There are two great experiments in authoritarian development going on in the world today, those represented by Russia and by China. The common Western theory, which I have argued in favor of in the past, is that liberal democracy and market economies are mutually complementary; even though countries can develop rapidly under authoritarian governments, eventually demand for political participation and accountability emerges, and indeed becomes necessary to support an advanced market economy. Yet Russia has been following China by growing rapidly, and yet moving steadily away from Western norms of liberal democracy under President Vladimir Putin over the past few years. The question for international politics is whether the Russian path represents a stable model of development that in future years will attract other imitators, as the Chinese model has already done.
To visit Moscow or St. Petersburg today is to enter a completely different world, not just from the one that existed in Soviet times, but from the chaotic decade of the 1990s as well. Moscow in particular looks like a bustling European city, with Armani and Gucci stores filling the city center, and Volvo dealerships and huge suburban shopping malls lining the roads out of town. Wealth is still very unequally distributed, but a lot of it is filtering down to a middle class, and poverty has been reduced substantially since the 1990s. The wild west image that Moscow developed in those years is gone, along with billionaire oligarchs and their machine gun-toting bodyguards.
The Russians have been engaged in classic nineteenth century state-building over the past decade. They have reestablished the government’s monopoly over the use of force, that sociologist Max Weber said was a key element of being a state. Despite the fact that the Putin administration re-nationalized the oil giant Yukos, jailed its CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and strongarmed both Shell and BP out of lucrative gas and oil fields, foreign direct investment is today pouring into Russia. Executives of multinational companies like Coca Cola or General Motors seem to think that property rights in Russia are good enough—no worse, at least, than in China—for them to take the risk of hundreds of millions of dollars of new fixed investment. While there is no justice for the killers of crusading journalist Anna Politkovskaya, there is a growing rule of law in the commercial sector. While high-profile cases like the Yukos and Shell re-nationalizations are highly politicized, medium and small businesses face a much more predictable legal environment than they once did. The government can collect taxes, balance budgets, and even put away cash reserves for a rainy day from their energy earnings.
Given Russia’s prosperity, its growing sense of internal order, and its ability to assert itself against the United States and Europe in foreign policy, it is perhaps not surprising that President Putin is very popular. Polls put him at over 70 approval ratings, much higher than his counterparts in, say, Washington or Tokyo.
The only problem is that the Russians are not building a 21st century state, that is, one characterized by multiple forms of vertical and horizontal accountability. The Russian political model is a hybrid, significantly less democratic than former Eastern European communist satellites like Hungary or Poland. While President Putin was popularly elected, Russia has a highly managed democracy. The government now controls all of the television channels, and has recentralized control of Russia’s provinces. The Putin administration has created a set of loyal political parties in the Duma or lower house and has been able to eliminate virtually all serious opposition in the legislature. It has harrassed and shut down many non-governmental organizations, particularly those with foreign connections. Despite the fact that dissident organizations like Gary Kasparov’s United Civil Front are utterly marginal in today’s Russian politics, the government won’t let them demonstrate peacefully.
Russia for the moment remains more democratic than China. Unlike the Chinese communist leadership, Putin is popularly elected, and will likely step down next March in favor of an admittedly hand-picked successor. The Russians do not censor the Internet the way the Chinese do, and there are more dissident media outlets in Russia than in China. China currently jails many more dissidents than does Russia. So why is it that the United States and Western Europeans are today far more critical of Russia than China, and much more fearful of its rise?
There are several reasons for this. In the first place, many people assume that today’s Russia does not represent a stable political model, but is a waystation on the road to full authoritarianism and a re-nationalized economy. Russia simply cannot get away from its historical legacy as an imperial power, and indeed an imperial power that never overtly renounced its international ambitions. In 2006, when they shut off Ukraine’s gas pipeline in the middle of one of Europe’s coldest winters, they may simply have been engaging in a crude effort to force Ukraine towards market pricing. But no one in Europe or the US interpreted this move as anything but the testing of a new strategic energy weapon on Moscow’s part.
The second reason people are more distrustful of Russia than China is that the former has more of an overt foreign policy agenda. Today’s Russian elite is very bitter about the 1990s. They see the Yeltsin years of the 1990s not as the flowering of democracy, but as a humiliating period of weakness. They believe that the US and NATO didn’t want democracy, but Russian weakness, and took every econmic and political advantage they could while the country was prostrate. The West didn’t rest content with peeling off former Warsaw Pact allies like Hungary and Poland; according to them, with the Rose and Orange Revolutions, they used democracy as a weapon to intrude into Russia’s historical sphere of influence. Now that Russia is strong again, the West is unhappy; but it is through strength alone and confrontation that they can protect their interests.
Given the strength of suspicions on both sides, it is perhaps understandable that there was considerable talk of returning to a new “Cold War” at the time of the G-8 Summit in early June (when President Putin talked of re-aiming nuclear missiles at Europe). There are, however, a number of reasons for being cautious in predicting that Russia is trying to reconstitute itself into the old USSR. Russians are today reconnecting with their pre-Bolshevik past: they flock to Tsarist palaces and stand in line to visit icons in newly reconstructed Orthodox churches. They are still in the midst of a long conversation about their nature of their national identity. Some are going along with Samuel Huntington’s idea that Russia represents a separate civilization from that of the West, or of the Asian countries to their East, but others are much more reluctant to give up on Russia’s European roots. Younger Russians who are better educated and growing up immersed in a Western consumer culture may today vote for Putin out of gratitude for stability, but what will they demand of politics in fifteen to twenty years, when stability can be taken for granted? There is nostaligia for the former USSR among older people, but little, it would seem, among the young. Above all, contemporary Russians want to be rich and secure; they may dream of restoring international glory, but are they willing to pay for it?
What the West needs to do is watch Russia’s actual behavior, and not project onto it the West’s own hopes and fears as occurred over the past fifteen years. Many Westerners are angry with Putin and the Russia he is creating in part because they are jilted lovers: they hoped in the 1990s that the country would transition in short order to a full-fledged liberal democracy, and when it didn’t, they felt cheated. But the fact that a fully democratic Russia did not emerge does not means that a fully authoritarian Russia is now inevitable. Russia’s future will not be inevitably shaped by its past, but by the decisions that contemporary Russians will make, and the opportunities that the international environment provides them to make the right choices.
This article appeared in the Yomiuri Shimbun on July 16.