By Kaufmann | March 4, 2012 1 Comment »
Vladimir Putin is about to be re-elected, yet again, as President of Russia. He already served as President twice, over the 2000-2008 period, to then immediately ease himself into the Kremlin’s Premiership for the past four years, awaiting his next term as President, which is about to begin.
His new term is expected to last six years this time around, since the Russian constitution was amended to permit a longer presidency. If he seeks and wins reelection in 2018, Putin could be president until 2024 and effectively rule Russia for over two decades. He would have served longer than any Russian leader besides Stalin…
Much will be written about the reasons for the comfortable margin by which Putin is likely to win his 3rd presidential term today, in spite of the ‘Putin-fatigue’ syndrome that has set in among the urban elite. Articles will mention the craving for an image of a strongman and for stability among many Russians, while others may cry foul about fraud at the polls or related electoral corruption. Yet this should not obscure three larger issues of significance for Russia and the world, transcending the current electoral event.
First, Russia governance has been declining for about a decade already, and rather markedly. This has been discussed in a recent entry and in a conference presentation. Such decline is seen in figure 1 here. As we can see, the decline is in virtually every one of the six dimensions of governance (as measured by the Worldwide Governance Indicators, or WGI), notably including a marked decline in Voice & democratic Accountability.
The current presidential elections, held in a less-than-free environment for the media and for political participation, and where the emergence of viable alternatives to Putin has been stymied, ought to be viewed as a continuation of this trend of declining governance.
In fact, Russia’s governance standards nowadays rate extremely poorly when compared with the rest of the world, as seen in Figure 2, which averages the six dimensions of governance in the WGI. Such rough composite of governance indicates that Russia compares poorly with many countries. Its cohorts in terms of poor governance, like Pakistan, are countries where transition has not been successful.
Second, for quite some time, Russia has already faced the huge challenge of endemic corruption, and if anything such corruption has worsened over the past decade, as also seen in figure 1 above. There is high corruption in politics, in the executive, in the judiciary, and in the interactions between the private and public sectors.
As seen in figure 3 here, for every type of bribery, a very high proportion of enterprise managers report that they do bribe often, comparable with countries like Nigeria and Libya, and sharply contrasting the much lower levels of bribery in many other countries. Cronyism plays an important role: those close to Putin in the Kremlin have benefitted handsomely. And one source of high level bribery is public procurement: the lion share of firms in Russia have to pay bribes to obtain contracts.
Third, the troubling evolution of governance in Russia over the past decade is a wake-up call to the world, which at times has been naïve about Russia’s transition, and about other transitions. Over two decades ago the Soviet Union collapsed, and a democratic era dawned in Russia and many other formerly Soviet states. Yet since then the progress in democratic governance has been halting in many countries, or, even worse, there have been some reversals over the past decade, such as in Russia.
These developments carry a warning to the Arab world. Just because an old autocratic regime is discarded, the emergence of robust democratic institutions is by no means assured. I have written about this subject in this brief article (here), presented and discussed in various countries, including in the Middle East.
Take the case of Egypt, for instance: the demise of the Mubarak regime may indeed have been salutary, and can be viewed as a necessary precondition for a democratic transition. Yet the events being played out also suggest that Mubarak gone, in itself, was insufficient. A broader perspective is useful: of the scores of initial transitions to democracy over the past fifty years, many have not been fully successful, either having muddled through or even moving backwards, as in the case of Russia.
Democratic transitions are fragile and require constant vigilance, hard work and democratic institution-building for decades after the initial democratic episode. Short-term setbacks or even marked reversals are not uncommon. The euphoria of the moment when an old autocratic regime is replaced, coupled with the political expediency of the international community, ought not blur the stark assessment of how each transition is actually progressing — or not.