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Elite Defection under Autocracy: Evidence from Russia



Elite cohesion is a fundamental pillar of authoritarian stability. High-level defections can signal weakness, embolden the opposition, and sometimes, lead to regime collapse. Using a dataset of 4,291 ruling party candidates in Russia, this paper develops and tests hypotheses about the integrity of elite coalitions under autocracy. Our theory predicts that ruling elites defect when there is greater uncertainty about the regime’s willingness to provide spoils. Regimes that share power with the opposition, limit access to spoils, and lack formal institutions see more defections. Co-opting the opposition assuages outside threats but leaves regime insiders disgruntled and prone to defection. Those with personal followings and business connections are the most likely to defect, since they can pursue their political goals independently of the regime. Taken together, our results highlight important tradeoffs among authoritarian survival strategies. Many of the steps autocrats take to repel challenges simultaneously heighten the risk of defections.


Corresponding author

*Ora John Reuter, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee and Senior Research Fellow, International Center for the Study of Institutions and Development (ICSID), National Research University Higher School of Economics, Russian Federation,
David Szakonyi, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Department of Political Science, George Washington University and Research Fellow, International Center for the Study of Institutions and Development (ICSID), National Research University Higher School of Economics, Russian Federation,


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The article was prepared within the framework of the HSE University Basic Research Program and funded by the Russian Academic Excellence Project ‘5-100.’ The authors would like to thank the following individuals for helpful feedback: Michael Miller, Anne Meng, Jennifer Gandhi, Adrian Del Rio Rodriguez, Gerrit Krol, Scott Tyson, Richard Doner, Adrian Lucardi, Kimuli Kasara, and Timothy Frye. We also thank three anonymous reviewers and the Journal’s editor for their excellent comments. Replication files are available at the American Political Science Review Dataverse:



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