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Illiberal Stagnation

NEW YORK – Today, a quarter-century after the Cold War’s end, the West and Russia are again at odds. This time, though, at least on one side, the dispute is more transparently about geopolitical power, not ideology. The West has supported in a variety of ways democratic movements in the post-Soviet region, hardly hiding its enthusiasm for the various “color” revolutions that have replaced long-standing dictators with more responsive leaders – though not all have turned out to be the committed democrats they pretended to be.

Too many countries of the former Soviet bloc remain under the control of authoritarian leaders, including some, like Russian President Vladimir Putin, who have learned how to maintain a more convincing façade of elections than their communist predecessors. They sell their system of “illiberal democracy” on the basis of pragmatism, not some universal theory of history. These leaders claim that they are simply more effective at getting things done.

That is certainly true when it comes to stirring nationalist sentiment and stifling dissent. They have been less effective, however, in nurturing long-term economic growth. Once one of the world’s two superpowers, Russia’s GDP is now about 40% of Germany’s and just over 50% of France’s. Life expectancy at birth ranks 153rd in the world, just behind Honduras and Kazakhstan.

In terms of per capita income, Russia now ranks 73rd (in terms of purchasing power parity) – well below the Soviet Union’s former satellites in Central and Eastern Europe. The country has deindustrialized: the vast majority of its exports now come from natural resources. It has not evolved into a “normal” market economy, but rather into a peculiar form of crony-state capitalism.