Why the experts get Russia wrong


Why has divining Russia’s political future been so hard? asks Timothy Frye, the Director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University. It is a challenge not because of the supposedly inscrutable Putin, the opacity of the political system, or the vagaries of the “Russian soul,” but because our two most prominent arguments about political change make precisely opposite predictions about Russia, he writes for Foreign Affairs:

  • First, the bad news. …Each type of non-democracy tends to go through distinct patterns of political change. For example, based on data of all non-democratic governments from 1946 until 2008, University of Rochester’s Hein Goemans found that personalist non-democracies such as Russia were especially likely to experience rocky political transitions….In these systems, political change was much more likely to occur via non-constitutional means, such as coups or revolts, than through constitutional means. Seventy percent of personalist autocracies fell via this route versus 47 percent for military governments and 19 percent for one-party governments….In their sample, the prospects for transition to democracy were also far dimmer for personalist governments. Only 49 percent of personalist autocracies were replaced by more democratic governments compared to 78 percent of military-led autocracies.
  • However, another broad line of argument offers a more optimistic view of political change in Russia. Compared to other countries, Russia is too rich and well educated to be so non-democratic. A long line of research suggests that a country’s income and education levels are correlated with the type of government…..If wealth and government type are related, Russia’s prospects are more promising. At a GDP per capita of $25,411 measured using purchasing power parity, Russia is wealthier than 15 of the 16 Latin American democracies. Although measuring education levels is tricky, Russia scores very highly by most formal indicators. Education levels in Russia exceed those of all the Latin American democracies. This suggests that political change, however it comes to Russia, should lead to a more democratic alternative.

“In short, Russia is either on a dangerous path, or not. It is either primed for change from below or through a coup. Or neither. The consensus of experts suggests that change is unlikely,” he adds. “What we do know is that, whenever and however political change does come to Russia, it will have an outsize impact on global politics—and on how we understand democratization.”


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