Sergey Abashin: “Aliens” on Red Square

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A screenshot of the Ekho Moskvy website, showing the results of an online survey conducted on January 3, 2020. When asked “Does the abundance of migrants on Red Square on New Year’s bother you?” 68% of those who voted said yes, 26% said no, and 6% were undecided.

Will the Topic of Immigration Return to Russian Politics in 2020? “Aliens on Red Square” as a Factor in the 2021 Elections
Sergey Abashin
Liberal Mission Foundation
January 6, 2020

On January 3, the website of radio station Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow) asked its audience, allegedly liberal, whether it was bothered by the abundance of migrants on Red Square during New Year’s celebrations. Almost 4,000 people voted over the next twenty-four hours, with seventy percent of them answering “Yes.”  Although the survey lacks sociological representativity and is a purely rhetorical device, it does enable us to raise the question of whether immigration could be an important item on the social and political agenda in Russia in 2020. In my short comment, I will first analyze the wording of Ekho Moskvy’s question and show how it was manipulative before trying to link this story to recent trends in the debate on immigration and, finally, forecasting how the topic could evolve in the coming year.

The question (“Does the abundance of migrants on Red Square on New Year’s bother you?”) already sends a specific message that would have been decipherable by everyone who decided to take part in the survey. Instead of the neutral “How do you feel about…” the people who phrased the question immediately introduced the negative assessment implied by “bother,” inviting readers not to voice their opinions, but to agree or disagree with a stated stance in the absence of alternatives. The vagueness of the word “abundance”—how can it be quantified? what number or percentage is enough to render a verdict?—leaves a lot to the respondent’s imagination.

The notion of “migrants” is typically manipulative, of course. Who did the people who phrased the question have in mind? People who had come to Moscow from other parts of Russia, such as the Moscow Region and the Caucasus? Tourists from China and Italy? Migrant laborers from Ukraine and Central Asia? Formally speaking, all of them are migrants, and each of these groups could irritate the average Muscovite for some reason. In other words, “migrants” is a term that is already chockablock with stereotypes and laden with negativity.

Finally, the phrase “on Red Square on New Year’s” connotes a symbolic, even sacred time and space in which “migrants” are a priori contrasted as something alien, even if “migrants” also enjoy celebrating New Year’s and regard Red Square as a landmark in their own biographies, for example, as immigrants from the former Soviet hinterlands. Muscovites themselves might not even go to Red Square but, in keeping with the conceptual framework suggested by Ekho Moskvy’s survey, they should protect it from imaginary others.

Why, then, did Ekho Moskvy have to ask its listeners and readers a question about immigration in such a manipulative and negative form, putting it on a par with the current dramatic events in the Middle East? I am least inclined to imagine it was a deliberate conspiracy in service of a hidden agenda. It was, rather, a spontaneous reaction, a playing along with sentiments popular among listeners that encourage them to visit the radio station’s website.  And indeed we have seen signs in the past year that the topic of immigration has returned to the public agenda. After a surge in interest in immigration in 2013, during the Moscow mayoral election, and the highest recorded levels of antipathy to migrants, the topic of immigration gradually faded from the public eye, overshadowed by the economic crisis and the war in Ukraine.

According to polls conducted in the summer of 2019 by Levada Center, these numbers started to increase again after a twofold decline in previous years. A similar trend (among far-right groups and ideologues) has been noted by analysts at the SOVA Center, who write that the summer and autumn of 2019 saw a “partial revival of the traditional anti-immigrant discourse.”

Will the topic of immigration continue to be raised in various opinion polls, widening the debate to include, besides nationalists, liberals, leftists, and conservatives? The image of so-called aliens and others has always been an important constituent of self-identification, a building block of how we define ourselves, an obligatory component of the most varied ideologies. Given the recent warming (albeit not full normalization) in relations between Russia and Ukraine, the resulting vacancy for the role of aliens has to be filled by someone else, and “migrants” (less real than imaginary) are a strong and familiar irritant and a convenient tool for skewing public opinion.

Provided that a greater number of parties and new political figures are allowed to participate, the upcoming electoral cycle, which should end with elections to the State Duma in autumn of 2021, also creates conditions for both the opposition and pro-Kremlin groups to ratchet up the topic of immigration. The example of politicians in Europe and America who parlayed criticism of immigration policies into success at the ballot box is fresh in everyone’s mind.

