In a way similar to the leadership in China, Putin claims that authoritarianism and a state that rolls back democracy and freedom, are necessary for economic prosperity, growth, order and stability, and that the current economic upturn in Russia happened thanks to his autocratic reforms. (The situation in China is of course different in many respects, e.g. the role of Confucianism).
It is indeed a fact that the decrease of political and other types of freedom in Russia during the rule of Putin in the first decade of the 21st century, has coincided with strong economic growth:
(source: McFaul/Stoner-Weiss in Foreign Affairs)
The question, however, is whether the turn towards authoritarianism has in fact contributed to the increase in growth, and whether it was necessary for this growth to take place. The answer is no. Growth would most likely have been higher without Putin’s rollback of freedom in Russia. Before I substantiate this claim, I’ll first give a few facts about Putin’s attacks on freedom.
A list of Putin’s attacks on freedom in Russia
- Independent media outlets, including TV, radio and printed media have been muzzled by Putin in various ways: nationalization, indirect Kremlin control, control by Kremlin-friendly oligarchs etc. As a result, media coverage of Russian politics is now overwhelmingly one-sided and in favor of Putin and his allies. Opposition figures and parties are either ignored or heavily criticized in almost all Russian media.
- Russia is now the 3rd most dangerous place in then world to be a journalist (only Iraq and Colombia are worse).
- The autonomy of regional governments has been reduced. Governors are no longer elected but appointed by the Kremlin.
- Both Houses of the Russian Parliament have been emasculated. The Upper House has seen elected representatives being replaced by appointed ones, and the Duma is dominated by Putin’s party (United Russia) or straw men put in place by the Kremlin to create the illusion of opposition. The one-sided media coverage has contributed to this emasculation, but independent and real opposition parties have often been hampered in several other ways as well (restrictions on public assembly rights, spurious law suits etc.), or have simply been disqualified from participating in elections, often on shaky grounds.
- Local and foreign NGOs are either forbidden or heavily restricted.
A few facts about economic growth in Russia
The immediate post-Soviet period in Russia saw the emergence and development (albeit slow and difficult development) of democracy coinciding with economic decline. However, this decline wasn’t caused by the development of democracy or the disappearance of communism. It started long before the 1990s and was a major cause of the collapse of communism and the Soviet Union.
By the end of the 1990s, before Putin’s take-over and long before his authoritarianism took full sway, the situation was already turning around (growth started in 1999) and many positive measures were taken – and not reversed by Putin later on. These measures benefited Putin enormously. But what benefited Putin most was the increase in oil and energy prices. It is not clear what proportion of GDP growth in Russia is caused by energy prices, but all economists agree that it is a substantial proportion.
Putin’s claim that Russia is economically prosperous because of his authoritarian rule can also be countered by comparing Russia’s economic performance with that of other postcommunist states, states which do not have the huge energy resources Russia has:
(source: McFaul/Stoner-Weiss in Foreign Affairs)
We see from this graph that Russia is in fact doing worse, notwithstanding it’s resource advantage. Other postcommunist countries, most of which have gone much further along the road to democracy, have done better with much less. So one can assume that Russia would have done better as well had it not rolled back democracy.
A few facts about the performance of the Russian government
Putin not only claims that his style of government has promoted economic prosperity. He also claims credit for stability and order in Russia today, and for the state regaining its strength after the breakdown of the 1990s. This, unfortunately, is also untrue. Some facts:
- The worst terrorist attacks in Russia took place under Putin’s rule.
- The murder rate in Russia has increased in the first decade of the 21st century.
- The population of Russia has decreased, mainly because of increasing mortality rates, a weak health system, increasing alcohol abuse and an HIV epidemic that is the worst outside Africa. Life expectancy in the “bad years” in the 1990s actually rose, whereas now it’s falling.
- Russia’s ranking in different international scoring systems has dropped (corruption and transparency, freedom, competitiveness etc.).
In some respects, there has been progress (it would have been very surprising to see a lack of progress in all domains of life): infrastructure has improved, spending on education has increased, unemployment and poverty rates have fallen, foreign debt and budget deficits have been eradicated … But overall, one cannot claim that Putin’s Russia provides better public goods and services to its citizens that Yeltsin’s.
(This post does not enter into the discussion about Russia’s recent foreign policy adventures, which are undoubtedly caused, at least in part, by Putin’s authoritarianism).