This week we ask: what are the effects when authoritarian governments ban protests?
Governments in many countries have powers to authorize – or not authorize – planned demonstrations. So what are the effects of such decisions? We might think the main effects are going to be on whether the demonstrations happen or not, but new research suggests that the impacts can be much subtler than that: they influence whether the demonstrators gain public support, with knock-on consequences further down the line.
The research, which will shortly be published in an article in the journal World Politics, has been carried out in Russia – a country where public attitudes towards those in power are clearly of great interest at the moment. It also has implications for other autocracies. And it might at least raise questions in democracies too – not least as the UK government’s powers relating to protests are increased.
We are delighted that Dr Katerina Tertytchnaya, Associate Professor in Comparative Politics here in the UCL Department of Political Science, joins us to discuss this research.
protest, demonstrators, research, law, authorities, public opinion, dissent, russia, katerina, findings, support, political science, politics, repression, authoritarian governments, participate, concern, power, authoritarian, autocrats
Alan Renwick, Katerina Tertychnaya
Alan Renwick 00:05
Hello. This is UCL Uncovering Politics. This week we ask: what are the effects when authoritarian governments ban protests?
Hello. My name is Alan Renwick. And welcome to UCL Uncovering Politics – the podcast of the School of Public Policy and Department of Political Science at University College London.
Governments in many countries have powers to authorise – or not authorise – planned demonstrations. So what are the effects of such decisions? Well we might think the effects are going to be mainly on whether the demonstrations happen or not. But new research suggests that actually the impacts can be much subtler than that: they influence whether the demonstrators gain public support – which, clearly, can have lots of knock-on consequences further down the line.
The research, which will shortly be published in an article in the journal World Politics, has been carried out in Russia – a country where our public attitudes towards those in power are clearly of great interest at the moment. It also has implications for other autocracies. And it might at least raise questions in democracies too – not least as the UK government's powers relating to protests are increased.
Well, the article's author is Dr Katerina Tertytchnaya, Associate Professor in Comparative Politics here in the UCL Department of Political Science. Longstanding listeners to UCL Uncovering Politics may recognise Katarina from her previous episodes on the Russian dissident Alexei Navalny and on public opinion in Russia. And I'm delighted to say that Katarina joins me now.
Welcome back, Katerina, to UCL Uncovering Politics. It's great that you can join us again.
And let's get stuck straight into the work that you've done here. How would you characterise the question that was driving this research?
Katerina Tertychnaya 02:03
Right. So first of all, thank you for having me. Always a pleasure to join the podcast.
And so this research is motivated by the broad observation that in recent years authoritarian governments have been increasingly using the law in order to compromise their opponents' ability to dissent. For example, we know that autocrats today label organisations and individuals as foreign agents, and they impose restrictions on who can lawfully participate in politics through protest or elections. For example, as I write in the paper, in the short span of about 20 years between the early 2000s and late 2010s, the share of non-democratic regimes that adopted legislation that allows the governments to pre-emptively hinder assembly has increased dramatically.
Nevertheless, such restrictions on assembly in general are seldom effective at preventing broad protest. So we see over and over again defiant demonstrators taking to the streets even when they have not succeeded at securing permits from the authorities.
So simply put, the question I ask is whether the restrictions on protest dampen or whether they bolster defiant groups' ability to generate mass support. So are defiant demonstrators and, in this case, demonstrators who participate in unauthorised protest punished or are they rewarded for defying obstruction? And that's how I would summarise the question.
Alan Renwick 03:46
And what were you expecting to find? So as you say, it seems that these restrictions on protests often don't actually prevent protests from taking place, which might raise the question of what's the point then of trying to stop the protests. But I guess your hunch was that there's something else that the governments in these autocratic countries may be able to achieve in terms of public support for the protests. So just what was your hunch as to what's going on here?
Katerina Tertychnaya 04:19
Yes, so approaching this question from in a way a theoretical perspective it was possible to generate mixed expectations, right. So, we did not have clear theoretical priors as to how the effects would operate. So would demonstrators be rewarded or would they be punished?
On the one hand, it was possible to anticipate that demonstrators who dissent despite obstruction signal, you know, defiance, they signal strength and resolve. And so this should be rewarded for, you know, resisting oppression. That would be one expectation.
