A surprising connection between civilizational identity and succession expectations among Russian elites

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August 29, 2019

We know from prior research that non-democratic regimes can become vulnerable when elites anticipate succession at the top, but we know little about what shapes these elites’ expectations. This study examines connections between such expectations and Russia’s relationships to the outside world. Analysis of elite opinion data from the 2016 Survey of Russian Elites reveals strong associations between identifying Russia with European civilization and expecting Russian politics to display behaviors more like those believed to characterize European polities, including more frequent dominant party turnover. Elites appear not to expect their top political leadership to pay a political price for what they perceive as foreign policy blunders in a consistent way, though opposition elites critical of Russia’s actions in Ukraine are found to expect an earlier United Russia Party exit. Variations in threat perceptions are not found to influence predictions of leadership tenure.

How, if at all, does Russia’s relationship with the outside world influence whether elites expect their top political leadership to fall from power? Prior research finds that non-democratic regimes are particularly vulnerable to instability when regime stakeholders begin to anticipate some form of succession. When elites start to expect succession at the top, their incentive to respond positively to regime promises or threats weakens at the same time as they gain new incentive to jockey for position or to “abandon ship” entirely, dynamics fraught with the danger of regime collapse (Tullock 1987; Olson 1990; Hale 2015). We know precious little, however, about how succession expectations emerge, especially among elites. Hardly any pre-existing studies directly address this question with respect to non-democratic systems.1 What little prior research does exist has tended simply to document the presence of such expectations through interviews; to model them using game theory; or to assume that they are present when, for example, a term limit approaches, a president credibly announces a date of retirement, or a leader’s economy is performing poorly (e.g. Reuter and Gandhi 2011; Hale 2015; de Mesquita and Smith 2017).

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