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What Does Political Activism Depend on?

Well developed telecommunications, and population density increase the chances of people taking part in public protests. Bad weather, poor salaries and the repressive habits of the authorities decrease them. So Anton Sobolev reported his findings to the XIV April Conference at HSE.

The meetings to protest against the falsification of parliamentary and presidential elections in 2011-12, were the largest in Russia since 1993. What determines whether people can organise themselves to express their dissatisfaction with the behaviour of the authorities? Which factors have a positive influence on political activism and which have a negative one? Research Fellow at the HSE International Centre for the study of Institutions and Development, Anton Sobolev asked these questions in his research ‘The factors of collective action: Mass protests in Russia 2011-12’.

Sobolev used media reports about the protests against the falsification of election results which took place after the parliamentary and presidential elections from 5th December 2011 to 12th June 2012 in 75 Russian regions. Altogether, 450 protests were reported, of which about two thirds were anti-government in nature.

In his research Sobolev tried to establish whether the size of the meetings depended on geography, technology, political and social factors, population density, average air temperature, level of telecommunications infrastructure, repressiveness of the regime, or poverty levels, etc. His research results showed that these factors did play a significant role in 50-70% of cases.

Sobolev concluded that harsh weather conditions limited the extent of protest participation. In the regions with a colder climate, all other things being equal, the number of citizens who went to meetings was fewer. And by contrast, the higher the air temperature the more people took to the streets. Also in areas with a lower population density, fewer people went to meetings.

The research revealed a positive correlation between the percentage of those going to protests and and number of computers per 100 people, the penetration of good telephone connections and the proportion of citizens using the internet and mobile phones. In regions with more developed telecommunications infrastructure the share of citizens going to protests was higher.

The parts of the population on low incomes are holding back the potential for collective protests. In regions with low indicators for socio-economic development (high levels of unemployment, low gross regional product per capita, low average income) the turn out a meetings was relatively lower.

The higher the results for the United Russia party in a region, the lower the numbers at meetings. Sobolev suggests two reasons for this, ‘Firstly, the more votes the party in power wins in a region, the more satisfied the people are with their policies. The fewer dissatisfied people there are, the fewer protests you’ll see. But an alternative explanation would suggest that the authoritarian regional governments, on the one hand, are more efficient at mobilising citizens to vote for the party in power, and on the other, are more prepared to take repressive measures against any opposition.... If we look at the relation between the level of democracy in the regional government and the election results, we can see that the number of votes for the party in power were highest in the regions with the least democracy’ says Sobolev.

In conclusion, Sobolev remarks that Russia is a difficult place to conduct collective action. Maybe that in itself determines in many ways the low level of political institutions and unsteady nature of economic development here, ‘In a situation where citizens encounter high barriers to organising collective action, it becomes harder to control the behaviour of the elite’.  

Sobolev says there is evidence to suggest that cultivating protest against the actions of the authorities unites politicians and in the future can have a positive influence on the functioning of political and economic institutions. However, the potential for collective action depends not only on geography and information technology, but also on the strategic (usually pre-emptive) response of the government to the possibility of mass protests.   

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