Another expectation would be that demonstrators who participate in unauthorised protest show disrespect and disregard for the law. And so they could pay a penalty for that. And the penalty would translate into loss of support.
But of course the question in political science is always: it depends. Right? So those broad expectations could manifest themselves differently in different parts of the population. And I think this is what the paper eventually shows. The effect of unauthorised protest varies depending on people's prior beliefs about whether the law is legitimate or not and whether the demonstrators are defying lawful legislation or not.
Alan Renwick 05:56
And we will get into those findings in a little bit.
And presumably one would also expect there to be an effect depending on the media and how the media report on these demonstrations and the actions of the authorities in relation to the demonstrations.
Katerina Tertychnaya 06:11
Oh, absolutely. So I was looking... You know, in my response, I was focusing more on heterogeneity based on individual characteristics, but the informational environment in which protests take place and people form opinions is very important for shaping the public's responses to unauthorised protest.
And you've hinted on one such factor of the broader environment. And that's, of course, media: media freedom and media portrayals of demonstrators. The way protest gets framed in the press, in the media, is one way through which people evaluate what has happened in the streets and form assessments. And as you very rightly know, Alan, in non-democratic regimes, the press is very critical of unauthorised protest, often described as illegal, dangerous, disruptive, and potentially harmful for society.
Alan Renwick 07:17
It's interesting because one might imagine that an authoritarian government banning protests would want to do it kind of quietly, and make sure that there was sort of minimum attention being given to this because one might imagine that banning protests might be thought unpopular – that people might be concerned about restrictions on their freedom. But actually we often, as you say, we see very demonstrative media campaigns around showing that this is what they've done and that therefore the demonstrations are illegal because actually that's part of their kind of media strategy and strategy for painting their opponents in a negative light.
Katerina Tertychnaya 07:56
Yes. So Alan, you're just, you know, beautifully summarising what I call the 'puzzle of publicised preventive repression'.
As you say, political science scholarship over the years generates the expectation that when dictators engage in preventive repression, they should do so in the dark, right? They should not publicise the fact that they are repressing their opponents or that they're stifling dissent or restricting people's ability to act, precisely because there are reputational costs to pay. And so, approaching this question of protest authorisations and decisions being communicated publicly represents a puzzle.
As you say, why is it that contemporary autocrats not just in Russia, but elsewhere as well, publicise the fact that they have restricted assembly? And not just that, but also publicise their failure to effectively prevent demonstrations.
As I write in the paper, you know, the Russian authorities will publicise that upcoming protests are unauthorised by various ways. For example, they'll put up street banners; they will make, you know, the announcements in the press; they will write about it on social media. And the authorities in Hong Kong, ahead of the anti-labour protests, they would even stage press conferences to let everybody know that upcoming protests were unauthorised and so they should not participate in them.
So that is very puzzling if you think that all the authorities want to achieve is to prevent the protest from happening. What my research suggests is that sometimes the authorities may actually be very content with a protest going ahead, precisely because one of their aims is to shape opinions towards demonstrators but also towards themselves.
Alan Renwick 09:58
This is so fascinating. We'd better get into the actual research or we're going to be too tempted to discuss the implications of the findings before we've actually talked about how you got to the findings.
So can you explain for us, given that this was your question, what were the methods that you employed in order to get at this question?
Katerina Tertychnaya 10:16
Right, so the question was: how does participation in unauthorised protest influence people's views of demonstrators and of the protest? So I needed two sets of data: data on unauthorised protest and data on public opinion.
Approaching this question, I realised that we really didn't have extensive systematic data on the occurrence of protest and on their characteristics, whether authorised or not. And this is a case not just in Russia, right? So we have fantastic protest event catalogues for those who study authoritarian politics. And those catalogues document where protests take place, how large the events are, whether the police responded to them with arrests or not. But they don't actually document whether the protests had secured the authority's approval to go ahead or not. And I felt that this was, you know, a limitation we needed to overcome.
So the first step to this exercise was to go back in time and collect information or augment existing catalogues with information about protest status – whether legal or illegal, sorry, lawful or unlawful, authorised or not. And I have to say that, in doing so, it is important to recognise... Like in collecting the data, I need to recognise the work that human rights organisations and non-governmental organisations have done in Russia trying to collect information on power abuses. And over the info is one such organisation that over the years has tried to collect information on power – like the authorities abusing their power – and banning demonstrations. So they're very important.