Such conditions and examples are not sufficient, however, to revive the debate on immigration in the Russian political arena. The “reconciliation” with Ukraine and western countries may prove unstable and temporary. The Kremlin might choose to keep a tight rein on the elections and thus find it disadvantageous to let its opponents have a go at the topic of immigration. Despite the growth in anti-immigration rhetoric noted by pollsters and analysts in 2019, I would nevertheless cautiously suggest that immigration won’t dominate the political and public agenda in the new year.  Nor will it fade away, however. It will continue to fester, with parties as various as the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda and the radio station Ekho Moskvy fanning the embers. It will thus remain a political backup weapon that could go off at any moment.

Translated by the Russian Reader

No Contest

DSCN4290“March 18, 2018. Russian Presidential Election. Our Country, Our President, Our Choice! Russian Central Election Commission.” February 19, 2018, Ligovsky Prospect, Central Petersburg. Photo by the Russian Reader

Valery Dymshits
Facebook
March 4, 2018

I am somewhat surprised to see the ongoing discussion on whether to vote in the [Russian presidential] election or not. Some people write that if you don’t vote, your ballot will be used, and so on. Meaning it is assumed in advance the election commission is a band of brigands. If this is so, however, they can do whatever they want and, most important, at any level they can enter any figure they like in their official count. What difference does it make, then, if they use your ballot or not?

Actually, there is no election. Why be involved in something that does not exist? I think it is important not only to avoid attending this strange event oneself but also to explain to everyone why they should not attend, either.

DSCN2984On this “get out the vote” billboard, recently photographed somewhere in central Petersburg, a “vandal” has lightly crossed out the word “election.” Photo by the Russian Reader

Cities with populations over a million will have voter turnouts just over 50%, says a person close to the presidential administration.

All polling is a tool for actively shaping reality. Figures are used to try and suggest a particular interpretation of events, notes another source close to the administration. In his opinion, the downturn in Putin’s support rating can be explained by a lack of activity and mistakes during the campaign.

“In reality, the figure are much lower. The actual turnout is expected to be between 55% and 60%. Putin’s result will range, depending on the region, from 50% to 65%. It will be an accomplishment if the turnout in Moscow is over 50%.”

The difference between the turnout in major cities and the provinces could be as much as 20%. Usually, on the contrary, the turnout in the provinces is between 10% and 12% greater, says another person close to the presidential administration.

What happens next depends on the whether the mechanism for penciling in votes gets turned on or not. If the election is staged with the full use of the administrative resource, something I do not rule out, it does not matter who gets what in reality. If the elections are staged fairly, Putin’s result in cities with populations over a million will be lower, while his opponents’ will be slightly higher.”

The turnout in cities with populations over a million will be between 45% and 55%, the source believes.

Source: Yelena Mukhametshina and Olga Churakova, “Putin’s Rating Has Dropped Abruptly in the Major Cities,” Vedomosti, March 7, 2018

Translated by the Russian Reader. The emphasis, above, is mine.

Extreme Makeover: Russian Home Edition

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Ty Pennington

This is what is meant by ruchnoye upravlenie or “hands-on governance” in Russia.

“In a stage-managed gesture of benevolence a year ahead of a presidential election, Russia’s Vladimir Putin flew 1,200 km (750 miles) to call in on a woman living in squalor and ordered her to be rehoused immediately” (Gleb Stolyarov, “Eyeing election, Russia’s Putin stages visit to voter’s rundown home,” Reuters, June 28, 2017).

None of the other candidates (?), especially Alexei Navalny, who was officially sidelined by the Central Electoral Commission the other day, can hand out new houses and trips to Sochi to the needy. If they could and did, they would probably be brought up on charges for influence peddling or something like that.

But Putin can do it. The problem is that he cannot and will not do it for everyone, and certainly not in the systematic way implied by the clause in the 1993 Russian Federal Constitution that declares (emptily, as it would turn out) that the Russian Federation is a “social state,” i.e., a welfare state in the best sense of the word. That would mean bankrupting the current Russian state, i.e., the capitalist oligarchy run by Putin and his cronies in “manual mode” for their own benefit and one else’s.

I love the headline: “Eyeing election…” There are virtually no real elections in Russia, and in the few elections where a real, well-meaning person might, theoretically, be able to sneak past the watchful eyes of the elections boards—say, if she ran as a candidate in a lowly municipal district council (not even for city council or regional legislative assembly, where the winners do have nominal or real power and, at least, in Petersburg, personal discretionary budgets for spending on pet projects)—she would end up serving on a entity that has almost no budget (to hand out largesse, like Putin did in this case, or to do something that benefits all or many of her constituents) and no power whatsoever.

