Popular Support for an Undemocratic Regime: The Changing Views of Russians

September 8, 2011

Explanations for the durability - or not - of undemocratic regimes could scarcely be more timely, given the upheavals that cashiered strongmen in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, but not (so far) in Syria or Bahrain. Once upon a time, political science cut its teeth on undemocratic regimes, totalitarian versus authoritarian. After some two decades of studying (while rooting for) the global democratic wave, the discipline is again acknowledging the persistence of authoritarian systems. But the latter confound us with a paradox: they are all-powerful one moment, suddenly hyper-vulnerable the next.

Is Russia a resilient exception? Outsiders tend to view its government as corrupt and gangsterish, a rogue regime that dispatches its enemies with polonium and chases its billionaires to Belgravia. But 18 years of annual New Russia Barometer surveys reveal that the number of Russians with a favourable view of their government has continued to increase, from 15 per cent in 1992 to 75 per cent. A trio of authors, led by Richard Rose, point out in their monograph that Russia "has become less free, and support has concurrently risen". Why?

Coercion alone, Rose and his co-authors rightly observe, cannot account for the persistence of undemocratic regimes, Russia included. They also reject the usual cultural explanations - ie, that Russians "love the whip", as the tsars self-servingly said - and point out that today's Russians overwhelmingly endorse democracy as the best form of government (as do majorities in all countries, democratic or undemocratic). Instead, the authors argue that an undemocratic regime can win wide support by enduring. Familiarity breeds content.

Demonstrating that some degree of popularity is critical to authoritarian regimes constitutes an achievement, but the book offers an eccentrically elastic definition of "support".

"The long-term survival of a regime requires voluntary support," the authors argue, "or at least the resigned acceptance of the mass of its population" (my italics). Surely the difference between hardcore support and resignation is fundamental for understanding why some regimes collapse in a crisis?

In all governments - not to say universities - opportunists flock to those in power. People grasp when something is the only game in town, confers or withholds favours, and proves willing and able to use the stick. But what happened in Egypt? After a courageous minority took to the streets and convinced most of the population that Hosni Mubarak's regime might not be for ever, the resigned dropped their "support". Crucially, so did Mubarak's cronies in the military.

Rose and his co-authors mention the old saw about vulnerability from elite splits. But all undemocratic regimes have elite cleavages (the rulers rule by exacerbating them). China's elite was utterly divided in 1989 before, during and after the Tiananmen crackdown. Twenty years later, when 3 million people protested in the streets of Tehran, the Iranian regime was (and remains) splintered.

Even long-lasting authoritarian regimes, moreover, are inherently unstable, susceptible to unclear succession (Mubarak was 82 and sickly), poorly functioning institutions (often deliberately emasculated), the vicissitudes of cash flow (often linked to commodity prices) and the international system. Sadly, when such regimes do crumble, they are often replaced by another authoritarian incarnation, a problem less of public opinion than of institutions.

As for Russia, which is what Rose et al. cover, survey data generate numerous nuggets. Westerners judge Russia by Western standards, but Russians are shown to judge the current regime by its communist past. At the same time, the authors note, "barely one in eight Russians says they have any friends or relatives in the West", an indication, perhaps, of insularity. Still, call me a sceptic for wondering whether one longitudinal database, gathered and interpreted by Rose and his team, proves that the Putin regime's popularity lies in its durability rather than its restoration of national pride via raising the country's living standards and international standing, on top of TV manipulation and some electoral fraud.

True, although frustrated expectations are thought to spark revolts (see Tocqueville), Russians now exhibit "low expectations of government" (even as almost one-third are drawing their state pensions). But large numbers of state functionaries dislike the current regime, and masses of ordinary Russians, too, could lose their inertia if events conspired to present a domestic alternative.

Popular Support for an Undemocratic Regime: The Changing Views of Russians

By Richard Rose, William Mishler and Neil Munro. Cambridge University Press. 214pp, £50.00 and £18.99. ISBN 9781107009523 and 9780521224185. Published 2 June 2011

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