Vasil Navumau

The peculiarities of “grassroots” populisms in the Post-Soviet countries (Russia, Belarus, Ukraine) and digitized public sphere

Summary. The project seeks to explore the connection between social media and populist discourse during mass protests, occurred within the last 8 years in three Post-Soviet countries – Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. In particular, the project measures the populist discourse of the movements on the “grassroots” level (in the most significant social media groups) both during and in-between the major protest actions to reveal main mechanisms and strategies, used by the protesters in various contexts. One of the hypotheses of the research, that (except of quite evident lack of opportunities to participate in the political process in electoral authoritarianisms) it is the populist way of thinking, which did not allow the mass movements in Russia and Belarus to contribute to the social and political transformations in their respective countries (as it happened in Ukraine). It is argued, they need to move from populist antagonisms (that is perceiving opponents as enemies) to agonist democracy (treating them as adversaries), expanding public sphere and bringing to the light the issues, which are silenced by the authoritarian regimes.

The purpose of the proposed research is the conceptualization of the most significant protest movements in Russia (“For Fair Elections” in 2011-2012), Belarus (“Ploshcha” in 2010) and Ukraine (“Euromaidan” in 2013-2014) as populist movements in the context of establishing network space and interactions, through the lens of Laclau’s (2005) theory of populism and Laclau and Mouffe’s discourse theory. According to Laclau, political dimension is imbued with the ongoing conflict: various actors are trying to establish the hegemony – prevalence of certain understanding of “People” (hence, populisms) and associated system of meanings (i.e. specific interpretation of crucial notions such as democracy, equality, freedom), over other interpretations and meanings. When successful, this domination (or hegemony) is perceived as natural order of things and is not problematized by the society. Hence, main focus of the project is exactly upon those systems of meanings, that continue to exist over the period after the protest movement declined. This framework enables extending beyond the mere description of the protest based on its demands to reveal the complex interplay between the identities of pro-governmental and opposition supporters.

The project suggests that these discursive structures, in combination with the practices of ordinary protesters formed the specific configuration of political discourse in the countries under consideration in 2010-2018. This research will also argue that social media became much more important than merely vehicles for the organization of the protest; the media evolved into fields of discursive struggles over meanings.

Operationalisation of populism. To grasp the phenomenon of populism adequately, the principal investigator considers it through a mixed methods approach, comprising from the set of quantitative and qualitative methods. First, the applicant follows Aslanidis’ (2016) method of clause-based semantic text analysis (CBSTA): text is transformed into coding units, comprised of subject, object, and verb (semantic triplets). Thematically, the clauses are centered around people-centrism and anti-elitism, which allows easily capture those semantic triplets within the text and produce a “populism index” (variation from 0 to 1). By analyzing social media posts of the groups, significant for the organisation of protests between their birth and decay, the principal investigator will define the degree of populism within each of them. Further, the database of the semantic triplets will be analysed through the lens of Laclau and Mouffe’s discourse theory to determine the specific themes in the clauses, establish which social groups comprise the movement, figure out their connections to other groups and reconstruct the system of meanings, lying at the basis of collective identities of the protest movements.

Methods and Implementation. First, the principal investigator will analyse the micro-level of the most significant protests in Russia (“For Fair Elections”), Belarus (“Ploshcha”) and Ukraine (“Euromaidan”), by examining the degree of populism in social media groups, seminal for protest movements’ collective identity formation and maintenance (“quantitative part” of the project, which will guide and inform the qualitative one). As for the selection of groups, he proceeded from the significance of the groups for the functioning movements and their scope. The groups will be investigated through the period between the “birth” of the groups in question up until 2019 (or until the decline of the groups in question). To measure populism in the posts the applicant will use clause-based semantic analysis (CBSTA), used for by Aslanidis (2018) the analysis of grassroots mobilization. This method “reformulates any text into a set of clauses” or “semantic triplets”, which consist from subject, verb and (sometimes) object (p. 1251). Main advantages of this method is reliability, “increased resolution and structural commensurability” (Ibid). This is especially relevant, during the analysis of social media, because they pose particular challenges for researchers. CBSTA can tackle “slogans, Facebook posts, tweets, short passages, and long texts equally well” (p.1253). Given, that the formal structure of the populist discourse is usually centered around “the people” and its interaction with other groups (or symbolic categories), it could be adequately analyzed via semantic triplets method.

Second, taking into account, that this period was marked by several presidential campaigns in Ukraine (2019), Russia (2018) and Belarus (2020), the applicant will devote particular attention to the political programs of the candidates who will participate (or have already participated) in the elections, to reveal the “traces” (populist articulations) left by the protest movements, which took place more than 8 years ago. He will do this by considering the importance of the same concepts (interpretation of “People”), put forward by both the protesters and the presidential candidates. The content will be obtained from the open sources and analyzed via the clause-based semantic analysis (CBSTA). After this, within the “qualitative” part of the project, the principal investigator will A) examine the demands of the movements in social media posts (analysis of the clauses database) to define the contested empty signifiers and their key interpretations. B) will seek for the remaining “traces” of previous discourses within political programs (that is, specific interpretations of the nodal points, articulated in demands of the protest movements), from the framework, which was developed during analysis of social media.

Third, the in-depth interviews with the civil activists and political leaders will complete the methodological triangulation: within the field work in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus the researcher will test the findings of the previous stages. Proceeding from the findings of the research, the principal investigator will develop theoretical framework, which could explain the differences in populisms in three countries under consideration, avoid antagonistic populism and proceed to agonistic democracy. Open-ended semi-structured interviews with the representatives of the civil society, activists and politicians will be used as complementary materials to identify the role of the social media in the organization of mass protest and dissemination of the messages to the public. The questions will be designed in such a way as to reveal the specific understanding of the “People,’ lying at the center of collective identity of a given “grassroots” populisms. Other topics to be explored: overall freedom of expression, access to the traditional media for maintaining contact with public, self-censorship. Raising those issues in the authoritarian context could be especially sensitive, but the experience of conducting interviews with Belarusian activists shows, that the productive research could be done even in such unfavorable environment. There will be around 10 interviews to be conducted in each country under consideration (30 overall) in Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian. The applicant will also analyse surveys, political programs of the presidential candidates and other relevant literature.

Finally, the applicant will use the comparative study method to map the changes in degree of populisms in countries with varying capacity to repression, openness of the political sphere, different economic and political contexts.