Public protests and protest publics in authoritarian regimes

Towards the end of the last century, the spread of democracy seemed inexorable. Today, the opposite appears to be the case. Not only are hybrid regimes becoming more authoritarian, but democracies are challenged by illiberal forms of populism. However, the renewal of authoritarianism has also provoked contentious politics which are challenging authoritarian leaders and forcing policy change. The later is the focus of our proposal.

This collaborative project proposes to deepen our understanding of citizen mobilization in authoritarian contexts by focusing on contestation. Rather than compare regimes, we propose to examine the different forms through which citizens engage in solidaristic action. Often, this kind of action is fairly sporadic and self-organised – defined here as ‘protest publics’ – but it can also be tied to more institutionalized forms of contention, through unions, social movements, and networks of NGOs. This contention is, of course, met by different kinds of governmental responses – among them repression, adaptation, and co-optation. While we aim to take contention as our prime focus, we then plot out from these instances of mobilisation in order to examine how they help to refigure the policy priorities of political actors that work across different scales and geographies: how do citizens mobilize against moves to deepen authoritarian rule? How do governments respond to different forms of contention? What are the outcomes of contention in terms of policy and institutional changes? A better grasp of the conditions in which civic engagement challenges, or reinforces, authoritarianism in diverse countries has important implications for understanding how and when public protests' are (or not) effective.

Our comparative analysis will draw on protests in authoritarian regimes in the former Soviet Union and Latin America. Among them we will examine contention in six authoritarian regimes (three from each region, Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus, and Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba) and two cases that have recently experienced democratic decay (Ukraine and Brazil). This will allow us to gain an understanding of contention in many key authoritarian regimes, but also in regimes where the political configurations are currently undergoing change. These countries are rarely examined together in international studies and yet have recorded protests around key events that we propose to study, namely, elections, social issues, corruption and the measures against the corona pandemic.
To empirically study contention, we will select similar protests in different contexts. We will predominantly draw on qualitative methods. The research design will be elaborated in detail during our preparation project.Our research team consists of 7 researchers focusing on protests and/or authoritarian contexts. The expected results of the research preparation project are: 1) a research proposal to be submitted to the SNSF as the first option; 2) develop an agreement on student exchanges; and 3) start writing a common publication.

These results will be achieved through regular online meetings and 2 workshops. The first workshop will focus on clarifying the theoretical framework; the second workshop on research design. The workshops will also be open to students from their respective institutions.


Higher School of Economics:

Graduate Institute for International and Development Studies: