Stalin's "Road to Nowhere", Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, Russia
Friends or Foes?: Authoritarian Politics and Environmental Activism in China and Russia
Status: Manuscript workshop held in May 2019; preparing for proposal submission in Summer 2020
Existing accounts of state-society relations under authoritarianism tend to focus on leaders’ ability to repress or co-opt independent groups; however, contemporary authoritarians often employ a mix of strategies from repression and co-optation to consultation and even encouragement. Why do state-society relations under authoritarianism vary so widely? Which groups are more likely to be repressed, and which are more likely to be encouraged by state actors?
My book employs a paired comparison of environmental activism in China and Russia to explain why state-society relations under authoritarianism vary so widely from repression to cooperation. Environmental activism provides an ideal window into this variation, since it can be perceived as both threatening and complementary to state goals, in sharp contrast to more contentious topics like human rights or more innocuous ones like social service provision. To analyze this variation, the manuscript is structured around four “arenas of interaction” between activists and the state: attracting (or blocking) international influence, engaging in and responding to mass mobilization, seeking justice (or revenge) through the legal system, and cultivating informal or formal relationships for collaboration or co-optation.
Drawing on evidence from more than 13 months of fieldwork in China and Russia, including over 140 interviews with environmental activists, NGO practitioners, and government officials, the book argues that while Chinese and Russian leaders are similarly motivated in their mixed approaches to civil society management, they differ in their perceptions of which elements of civil society are more threatening versus more beneficial. This variation can be explained by considering each state’s approach to the authoritarian dilemma of information and control and how that is shaped by differences in political structure, the regime’s basis of power, and major historical traumas. Contrary to expectations, environmental activists in closed authoritarian China are more impactful due to China’s deliberative approach to governance and informal consultation with civil society. Furthermore, the legacy of Tiananmen ensures more self-limiting behavior to encourage these types of relationships. In the Russian case, however, the electoral cycle is a more effective channel for policy change and has eclipsed formal, but unreliable, institutions. However, the potential for electoral mobilization has made Russian leaders wary of environmental movements, especially given the historical role of the post-Chernobyl environmental movement in the fall of the Soviet Union. Finally, a reliance on natural resources in Russia – and powerful elites’ connections to major extractive industries – can make environmental activism a perceived threat.
Instead of focusing on regime collapse or resilience, the book focuses on how the state responds to environmental activism and how activists, in turn, have responded to the constraints and opportunities imposed by the regime. By analyzing why and how these actors engage with one another, the book sheds light on how these actors can shift the acceptable boundaries of everyday politics under authoritarianism.