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McFaul and Stoner-Weiss on the Russian Myth

A timely paper by Stanford University professors Michael McFaul and Kathryn Stoner-Weiss has just been published in the January/February 2008 edition of Foreign Affairs. The article’s title says it all: “The Myth of the Authoritarian Model: How Putin’s Crackdown Holds Russia Back.” A PDF version of the article can be downloaded here. First, a disclosure: I have read and admired the scholarship of these distinguished academics for years, and I have recently had the pleasure to meet with them at Stanford, where I attended a joint seminar that was had standing-room-only attendance from scholars throughout the university.

McFaul and Stoner-Weiss bring a comparative, interdisciplinary approach to bear upon the Putin presidency, linking a specialized expertise in Russia to larger concerns related to the research institute they direct (Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development and Rule of Law).Why is Russian President Vladimir Putin so popular? McFaul and Stoner-Weiss identify “the conventional explanation” in a widely told three-act story – Russia narrative so extensively discussed on this blog. Act 1 was the humiliating fall of the Soviet Union. Act 2 was the disastrous, anarchic 1990s post-Soviet era under Yeltsin. Act 3 is the revival of Russian economic power and national glory under President (and apparently soon-to-be Prime Minister) Putin. “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.”We have heard this story again and again. “This narrative has a powerful simplicity, and most Russians seem to buy it.” So do many prominent media and “experts” in the West. Previously I have praised TIME magazine for shining light on Putin’s overwhelming centralization of power in Russia, and its significance for the region, Europe and the world. What troubles me about the TIME piece is the extent to which it buys into the narrative of restored Russian greatness under Putin’s heroic leadership — and the celebratory, even fawning tone in which the story is retold. Notwithstanding a Medvedev Presidency, writes TIME,

Putin will surely remain the supreme leader, master of Russia’s destiny, which will allow him to complete the job he started. In his eight years as President, he has guided his nation through a remarkable transformation. He has restored stability and a sense of pride among citizens who, after years of Soviet stagnation, rode the heartbreaking roller coaster of raised and dashed expectations when Gorbachev and then Yeltsin were in charge.

Thus TIME offers its readers the familiar Acts 1, 2, and 3 in one short paragraph.Today, under Putin, “Russia’s revival is changing the course of the modern world,” TIME’s adulatory prose continues. “After decades of slumbering underachievement, the Bear is back.”Or so the story goes, with apparent agreement in all quarters, from Moscow to New York — and from Beijing to Caracas to Tehran, where authoritarian leaders celebrate its lessons.The only problem is that the story is not true. It doesn’t hold up.After carefully examining and analyzing the relevant economic and political data, McFaul and Stoner-Weiss conclude that “[t]his conventional narrative is wrong, based almost entirely on a spurious correlation between autocracy and growth.” I quote McFaul and Stoner-Weiss at length below:

The emergence of Russian democracy in the 1990s did indeed coincide with state breakdown and economic decline, but it did not cause either. The reemergence of Russian autocracy under Putin, conversely, has coincided with economic growth but not caused it (high oil prices and recovery from the transition away from communism deserve most of the credit). There is also very little evidence to suggest that Putin’s autocratic turn over the last several years has led to more effective governance than the fractious democracy of the 1990s In fact, the reverse is much closer to the truth: to the extent that Putin’s centralization of power has had an influence on governance and economic growth at all, the effects have been negative. Whatever the apparent gains of Russia under Putin, the gains would have been greater if democracy had survived.

I urge readers to pay special attention to their discussion of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s politically motivated imprisonment, highlighting the weakness of the judiciary and other branches of government that can no longer check or restrain the exercise of arbitrary executive power; the Kremlin’s illegal seizure and reselling of Yukos and Sibneft assets and the resulting destruction of economic value and property rights generally; the erosion of political, institutional and financial accountability and the consequent rise in corruption. In sum, “[t]he Russian economy is doing well today, but it is doing well in spite of, not because of, autocracy.”Where does this leave Russia today? “If China is supposed to be Exhibit A in the case for a new model of successful authoritarianism, the Kremlin wants to make Russia Exhibit B.” McFaul and Stoner-Weiss note that identifying China as a model “already sets the development bar much lower than it was a decade ago.” Still, “World energy and raw-material prices make sustained economic growth in Russia likely for the foreseeable future. But sustained autocratic rule will not contribute to this growth and, because of continued poor governance, is likely to serve as a drag on economic development in the long term. Russians are indeed getting richer, but they could be getting even richer much faster.“Thus the Stanford scholars doubt very much that even the PRC model is a realistic one for Putin’s Russia:

The Kremlin talks about creating the next China, but Russia’s path is more likely to be something like that of Angola – an oil-dependent state that is growing now because of high oil prices but has floundered in the past when oil prices were low and whose leaders seem more intent on maintaining themselves in office to control oil revenues and other rents than on providing public goods and services to a beleaguered population. Unfortunately, as Angola’s President José Eduardo do Santos, has demonstrated by his three decades in power, even poorly performing autocracies can last a long, long time.

Let’s hope that this valuable contribution can help people from buying into the flawed idea economic growth justifies authoritarianism…