Elections, Protest, and Authoritarian Regime Stability: Russia 2008–2020, Regina Smyth

Reviewed by Graeme Robertson


It is right there in the title—the subject matter, of course, but also, more daringly, the theoretical ambition of Regina Smyth's new book. The book is nothing less than an attempt to develop a theory that bridges a story of both regime and opposition strategies in authoritarian regimes in elections and between them, as well as to explain individual-level protest participation. Smyth focuses closely on a case—Russia—that she knows extremely well and deploys both qualitative and quantitative data that she collected in that case. But the ambition of Elections, Protest, and Authoritarian Regime Stability is larger than explaining the dynamics of Russian politics over the last decades (as if that were not already a lot!). The goal is to develop a general theory of authoritarian elections and the regime openings and closings that accompany them through the construction of a neat formal model tested with both Russian data and existing cross-national data.

Like others before her, Smyth focuses on the information-revelation function of elections to drive her story. Elections in authoritarian regimes are, after all, a highly structured form of political theater in which both the regime and the opposition seek to play their roles in ways that signal strength rather than weakness. There has been much discussion in the literature about what constitutes a display of regime strength in authoritarian elections, but much less about opposition strategies. Smyth appropriately and elegantly combines the two into a single game that captures well some key realities of elections in authoritarian contexts. Perhaps most notably, Smyth goes beyond existing structural accounts to develop a theory that accounts for the ongoing and changing nature of regime/opposition interactions. Constructing or challenging a ruling majority is an interated and uncertain process, and apparently stable regimes can be suddenly faced with existential crises arising from seemingly spontaneous challenges.

With its combination of theoretical rigor and rich detail, Elections, Protest, and Authoritarian Regime Stability is a must-read text for graduate students and other serious scholars of contemporary authoritarianism, as well as an interesting and accessible read for advanced undergraduates. It will be widely cited not only by scholars of Russia, but also people interested in authoritarian regimes around the world.

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