Okay, so data and authorisations collected, the next task was to understand how public opinion engages with a protest. And so, again, here I was fortunate enough that Russia was for many years a place where scholars could run surveys freely. And so the collection of public opinion data was completed.
So we're still at the observational part of the study. The task was to combine protest event data and public opinion data to try and understand whether the status of protests taking place where people live influences how they think about the demonstrations, right. And that's the first part of the analysis which in itself took many years to complete. But of course, you know, observational data come with challenges, right? What I tried to do in this paper-
Alan Renwick 13:00
We should perhaps just explain for listeners what we mean by observational data here.
Katerina Tertychnaya 13:05
Yes, of course. So non-experimental data as they come in the world. So data on real protest, data on public opinion collected in a real-world setting. So observational [data is] often used in contrast with experimental [data] and we'll come to the experimental part of the study in a minute.
Alan Renwick 13:22
Katerina Tertychnaya 13:22
So, you know, having spent all these years, I was able to study how the status of protest influences attitudes towards demonstrators, combining information on protest and public opinion. It was a very neat design if I'm allowed to say so myself. I was able to focus on a single day of protest – protest on the same topic taking place across Russia. So that allows me to keep many things constant, right, like timing, proximity to elections, demands, etc.
But of course a question arises, and that has to do with the endogeneity of protest approval patterns and public opinion. So my research showed that support for demonstrators is lower in places where demonstrators engage in unauthorised as opposed to authorised protest. But of course the location of protest and their status may not be random. And a chief concern for my work was: okay, what if the authorities are more likely to deny permits where they know that the opposition enjoys lower support to start with? If that is the case, I'm not really capturing the real effect of protest authorisations on public opinion, but some underlying dynamic that shaped whether it the protest would be authorised or not to start with.
Alan Renwick 14:55
And we should just explain for listeners again that the word 'endogeneity' is used basically by political scientists to mean that kind of thing for those, there's something inside the world that we're not quite observing that is leading to the outcome rather than the thing that you're interested in.
Katerina Tertychnaya 15:10
Absolutely, absolutely. So that is correct. And in our case, it would be the concern that the location of authorised and unauthorised protest does not necessarily shape public opinion but is itself shaped by how people feel about the opposition.
Alan Renwick 15:30
Katerina Tertychnaya 15:30
So, you know, those concerns aside, like, what do we do? And I think what I was then able to do is design an experiment, you know. And an experimental design has many, many... There are many concerns with how we design the experiments, how we present them to respondents, how valid they are in the real world.
But they're very well suited for addressing this concern that I just discussed because people who participate in surveys can be randomly distributed, randomly allocated into groups – groups that are otherwise similar – and then we randomly vary the information they receive about protest in ways that help us understand how different characteristics shape to how people think about the protest and about the outcomes of interest.
Alan Renwick 16:25
Fantastic. Yeah. So this really is kind of gold standard political science research where you're getting the advantages of both observational studies and experimental studies, and you're combining both of these elements in the same paper.
So as you've said, observational study, the problem can often be that we can't be sure that the effect is being produced by the causal process that we imagine it is being produced by, and the experimental study is a great way of addressing that by just cutting out the possibility that there are any other background factors by using randomisation in order to remove those.
But at the same time we sometimes have concerns with experimental studies that you're creating a kind of artificial context in the question that you write, the question that you put to people, rather than having a real-world context for the study. So there can be questions about whether the effect that you find very clearly in the study would exist in the real world.
But the fact that you've got the observational study as well just means that, you know, we just have added confidence that there is something very meaningful going on here.
Katerina Tertychnaya 17:30
Absolutely. Beautifully said.
Alan Renwick 17:33
Thank you. So, wonderful political science research here. What do you find?
Katerina Tertychnaya 17:39
Yes. So the findings are as follows.
The first thing I find is that – and we hinted to this already – is that support for people who participate in unauthorised protest is lower than support for those who participate in protests that have security authority's approval to go ahead. The experiment actually suggests that the penalty demonstrators pay for participating in unauthorised protest is almost as large in magnitude as the penalty they pay when they engage in violence. And this is very important.