Putin will limit his campaigning to a few feel-good demonstrations of “manual control” like this one, where he unwittingly reproduces the role played more cheerfully and persuasively by Ty Pennington on ABC’s popular reality TV program Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, which probably did more for the needy than Putin has ever done and ever wants to do. TRR

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia

Kirill Rogov: Why You Shouldn’t Trust Russian “Public Opinion” Polls

One of my hobbies in recent years has been closely observing the development of Russia’s “pollocracy”—the proliferation of “public opinion” polling, media discussions of poll results, and the obvious ways in which this “mirror” has been held up to the actual Russian public to con it into believing it supports the country’s authoritarian regime and its policies with ever increasing wildness and fervor, even as other democratic venues for it to voice its opinion, such as free elections, grassroots organizations, and protest rallies, have been whittled away, hacked at or more or less outlawed (depending on the season and the concrete causes) by the regime, its security services, and the loyalist media. 

So I was amused, the other day, to read about yet another such “public opinion” poll. This one “showed” that over seventy-two percent of Petersburgers support Georgy Poltavchenko, the Putin-appointed nonentity currently warming the chair, in the city’s upcoming gubernatorial elections. Even more hilariously, this same poll claimed to have discovered that the “majority of respondents rated the campaign as calm, and not interfering with the usual lifestyle” of Petersburgers.

When I sent the “news” article about this goofy, cynical poll I had found to a local journalist friend of mine, he responded by complaining that he had been having a hard time explaining to colleagues and acquaintances in the West that “public opinion” polls attesting to the Russian public’s allegedly overwhelming support for Putin and his aggressive policies vis-a-vis Ukraine should be treated with a grain of salt, at very least. Why, he had asked, do people who otherwise think that Russia is not a free country have an almost religious faith in Kremlin-directed polls alleging fantastic levels of support for Putin? Doesn’t it occur to any of these otherwise skeptical people that there might be something fishy about the polls, how they are conducted, and the conditions (of unfreedom, rampant propaganda, fear-mongering, and coercion) in which they are conducted?

He also wondered whether I had translated anything on this topic, something he could use in his arguments with Western friends. I said that I hadn’t, but I immediately recalled the following column by liberal political analyst Kirill Rogov, published in December 2013 in Novaya Gazeta. Sadly, it has become only more relevant and timely over the intervening nine months.

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The Fiction of the “Backwards Man in the Street”
Kirill Rogov
December 3, 2013
www.novayagazeta.ru

Not a week goes by without a dreary discussion in the media of the results of yet another opinion poll showing the narrow-mindedness and conservatism of the majority of the Russian people.

The week before last, the discussion focused on a survey showing that most Russians support the repressive decrees of the “enraged printer”—the self-styled Russian Duma. Last week, poll results showing that around eighty percent of Russians believe enemies surround our country were eagerly paraphrased.

Week after week, like cold raindrops falling on the heads of the educated class, these surveys persuade it of the futility of striving for something better. They demoralize the opposition and plunge business and the liberal elite into depression. Pack your bags and turn out the lights!

In general, the past year of Russian history has been an excellent case study for political scientists, showing how authoritarian regimes buy time by tearing it, so to speak, from the clutches of history.

An explosive mixture of revolving political (and not only political) crackdowns, unbridled propaganda, and a series of skillfully organized public hysterias have spread the dark pollen of proto-fascism in the air, which has settled as a deep depression in the souls of the educated class. And those people who a year and a half ago were confident in their strength and rightness (“Who is the power here?”) walk around with heads sunk down to their collars and their pretty tails tucked between their legs.

Polls are an important part of the picture. They are the “naked sociological truth,” after all, and have a powerful effect on just those people who are able to resist the onslaught of fear, hysteria, and propaganda. It is not so easy to understand how sociological surveys are turned into a weapon of authoritarianism in its fight against society’s desire for progress.

