Thursday, March 18, 2004
# Posted 5:03 PM by Ariel David Adesnik
During the last 15 years, Russia has undergone an extraordinary transformation. It has changed from a communist dictatorship to a multiparty democracy in which officials are chosen in regular elections. Its centrally planned economy has been reshaped into a capitalist order based on markets and private property. Its army has withdrawn peacefully from both eastern Europe and the other former Soviet republics, allowing the latter to become independent countries. In place of a belligerent adversary with thousands of nuclear missiles pointed at it, the West finds a partner ready to cooperate on disarmament, fighting terrorism, and containing civil wars.In contrast, consider what's Stanford Russianist Michael McFaul has to say about the subject:
In his first term in office, Putin continued a brutal and ineffective war in Chechnya, acquired de facto control of all major national television networks, turned both the Federation Council and State Duma into rubber stamps, and tamed regional barons who once served as a powerful balance to Yeltsin's presidential rule. He has arbitrarily used law enforcement structures to jail or send into exile political foes. He has removed candidates from ballots and rigged regional elections; harassed and arrested human rights activists, outspoken journalists, and environmental leaders; and weakened Russia's independent political parties and civil society.The most striking difference between these two descriptions of Putin's record is the way in which Shleifer and Treisman provide vague descriptions of Putin's supposed accomplishments while McFaul relies on specific and detailed evidence to demonstrate what has gone wrong in post-Soviet Russia. What Shleifer and Treisman do get right, however, is that Russia's economy is in the midst of an unheralded boom. Of course, this is no secret. McFaul praises Putin's economic record as well. The WaPo reports that Putin "oversaw a dramatic economic expansion". But who would notice those five words in the midst of a lengthy article devoted to the semi-democratic nature of Sunday's election?
Shleifer and Treisman marshall an impressive array of evidence to demonstrate how far Russia's economy has come under Putin. In spite of having a stagnant GDP for most of the 1990s,
Retail trade actually rose 4 percent between 1990 and 2001. And average living space per person rose from 16 square meters in 1990 to 19 square meters in 2000. The shares of households with radios, televisions, tape recorders, refrigerators, washing machines, and electric vacuum cleaners all increased between 1991 and 2000. And private ownership of cars doubled, rising from 14 cars per 100 households in 1991 to 27 cars per 100 households in 2000. The number of Russians going abroad as tourists rose from 1.6 million in 1993 to 4.3 million in 2000.In other words, a vote for Putin isn't a vote against democracy or even a vote for stability. It is a vote for real improvements in national wealth and standards of living. The next point Shleifer and Tresiman make is that widespread condemnation of Russia's post-Soviet economic reforms has been perilously misguided. First of all, critics of the post-Soviet era tend to dramatically exaggerate the efficiency of the Soviet economy. While GDP may have fallen in absolute terms after 1990, the substance of such economic indicators has changed dramatically. Whereas Soviet figures rested on high production of second-rate military equipment and unwanted consumer goods, newer statistics reflect the actual production of useful goods.
Now, when Shleifer and Treisman get into their more detailed discussions of the Russian economy, it is hard for a non-expert such as myself to evaluate their evidence. Nonetheless, their arguments seem plausible and well supported. For example, they point out that there is only a tenuous link between capitalism and inequality in Russia, since inequality hits its peak in 1994, well before capitalist reforms had reconfigured the economy. Shleifer and Treisman also argue that the economic power of the oligarchs has neither damaged the economy nor resulted in unsustainable growth, since the oligarchs' firms have performed extremely well while investing unprecedented amounts in capital stock.
Of course, nothing Putin has achieved on the economic front justifies his agressive efforts to promote what his own officials refer to as "managed democracy". It is also damaging for experts such as Shleifer and Treisman to downplay Putin's anti-democratic measures by arguing that "Even in rich countries such as Italy and the United States, journalists shape their broadcasts to fall into line with the views of media tycoons such as Berlusconi and Rupert Murdoch." That sort of comparision is simply absurd. Unless the Bush Administration decides to put all of Fox's competitors out of business and throw George Soros in jail, there can be no comparison between the state of journalism in the United States and Russia.
Lest one argue that Putin's anti-democratic measures have paved the way for economic growth, one should take note of Michael McFaul's observation that there is no connection between rigging elections, shutting down opposition media and the efficiency of the private sector. Moreover, "The experience in the postcommunist world is clear: The fastest democratizers are also the fastest economic reformers and the most successful economies."
As such, the Bush administration should not hesitate to demand that Putin's stop undermining the foundations of Russian democracy. Colin Powell should not be saying that "I have some concerns, but I don't think democracy is in trouble in Russia." It is. And when the US ignores that fact, it damages our own credibility as a global advocate of democratic reform. Moreover, Putin is hurting our efforts to win the War on Terror by waging a brutal and senseless war in Chechnya. While we can't force Putin to change his ways, we can keep the global spotlight on his authoritarian and aggressive behavior. Ever the self-interested pragmatist, that kind of negative attention may just keep Putin in line. (0) opinions -- Add your opinion
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