However, and I think this is one of the most important findings of this work, the effects of protest authorisations on public opinion – the effects of unauthorised protest on public opinion – are not homogenous across the population. They vary. And they vary, they differ, depending on what people already think about the law, right, because, as I said at the beginning, this is legal repression – the authorities use the law to hinder dissent.
So what I find in Russia is that people who think that the law is legitimate, that the law should be obeyed by protest organisers, protest participants, and everyone really are the ones who withdraw support from demonstrators when they find out that they have engaged in unlawful acts of dissent. People who challenge the law, people who you know think that the law is an instrument of repression, do not withdraw support from demonstrators when they know that demonstrators have engaged in unauthorised as opposed to authorised protest. And I think this is a very important finding because it also has implications for how far we should anticipate findings to travel beyond Russia, but also within Russia over time.
Alan Renwick 19:56
And do you want to develop that thought a little bit further? Just what are your expectations around the travelling capacity of these findings?
Katerina Tertychnaya 20:07
So let's go back to the finding about people's beliefs about the law.
So we know that in general, you know, going back to David Easton's work, legitimacy beliefs – such as, you know, normative support for the law – are changing very slowly. Right. As opposed to specific evaluations of how a government may be performing in office, beliefs that, you know, the law should be obeyed or that normative support for the law is a good thing are slower to change. However, they're not immutable. They do shift. And they are themselves – people's beliefs about the law – endogenous to government actions.
I guess what my findings suggest is that the more the authorities continue to use the law as an instrument of repression, the more the law loses its ability to persuade. People's normative support for the law may erode. And when this happens, these strategies of legal repression will also lose their effectiveness because they're to the extent that they're rooted in people's legal beliefs normally supportive for the law. And I think that is an important finding.
Indeed, in Russia, what we found is that between 2020 and 2021 – and this is a period of escalating repressions in Russia – people's normative support for the law declined. There was a smaller share of people who thought that the law was legitimate in 2021 than it was in 2020. So I think it is a very interesting question: whether abuses of power and the use of the law as an instrument of repression will dampen the law's ability to persuade people about the undesirability of so-called 'unlawful tactics'.
Alan Renwick 21:28
So your expectation would be that if you were to repeat this kind of study today in Russia then the findings might be rather different.
Katerina Tertychnaya 21:32
Russia today is a very different country to Russia even in 2021 or 2020. We have seen an increase in political repression domestically. Protest against the war but also protest against the authorities have been effectively criminalised. And so parts of the argument are no longer valid in this country.
And, however, it is not entirely clear what has happened to people's beliefs about the legitimacy of the law. It is possible that abuses of power have negatively impacted support for the law and the authorities. But it's also possible that the dynamics of growing propaganda, increased patriotism, have prevented support for the law from eroding. And we have no way of knowing unless we go in the field.
Another concern with Russia that we had the opportunity to discuss in our previous podcast here is also that people may feel more fearful to express their true preferences in Russia today as a result of escalating repression.
Alan Renwick 23:36
And I was interested by what you said there about drawing on David Easton's work, going back decades in political science, about the kind of dynamics of perceptions of legitimacy, and how perceptions of the legitimacy of the state and the law do update but update quite slowly, which might suggest that if you have a context where abuses of power are increasing, then essentially there's a lag in how public opinion responds to that. And there's a period when, you know, in a sense the state doesn't deserve the degree of support that it is getting from the public, but it is nevertheless still getting a significant level of support, which I guess potentially kind of creates a window of opportunity for those in power to engage in greater repression and not get blamed for it, if you like. And therefore, they can entrench themselves in power by using this window as public opinion is gradually updating.
Is that a fair characterisation?
Katerina Tertychnaya 24:47
Yes, yes, of course there is naturally a lag. But I think that's why protest is so important in authoritarian regimes and that's why they are so worthy of study, right? Despite you know seeming stability protests can punctuate, if you like, what people call the 'authoritarian equilibrium' on which stable autocracies rely. And protest often is unpredictable: their currents cannot be predicted by scholars. But they are very powerful in revealing information about power – like the authorities' abuses of power – about how widespread discontent is in society, and how easily, you know, stability could unravel.
But to go back to your point, absolutely. 'Normative', as David Easton calls it, 'normative' support for the authorities and the law changes very little, are much slower than specific support.
