Vlad The Impaler

Yesterday we passed along a New York Times story about the deepening autocracy of the Putin regime, and our old friend Jess Kaplan commented insightfully. Today he has sent us a valuable article on the subject: The Myth of the Authoritarian Model: How Putin’s Crackdown Holds Russia Back, by the Stanford scholars Michael McFaul and Kathryn Stoner-Weiss.

It begins:

The conventional explanation for Vladimir Putin’s popularity is straightforward. In the 1990s, under post-Soviet Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, the state did not govern, the economy shrank, and the population suffered. Since 2000, under Putin, order has returned, the economy has flourished, and the average Russian is living better than ever before. As political freedom has decreased, economic growth has increased. Putin may have rolled back democratic gains, the story goes, but these were necessary sacrifices on the altar of stability and growth.

This narrative has a powerful simplicity, and most Russians seem to buy it. Putin’s approval rating hovers near 80 percent, and nearly a third of Russians would like to see him become president for life. Putin, emboldened by such adoration, has signaled that he will stay actively involved in ruling Russia in some capacity after stepping down as president this year, perhaps as prime minister to a weak president or even as president once again later on. Authoritarians elsewhere, meanwhile, have held up Putin’s popularity and accomplishments in Russia as proof that autocracy has a future — that, contrary to the end-of-history claims about liberal democracy’s inevitable triumph, Putin, like China’s Deng Xiaoping did, has forged a model of successful market authoritarianism that can be imitated around the world.

This conventional narrative is wrong, based almost entirely on a spurious correlation between autocracy and growth. The emergence of Russian democracy in the 1990s did indeed coincide with state breakdown and economic decline, but it did not cause either.

This article is well worth your time. The situation in Russia isn’t about to get any more congenial anytime soon.


  1. Jesse Kaplan says

    We’ve wondered why most people aren’t more interested in Putin’s Russia. Maybe they think the main things are loose nukes and France-like relationships to states like Iran. The real news is the economy, stupid. What could be more fun and interesting?

    Putin threw his most dangerous political opponent in prison, took away that person’s company, and repackaged and resold it to the West on the London Stock Exchange to recoup his transaction costs. Meanwhile, that person’s lawyers have been threatened, jailed, and disbarred, and the principal voice crying out in the wilderness against the Rosneft IPO, George Soros, has been largely ignored — perhaps because he’s a liberal?

    Almost as fascinating — and ignored — is the fate of William Browder, a Westerner who is perhaps the biggest advocate for shareholders’ rights in Russian companies and a major channel of Western investment in same through his Hermitage funds — a man, incidentally, who purports to support Putin and buy into the myth that Putin’s done wonders for Russia; nonetheless, the spectacle has been ongoing for ages now that Browder can’t get back into Russia to do his work. At one point, the head of the London Stock Exchange (where the Rosneft IPO got floated; you’d think that might mean something) literally wrote a personal letter to Putin trying to shame him for this particularized picking on an inoffensive private citizen; Putin simply ignored the letter.

    Finally, of course, there’s the two-fer of getting to terrorize both that troublesome former republic, Ukraine, AND the entire subcontinent of Europe through Putin’s ever-increasing control over gas production and shipping. And let’s not forget how Western oil companies are getting terrorized and ripped off to facilitate this new-found ability. If this last kind of thing starts to look a little dull, look below the surface, to stories like this http://www.cdi.org/russia/johnson/2006-103-31.cfm that briefly flashed across Western media for those of us who cared. What could be sexier than this Dmytro Firtash character, with his ties to Russian organized crime, momentarily in the bright light of day in the immediate wake of Putin’s power play with Ukraine and Europe in early 2006?

    Posted February 26, 2008 at 11:20 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Thanks once again, Jess.

    This is obviously an important story, and nobody ever has much to say about it. That’s worth a post of its own.

    Posted February 26, 2008 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

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