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20 September 2016

From words to deeds: What of the number 31?

The significance lies not in United Russia’s latest approval rating, but in its determinants and ramifications

Stanford University political scientist Beatriz Magaloni highlighted low trust as one of the major issues with authoritarian electoral regimes. On the one hand, autocrats should provide the opposition with resources, allow them to participate in elections, and when it comes to their conduct, ensure they are perceived to be emblematic of democracy’s vitality. As a consequence, the opposition are able to employ these very resources in their attempts to deplete the autocrat’s popularity. The solution to this threat involves intricate systems of political institutions controlled by the incumbent. A party system, the Constitution, courts, the Ministry of Justice— whichever is more convenient at the time— can serve the purpose. However, these institutions must work in unison to ensure that society is left with little doubt as to what the correct choice is.

And yet, the Levada Center’s latest survey shows that doubts do in fact linger amongst Russia’s population.

The Russian media offer at least two explanations for the scandalous labeling of the respected sociological center as a “foreign agent”: the low ratings of United Russia revealed in the survey results of September 1 which representatives of the power elite found unpalatable, and the necessity to eliminate the country’s largest independent sociological center. The true cause of the incident may deviate from the abovementioned assumptions, but still, the record low approval rating of 31% of the ruling party plays a bigger role than the usual acrimony between the authorities and the opposition.

Sociological organizations constitute essential cogs in the complex machinery used by authoritarian regimes to maintain their grip on power. In 2003, as a result of the imposed VCIOM (the Russian Public Opinion Research Center) management change which resulted in Yuri Levada taking leave, the organization became the country’s largest state sociological center, reporting regularly on society’s high level of loyalty to the power elite. Levada team members, who without exception chose to leave VCIOM, established an organization entirely independent from the state, which reported alternative results. However, indicators quantifying the president and the ruling party’s popularity were unambiguous until recently. VCIOM and Levada reported different figures but, on the whole, similar public preference trends were manifesting in the data.


Opinion polls in authoritarian regimes are fraught with dangers related not so much to the wording of questions or the intimidation of citizens, but rather to the results. By disseminating news of high approval ratings of the power elite in the media, the authorities, on the one hand, encourage supporters and, on the other, demoralize opposition-minded citizens by demonstrating that they are in the minority and their stances are too insignificant to influence the general population. The dominant group will therefore feel influential and powerful—its opinions dominating the majority of society.

This is not the only problem with opinion polls conducted in authoritarian regimes. Due to restricted freedom of speech and widespread everyday fear of the authorities, respondents avoid giving dissenting answers for fear of revealing their disloyalty to the center. In a climate where one may lose his freedom for a retweet, only a brave few dare to give dissenting answers.

In the 1970s, German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann offered an explanation for the consistently high approval ratings of the dominant political forces in societies with an ideologically homogeneous mass media. The scientist introduced the notion of “the spiral of silence”, popular among researchers who study authoritarian regimes. The term refers to a vicious circle which surrounds a respondent who answers a question about her preferences for one political force over another. When overtly domineering public opinions exist in a given country, individuals have no desire to become the minority, and hence they tend to avoid contradicting the mainstream narrative by opting for a more conformist answer.

Survey results from VCIOM back up the findings by Levada, showing that that society has succeeded in overcoming the fear associated with being the minority during the course of the election campaign. Some share an inclination to create a new “majority”—a group dissatisfied with the state of affairs in the country which lays blame at the feet of the ruling party. The figure of 31% is important not because of the figure itself—United Russia will probably fare entirely differently at the polling stations—but rather because of the publicity the result has generated. The Levada survey also included an equally important figure: 50% of those prepared to participate in the election will vote for United Russia. With proper publicity, this figure could become a consolation prize for the “majority” whose approval rating has suffered its first major wobble in a long time.

Twentieth-century postmodern philosophers such as Jurgen Habermas, Paul Ricouer and Ludwig Wittgenstein explained such processes using the concept of the “the linguistic turn”: reality is constructed not at the level of subjective-objective relations, but by way of establishing links between language and the real world. The notion of “discourse” is introduced and analysis of linguistic practices is carried out—an analysis of what and how society and the authorities say. These ideas emerged under the influence of the anarchic movements of the mid-20th century which provided a counterweight to the idea of the totalitarian state. The destruction of a single cultural or linguistic system and the formation of discursive pluralism became the basis for the democratization of society, devoid of the total supremacy of one ideology or political force.

The new approval rating of the ruling party has become what one can read and see with one’s naked eye: press coverage regarding the significance of the drop in approval ratings coupled with the actual figure (a record low one week before the election), new opposition faces on banners and campaign posters, new slogans and the destruction of the monolith of socio-political order. The symbolic 31% approval rating for United Russia serves as an example of the destruction of the only-right-choice principle and represents a change to the game’s primary rule. On the one hand, this figure conveys information to the public about a change in the mainstream sentiment and about its significant problems. And on the other, it triggers a wave of information changes and empowers the opposition-minded minority. In this respect, the labeling of the Levada Center as a foreign agent is a logical step, albeit one which does not resolve the ruling party’s problem.

It seems that the changes in these indicators are not due to changes in the questionnaires or the mass media narrative, which has remained unchanged for several months, but due to the election campaigns themselves. Having decided to conduct a forthright parliamentary race, the authorities sought to discredit the opposition by highlighting weaknesses. But they failed to take into account the window of opportunity presented to new faces, new ideas and new discursive practices hitherto forgotten by citizens. Perhaps the coming election and the current election campaign provide the public with a vital opportunity to think “differently”. And this opportunity may be the first step towards a new type of society. The “breeze of change” will not necessarily result in more crosses in boxes for the opposition but it is hard to deny that it has caught the authorities off guard (something which will undoubtedly be addressed before the presidential election). 

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