The Putin Illusion
By Bryan Caplan
In late 2007, the Washington Post ran an op-ed by Boris Jordan called, “He Delivers. That’s Why They Like Him.” In it, Jordan tries to explain Vladimir Putin’s great political success: “With the presidential election only three months away, Russian citizens appear prepared to vote their pocketbooks, rewarding the president for rising economic security and public order with approval ratings that regularly top 70 percent.” In other words, Putin is popular because he’s doing a fine job.
Russians support their president because he did something rare for a politician: He delivered. Russia today is a resurgent economic power, with the tenth-largest economy in the world. Eighty percent of the economy is privatized, according to the Accounts Chamber of the Russian Federation. And the country is flush with oil revenue, having overtaken Saudi Arabia as the world’s leading producer of oil.
The ruble is convertible again, a move designed to increase confidence among foreign investors, and it is once again the currency of choice. The Putin administration has instituted a flat, transparent income tax of 13 percent that Russians are actually paying — in stark contrast to the situation of mutual suspicion a decade ago. Public debt is low and the stock market has taken off. Per-capita income and consumer spending are up sharply. And the middle class is growing rapidly while crime is down.
Over ten years later, Putin is still riding high. He did even better than expected in last week’s election. Now, however, the Russian economy is doing dreadfully. Yes, inflation and unemployment are low. But real GDP has fallen over 40% since 2013, and oil prices are way down. While it was indeed tempting to link his 2007 success to the Russian economy, the last few years show that this link was illusory. If Putin does about equally well in good times and bad, it makes little sense to attribute his popularity to economic conditions.
To be fair, Jordan also credited Putin’s nationalistic foreign policy for his success:
Putin’s platform of restoring national strength and pride clearly boosted his popularity.
Most Russians believe that ceding control of the former Soviet Union — a process enthusiastically encouraged by the West — has gone too far and gravely undermined their security. They also see their stability compromised by American support for the Orange and Rose revolutions in the former Soviet Bloc nations and the rumblings of NATO expansion into Ukraine and Georgia. Russians once had high hopes for a partnership with the United States, but today they look back on years of real and perceived transgressions and ask, “If these are allies, why do we want
Those who discount these national security concerns overlook the sharp asymmetry of global influence today. Russians are well aware that the United States is unequivocally the world’s most formidable military force. As a practical matter, any country must react when the dominant power moves to expand its principal military alliance into bordering countries. What else do we expect from Russia, a nation with a long history of foreign invasions, including the blitzkrieg of World War II that took 20 million or more lives and decimated a generation?
For Russians, national pride is as much about sensitivity as about sentiment. So it should come as no surprise that the West’s habit of treating their country like a second-rate power and junior partner fuels resentment.
The main problem with this analysis: It casually blends symbolic and functional stories. Yes, Russia’s minor military victories over the last decade have swelled Russian pride. But they’ve also turned Russia into a semi-pariah state. I doubt serious war is likely anytime soon, but the Russian people’s risk of living through serious war is probably greater than any time since the late 1980s. Again, what Putin’s success shows is that when pride and security conflict, most Russian voters choose pride. (Though as my Myth of the Rational Voter emphasizes, this definitely doesn’t show that Russians actually care more about pride than security).
The best way to save Jordan’s original piece would be to claim that Russian elections were pretty honest in 2008 but pretty crooked today. But while claims about electoral fraud in Russia are common, the severity of these allegations also seems quite stable.
So why am I picking on an op-ed published over a decade ago? At least for me, the piece was extremely memorable; I read it when it first appeared, and haven’t stopped thinking about it since. When it was published, I bet that many readers thought, “I don’t want to believe this, but the author has logic on his side.” Yet with the benefit of hindsight, we see that the piece was wrong all along. Putin doesn’t need to offer prosperity or peace to dominate Russian elections. Personality and pugnacity are more than enough.