But let us turn to facts no less naked than the polls themselves. The experience of the elections of 2011–2013 definitely implies that data about the political preferences of Russians, as reflected in the polls conducted by two of our leading pollsters, FOM and Levada Center, are regularly biased in favor of the authoritarian regime by at least ten to twelve percentage points. When purged of falsifications, voting results show that not sixty-five percent, but a little over fifty percent voted for Putin in the 2012 presidential election; not sixty percent, as the pollsters had it, but around forty-eight percent voted for Sobyanin in the 2013 Moscow mayoral race; and not fifty percent, but a little over thirty-five percent voted for United Russia in the 2011 parliamentary elections. This follows from both statistical calculations and the data collected from a fairly broad sample of monitored polling stations.

We will leave the conspiracy theories as to why this is so to the lowbrows. The non-conspiracy theories are more interesting. We can assume that the regular shift in the data comes from the fact that everyone involved in the process has a solid understanding of the “correct” result.

Simply put, they know that the majority is for Putin, Sobyanin, United Russia, and “everything bad.” As a result, people who do not support “everything bad” will be on average more likely to shy away from contact with sociologists.

Of course, there are firm “supporters” and “opponents” who express their opinions, regardless. There are, say, from fifteen to twenty percent of such people on each side. But between them is the “majority,” those people for whom politics is not a matter of daily reflection. For them, the most important thing is not even fear, as is sometimes suggested, but ordinary self-doubt and discomfort from the fact that their feelings do not coincide with the views of the “majority,” views of which they are aware in advance.

It is logical these people will be more likely to refrain from participating in polls. (The quasi-Duma, after all, has not yet issued regulations stipulating fines, suspension of driving licenses, and corrective labor for such evasiveness.) We can assume, as is likely, that they participate half as often as those whose opinion coincides with the “correct” view. (Such escapism, by the way, is quite typical not only of the uneducated but also of many educated people, whose awareness of the gap between their opinion and the “common” opinion provokes an irritated rejection of the entire public sphere and social scientists as well.) On average, this will mean, for example, that of twenty people “for Putin” and twenty “against” him, ten of those who are “for” him will agree to respond to sociologists, while only five of those who are “against” him will respond. Sociologists will come to the depressing and mathematically precise conclusion that two thirds of respondents support Putin.

Let me say it again. The majority of people, who are not very politically motivated and do not think a lot about politics, find it extremely uncomfortable to express an opinion that is not supported by “public esteem” and does not coincide with the opinion of the “majority.” This can be defined as the indirect effect of propaganda. The direct effect is when people reproduce what they have heard on TV. The indirect effect is when they do not express opinions that differ from those they hear from “authoritative sources.”

In polls on “hot” topics, this distorting effect should be even stronger. People are asked whether they think Pussy Riot should be punished, whether adoptions of Russian children by foreigners should be allowed, and whether we should feud with our enemies. But the truth is that the majority does not think anything at all about these topics. The values conflicts behind these questions are remote from these people’s lives, and all they can say about them is what they have heard from the same authoritative sources. Or they can avoid answering the questions.

This does not mean we should give up on sociology. On the contrary, we need more of it. Personally, polls are like bread, water, and air to me. We just need to understand that what sociology measures are not “thoughts” and “opinions,” but the echoes of thoughts and opinions. It finds out what clichés and ideologemes people use. Under pluralism, quantitative sociology usually works as follows: the mass media, politicians, and experts actively discuss two viewpoints on a topic, and sociologists go out into the “field” and measure which way the scales are tipping. Under authoritarianism, in which channels of public communications are monopolized, this mechanism stops working or, rather, its meaning changes. In this case, polls reflect not the balance of opinions, but the imbalance in communications—authoritarianism’s informational superiority in quantitative terms.

However, we should remember that the “common people” do not always “obey” the TV. Thus, on the issue of corruption and lawlessness, the opinion of seventy to eighty percent of respondents radically diverges from the TV’s opinion.

That is because this problem lies within the scope of their daily experiences. But the admissibility of self-expression on church altars, the international situation, and adoption regulations are complete abstractions, and the man in the street can only repeat what he has heard in passing. And we know what he has heard in passing. But this does not mean that the average person is willing to put up with all the other outrages of the regime.

The image of the “backwards man in the street” who supports “everything bad” is a fiction created by authoritarianism and is meant to justify its existence by suppressing the will of “dissenters” to resist. Not that this “backwardness” does not exist, but authoritarianism amplifies it several times over, simultaneously suppressing other overtones of public perceptions. The success of this technique, on the one hand, extends the life of authoritarianism, but on the other hand, it generates the mechanism of unpredictability that plays a key role in its subsequent downfall.

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 Photos courtesy of The Telegraph and Business Insider.