(Excerpted from Foreign Affairs, January/February 2008) 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 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. 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.
The myth of Putinism is that Russians are safer, more secure, and generally living better than in the 1990s—and that Putin himself deserves the credit. The Russian state under Putin is certainly bigger than it was before. In some spheres, such as paying pensions and government salaries on time, road building, or educational spending, the state is performing better now than during the 1990s. Yet given the growth in its size and resources, what is striking is how poorly the Russian state still performs. In terms of public safety, health, corruption, and the security of property rights, Russians are actually worse off today than they were a decade ago.
Security, the most basic public good a state can provide for its population, is a central element in the myth of Putinism. In fact, the frequency of terrorist attacks in Russia has increased under Putin. The murder rate has also increased, and public health has not improved. Despite all the money in the Kremlin’s coffers, health spending averaged 6 percent of GDP from 2000 to 2005, compared with 6.4 percent from 1996 to 1999. Russia’s population has been shrinking since 1990, thanks to decreasing fertility and increasing mortality rates, but the decline has worsened since 1998. Noncommunicable diseases have become the leading cause of death (cardiovascular disease accounts for 52 percent of deaths, three times the figure for the United States), and alcoholism now accounts for 18 percent of deaths for men between the ages of 25 and 54.
In short, the data simply do not support the popular notion that by erecting autocracy Putin has built an orderly and highly capable state that is addressing and overcoming Russia’s rather formidable development problems.
The second supposed justification for Putin’s autocratic ways is that they have paved the way for Russia’s spectacular economic growth. As Putin has consolidated his authority, growth has averaged 6.7 percent. The last eight years have also seen budget surpluses, the eradication of foreign debt and the accumulation of massive hardcurrency reserves, and modest inflation so far. The stock market is booming, and foreign direct investment, although still low compared to other emerging markets, is growing rapidly. Since 2000, real disposable income has increased by more than 10 percent a year, consumer spending has skyrocketed, unemployment has fallen from 12 percent in 1999 to 6 percent in 2006, and poverty has declined from 41 percent in 1999 to 14 percent in 2006. Russians are richer today than ever before.
The correlations between democracy and economic decline in the 1990s and autocracy and economic growth in this decade provide a seemingly powerful excuse for shutting down independent television stations, canceling gubernatorial elections, and eliminating pesky human rights groups. These correlations, however, are mostly spurious.
Economic decline after the end of communism was hardly confined to Russia. It followed communism’s decline in every country throughout the region. Given the dreadful economic conditions, every postcommunist government was compelled to pursue some degree of price and trade liberalization, macroeconomic stabilization, and, eventually, privatization. During this transition, the entire region experienced economic recession and then began to recover several years after the adoption of reforms. Russia’s economy followed this same general trajectory—and would have done so under dictatorship or democracy.
Putin’s real stroke of luck came in the form of rising world oil prices. Growing autocracy inside Russia obviously did not cause the rise in oil and gas prices. If anything, the causality runs in the opposite direction: increased energy revenues allowed for the return to autocracy. With so much money from oil windfalls in the Kremlin’s coffers, Putin could crack down on or co-opt independent sources of political power; the Kremlin had fewer reasons to fear the negative economic consequences of seizing a company like Yukos and had ample resources to buy off or repress opponents in the media and civil society.
If there is any causal relationship between authoritarianism and economic growth in Russia, it is negative. Russia’s more autocratic system in the last several years has produced more corruption and less secure property rights. Asset transfers have transformed a thriving private energy sector into one that is effectively state-dominated and less efficient. Renationalization has caused declines in the performance of formerly private companies, destroyed value in Russia’s most profitable companies, and slowed investment, both foreign and domestic.
Perhaps the most telling evidence that Putin’s autocracy has hurt rather than helped Russia’s economy is provided by regional comparisons. Between 1999 and 2006, Russia ranked ninth out of the 15 post-Soviet countries in terms of average growth. Similarly, investment in Russia, at 18 percent of GDP, although stronger today than ever before, is well below the average for democracies in the region.
One can only wonder how fast Russia would have grown with a more democratic system. The strengthening of institutions of accountability—a real opposition party, genuinely independent media, a court system not beholden to Kremlin control—would have helped tame corruption and secure property rights and would thereby have encouraged more investment and growth. The Russian economy is doing well today, but it is doing well in spite of, not because of, autocracy.