And, of course, what autocrats like Vladimir Putin try to do is really acquaint themselves and their administrations with the regime. Right? So the leader and the political system need to be almost, you know, fused as a single entity so that withdrawing support from the leader is a very consequential act.
Alan Renwick 26:26
And what should we think about how the findings of this research travel to other countries? So you've already mentioned that there was a particular context in Russia that made this research very relevant, where you have essentially an autocratic setting but one in which protest is still possible – there is some space for dissent. But that space has really now ended.
So presumably we're looking here in this research, in thinking about how it travels elsewhere, also to countries that are in that kind of middle zone, if you like, where they're not fully democratic, but also they're not so autocratic that dissent is just not possible at all.
Katerina Tertychnaya 27:08
Right. So there are a few questions here that that we need to address. I think what underpins the argument is this assumption that for protest authorisations to convey a helpful signal about the quality of the groups that dissent despite obstruction, they need to be perceived as, to the extent possible, random.
What I mean by that is that when the authorities, as we see [inaudible], always deny protest authorisations, and defiant groups always dissent, then failure to authorise a protest does not really convey any information about the groups – it does not allow differentiation amongst them. The authority in power is repressive. That's it. And the groups who participate in dissent have no other choice but to protest despite repression.
Contrast that to a context where the authorities always grant permits and groups always protest. Again, no information about the quality of the groups or whether they respect the law or or not.
And authoritarian governments and the type of updating that underlines the argument, as you say, may be more applicable in contexts where the authorities authorise some protests yet ban others, and that allows some uncertainty to be maintained, right.
So, this mixing and matching of strategies also allows those in power to claim that look, opportunities to practice remain available to the opposition. And if certain opposition groups choose to participate in protest without authorisation, they do that for their own reasons, they aim to maximise disruption, they may aim to maximise media coverage. So with that, that maintains some plausibility to their argument. Failure to show authorisations and participation in an unauthorised protest may not be, you know, helpful – may not convey helpful information about groups in electoral autocracies that are more repressive, like, for example, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Belarus or even China where only pro-government protests are allowed and activists are routinely prevented from attending meetings.
We also know besides that, faced with the impossibility of obtaining protest permits, protest organisers in these regimes bypass the authorisation protest altogether in participating in unauthorised protest. And as I say in the paper, staging unauthorised protest in these settings may not be seen as a strategy that organiser choose in order to maximise disruption, but truly as the only avenue that is available for those groups in order to express their grievances. I do not anticipate findings to travel in those settings.
Alan Renwick 30:14
I suspect some listeners might be wondering about how desirable it is to conduct research like this. It might be thought that you're kind of giving hints to authoritarian rulers as to how they can best advance their own power.
How would you respond to that?
Katerina Tertychnaya 30:34
Yes, I think that that is a great question, and one that all scholars of authoritarian politics must address before embarking on any kind of research.
What I would like my work to do, both through the paper that we're discussing today, the grant that supports it and, indeed, today's podcast, is to raise awareness of the many ways in which authoritarian governments use the law to stifle dissent. I think doing so is important because legal strategies of repression, like the ones reviewed today, are truly insidious. Autocrats pass legislation that stifles dissent, they ban protest, and there's very little outcry. Or there's less outcry comparatively than when they arrest individuals who participate for example.
We need better data, we need good evidence on how protest authorisations are used and when the autocrats ban protest. And we need those to, you know, feed to nongovernmental organisations, you know, organisations that monitor civic space developments, so that they can, you know, rely on them to make a concrete and compelling case of how abusive these regimes are.
And I would even go a step further and I would say questions about respect for human rights – the right to assembly and expression – need to be part of, you know, conversations with governments at, you know, at an international level, at the intergovernmental level. These questions need to be brought up. I would say this is directly relevant for how we study these regimes.
But the project also suggests that, you know, the effectiveness of preventive repression is contingent on people's beliefs about the law. If anything, the work suggests that the more the authorities abuse the law, the less convincing they will be to their own populations.
Our findings also show very clearly that engaging in preventing repression dampens support for the authorities who do so and also dampens the credibility of the law.
But not directly, I would say it is important to engage in questions that inform and improve our understanding of authoritarian politics, and making sure that findings reach the appropriate audiences is the task of researchers.
