I’m reading a lot about Russia these days, and today I watched Charlie Rose interview Vitaly Churkin, that gorgeous white-haired hunk (see photo) who is Russia’s Ambassador to the United Nations. He has been around since perestroika days, when he mainly sounded friendly, but now he displays the same truculent tone that I’m sensing in most of the Russian commentators I’m reading. They all seem exasperated that Americans (maybe Westerners more generally) don’t respect them as much as they deserve. After all, they say, we’re rich now, and we’re not going to be junior partners to you anymore.
Well, okay. It’s not hard to be equal to the United States these days, on a lot of different grounds, but I’m not impressed with the logic of the Russian challengers, who base their claim on recent records of economic growth, nothing more. These folks brush off as irrelevant such things as the frequent murders of journalists and Litvinenko. When Charlie Rose asked Churkin about China and Tibet, he showed no concern whatever for the Tibetans. It was China’s own business, period.
When reading all these touchy Russians, I am forever coming across the name of one Michael McFaul, whom they seem to dislike intensely. Today I discovered that McFaul (see photo) is Barack Obama's adviser on Russia. That was reason enough for me to hunt him down and read one of his recent articles from the January/ February issue of Foreign Affairs. McFaul is based at Stanford University, where he works in the same outfit as Larry Diamond; both of them are devoted to the promotion of democracy. No doubt that’s what irks the Russians, for democracy and human rights apparently do not rank highly in the orientation of that popular authoritarian ruler, Vladimir Putin.
In “The Myth of the Authoritarian Model,” McFaul and his co-author Kathryn Stoner-Weiss present pretty hard data contradicting the prevailing narrative in Russia:
“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.”
McFaul and Stoner-Weiss assert, on the contrary, that this narrative is based almost entirely on a
“spurious correlation between autocracy and growth. The emergence of Russian democracy 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.”
Then what did cause it? Mainly the rise of oil prices. (I can believe that.) And in fact, these authors insist that practically all other aspects of Russian society have deteriorated more than they have improved under Putin. Certainly, governance has become less democratic as Putin has systematically weakened the autonomy of parliament, regional governments, and opposition political parties. But instead of becoming more secure under Putin, there have been increasing numbers of terrorist acts — notably a theatre incident in 2002 when about 300 Russians died, and a school hostage crisis in Beslan, in which possibly 500 died. The murder rate has increased under Putin since the “anarchic years” of Yeltsin.
Business and governing practices are not improving. In 2006, Transparency International ranked Russia 121st out of 163 countries on corruption. It ranked 62nd out of 125 on the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Index in 2006, falling nine places in one year.
Public health has not improved under Putin. Russia's population has been declining since 1990, but has worsened since 1998. Alcohol consumption has increased, with alcoholism now accounting for 18 percent of deaths for men between ages 25-54.
In this way, McFaul and Stoner-Weiss pile statistic upon statistic, undermining all reasonable claims that the decline in democracy has been a small price to pay for all the other advantages that Putin has conferred upon his country. Yet the standard of living of the population has improved considerably, if measured by expenditures. This can be attributed to the rising price of oil and gas -- rents that Putin's regime has wrested away from private owners, apparently to the detriment of efficiency.
Yet there is room for a critic to question the authors' conclusions. They want to prove that Russia would have prospered even more if it had remained only as democratic as during Yeltsin's day. They can't prove it, though they can adduce suggestive evidence. Unfortunately, they have to conjure with the case of China, which is even more authoritarian than Russia, and which has grown even faster. They insist that
“the China analogy is also problematic because sustained high growth under autocracy is the exception, not the rule, around the world. For every China, there is an autocratic developmental disaster such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo; for every authoritarian success such as Singapore, there is a resounding failure such as Myanmar; for every South Korea, a North Korea. In the economic-growth race in the developing world, autocracies are both the hares and the snails, whereas democracies are the tortoises — slower but steadier. On average, autocracies and democracies in the developing world have grown at the same rate for the last several decades.”
That last sentence must have stung. We'd all like to prove that democracy helps economic growth. Some outstanding scholars have bet a lot on the notion. (Amartya Sen takes that position -- or at least has done so in the past.) But here we are left with the bitter conclusion that there is not necessarily any causal association between democracy and economic development. Putin's Russian populace might not have got richer, had they committed to democracy.
Fortunately, however, there's also no reason to suppose that they would have become less rich than they did. By substantiating that weak conclusion, we democrats can take some modest satisfaction.
I hope McFaul found it satisfying. And I anticipate with pleasure the many good influences he will have on Russia through the next US president, Barack Obama.