the costs of foreign military involvement while arguing for allocating resources domestically instead.
  • A second strategy would be to counter hawkish Russian messages with new information that’s not closely tied to national identity or political attachment. Research shows that individuals are more likely to change their beliefs if they can do so without rejecting core values. However, this strategy may hard to put into place considering that Russia’s foreign policy is increasingly framed in ethno-nationalist terms by the government and Russian media.
  • One strategy to avoid is encouraging nationalistic Russian audiences to reflect about the benefits and costs of Russian foreign policy. Ironically, research indicates that such deliberation leads to more motivated reasoning, not less. In fact, this type of strategy may lead to a “boomerang effect,” creating even more public support for Russia’s hawkish agenda.

“Promoting public buy-in to a democratic peace in authoritarian countries may be difficult, but not impossible,” they conclude. “Public diplomacy efforts based on sound social science can have an impact on Russian public opinion and increase its resilience to manipulation by the Putin government.”


“Putin’s War at Home? Russia’s New Anti-Terrorism Laws.”

Friday, September 16, 2016. 9 a.m.

Panelists: Catherine Cosman, senior policy analyst at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom; Paul Goble, analyst for Eurasia; and Miriam Lanskoy, senior director for Russia and Eurasia at the National Endowment for Democracy.

DATE: September 16, 2016

Venue: Atlantic Council, 1030 15th Street NW, 12th Floor, Washington, D.C.


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