Alan Renwick 33:13
I'm sure you're right. It's a really important point. Really, really important point.
Final question. I mentioned at the start that the UK has been introducing new legislation that is increasingly restrictive of protest. Now clearly your research was on Russia. Very, very different context. And there's presumably no direct read across. But do you have any reflections on what we see in the UK at the moment, based on your research and your experience of the Russian case?
Katerina Tertychnaya 33:45
So again, I would like to start by saying I am not an expert on, you know, democratic politics. But I think developments in the UK are a cause for concern. I think the Public Order Act, and especially the serious disruption prevention order, have the potential to significantly limit the freedom of demonstrators, for example, by allowing courts to prevent individuals from attending protest at all, even before those take place or even before organisation has started.
Another concern I think, you know, from comparative scholarship is that the new Public Order Act has the potential to create what we call a 'chilling effect'. So impacting not only those targeted by it, but all potential demonstrators from taking to the streets because of fears or concerns about the kinds of violent protest policing that it makes possible. And of course, you know, we've seen this time and time again in authoritarian politics. Vague provisions allow those in power, you know, be it the police or the authorities, great discretion when it comes to defining what constitutes potentially disruptive protesting. And I think those are important things to keep in mind.
And I should say also, we focused today's discussion on authoritarian politics, but authoritarian governments are not the only ones who use the law to restrict protests or people's rights. Actually, the literature, the academic scholarship on protest policing, began from the study of protest policing in Western Europe and North America. I would say under escalated force policing, which was prevalent up until the '70s, the authorities would regularly deny protest permits for organisers. Martin Luther King, for example, was repeatedly arrested for participating in protest without a permit, and permits were also denied against those protesting the war in Vietnam in the United States, for example. So it is not just a story about autocracies, yet it would be an omission not to say that, in contrast to electoral autocracies, democracies do have institutions – courts, human rights commissions – whose job is to promote and hold human rights and ideals. So people in democracies have the opportunity to appeal, to express their discontent, to object to violent participating, and challenge abuses of power in ways that people living in autocracies do not. And that is the fundamental difference.
Alan Renwick 36:46
Katerina, thank you so much. We've gone a bit over our time here, but I think it's been well worth it. This has been a fascinating discussion of a really brilliant piece of research, I think. I mean, in political science terms, it's really at the cutting edge and a wonderful example for any of the students listening to the podcast of how to do top notch political science research, but also the engagement with questions of real-world political significance is so great here as well. So thank you, Katerina, very, very much.
We've been looking at the article ‘Preventive Repression and Public Opinion in Electoral Autocracies’ by Katerina Tertytchnaya, which is forthcoming in World Politics. Given that the article is still forthcoming, we can't link to it in the show notes as we usually do, but listeners will be able to look out for it very soon.
And I should say the reason we haven't waited for the article to come out before doing this episode is that very sadly for all of us here, Katerina will be moving on from UCL after the summer to take up a wonderful new post at the University of Oxford. Let's try that again. Get the word 'Oxford' right. And I should say that the reason we haven't waited for the article to come out before doing this episode is that very sadly for all of us here Katarina will be moving on from UCL after the summer to take up a wonderful new post at the University of Oxford. So let me just say, Katerina, that you have been a most fantastic colleague over the last few years. We'll all miss your immense insight, your conscientiousness and your great kindness. And we wish you all the best at Oxford, but we also hope that you'll come back and visit us from time to time as well. So thank you and best wishes for the future.
Next week, we have a special episode with Professor Albert Weale. After a hugely illustrious and varied academic career, Alister... Alister – wow, that's an innovation. After a hugely illustrious and varied academic career, Albert is moving gently into well-earnt retirement. So we'll be exploring some of the themes in his research over the years which has spanned subjects from social contract theory to priority setting in healthcare policy, and everything else pretty much in between.
Remember to make sure you don't miss out on that or other future episodes of UCL Uncovering Politics, all you need to do is subscribe. You can do so on Apple, Google Podcasts or whatever podcast provider you use. And while you're there, we'd love it if you could take a moment of time to rate or review us too.
I'm Alan Renwick. This episode was researched by Alice Hart and produced by Eleanor Kingwell-Banham. Our theme music is written and performed by John Mann. This has been UCL Uncovering Politics. Thank you for listening.