Written by Daniel Muck, PhD Student in the Department of Political Science
Social movements and civil society organizations in authoritarian settings are commonly seen to be working in opposition to the ruling regime, leading researchers to examine the threats that social movements pose, as well as the redistributive strategies autocrats use to co-opt or isolate oppositional forces within society. Natalia Forrat’s research agenda, however, focuses on how autocratic regimes build positive relationships with civil society organizations in an effort to bolster support and maintain regime stability.
In her lecture on March 28, 2018, Forrat focused on the case of pensioners’ councils in Russia. These organizations assist the elderly with everyday tasks, provide networks of support for pensioners, and generally represent the interests of retirees in Russian society. Although these organizations have no official political affiliation and maintain some independence from the state, they consistently work with the state to secure the interests of their members.
Forrat characterizes these pensioners’ councils as social movements, built from the bottom-up, which have roots in the Soviet Union and continue to advocate for the interests of retirees in post-Soviet Russia. This emphasis on the grassroots is important, for it casts pensioners’ councils not as a puppet of the regime to co-opt the elderly but rather as a separate entity operating at the margins of the Russian state and society. One of the largest and most extensive societal organizations in Russia, pensioners’ councils serve a number of political and social functions in localities around the country. Indeed, these organizations often function as an outlet for grievances, connecting a substantial portion of the voting population with the ruling regime.
Forrat’s approach stands in contrast to common conceptions of state-society relations in authoritarian regimes, which are based primarily on clientelism. Based on her field research in Siberia, however, Forrat argues that these pensioners’ interests are more than material: they demand recognition for their contributions to Russian society and the country as a whole. Pensioners believe that they have invested in the common good, and pensions are a return on their investment—a reimbursement for their sacrifices to society and the nation. Pensions, in the eyes of retirees, are a token of appreciation for their efforts.
One major implication of this phenomenon, Forrat claims, is that it reinforces the paternalistic state. People do “good” for society because the state promises to do “good” for them when they retire. Yet this cycle creates few incentives for the development of accountability mechanisms and instead acts as a mechanism of authoritarian resilience. In other words, civil society organizations such as pensioners’ councils can actually bolster nondemocratic regimes. Instead of contesting state power, these organizations serve as a source of popular support, strengthening the legitimacy and the viability of the ruling regime.