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Lionizing Putin: Do the Russians Have It All Wrong?

- December 24, 2007

Among Russians, Putin’s crackdown on democratic freedoms is far outweighed by the gains that have been registered in stability and economic growth, and as a consequence “the new tsar” is extradorinarily popular.

However, attributing responsibility to public officials for what happens during their watch is a tricky business (and is thus the subject of a substantial research literature). In the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs Michael McFaul and Kathryn Stoner-Weiss argue that in lionizing Putin the Russian public has got it all wrong. The idea that Putin “has forged a model of successful market authoritarianism

bq. …is 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.

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