Mission Impossible, McFaul Style

In their article, “The Myth of the Authoritarian Model” (Foreign Affairs, January/February 2008), Michael McFaul and Kathryn Stoner-Weiss have set out for a remarkable, if questionable, feat: to prove that Russia and Russians were better off in the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin’s presidency than they are now, at the end of Vladimir Putin’s second term in office.

The gargantuan job of proving unprovable becomes at times so overwhelming that McFaul & Stoner-Weiss’s piece begins looking like a faulty puzzle with different parts not fitting each other.  Consider, for example, this paragraph (my apologies for the long quote):

… [under Putin] Russia’s spectacular economic growth … has averaged 6.7 percent — especially impressive against the backdrop of the depression in the early 1990s. The last eight years have also seen budget surpluses, the eradication of foreign debt and the accumulation of massive hard-currency reserves, and modest inflation. The stock market is booming, and foreign direct investment, although still low compared to in other emerging markets, is growing rapidly. And it is not just the oligarchs who are benefiting from Russia’s economic upturn. Since 2000, real disposable income has increased by more than 10 percent a year, consumer spending has skyrocketed, unemployment has fallen from 12 percent in 1999 to 6 percent in 2006, and poverty, according to one measure, has declined from 41 percent in 1999 to 14 percent in 2006. Russians are richer today than ever before.”

How then can one reconcile the above with the following?

“ … Putin’s government has done no better and sometimes worse of a job of providing basic public goods and services than Yeltsin’s government did during the deep economic decline of the 1990s.”

(Could it be that McFaul & Stoner-Weiss are simply disagreeing with each other or, better yet, that the article is an accidental mix of fragments written for two different publications?  Just kidding.)

In their attempts to prove that Russia’s economic gains “under Putin … would have been greater under a democratic regime”, McFaul & Stoner-Weiss resort to the time-tested, Soviet-style manipulation with statistics.

Take, for example, a bizarre claim that “Putinism” is to be blamed for the fact that at the end of the 1990’s, annual alcohol consumption per person was 10.7 liters, but by 2004, this figure has increased to 14.5 liters.

As experts in “democracy”, McFaul & Stoner aren’t supposed to know the intricacies of Russia’s consumer trends. Otherwise, they would notice that the apparent growth in alcohol consumption has been a result of replacement of hard liquors – or, worse, poisonous home-made alcoholic surrogates (not the subject of any official stats, by the way) – with lower-alcohol beverages like beer and wine.

Besides, why do McFaul & Stoner believe that alcohol consumption has anything to do with economic models in the first place? In Luxembourg, the average alcohol consumption is the highest in Europe, reaching 15.6 liters per person. Is Luxembourg a beacon of authoritarianism?

However, it’s in the following statement that the absurdity of McFaul & Stoner-Weiss’ “number game” reaches its highest point.  Trying to reject the claim that Putin’s presidency has brought “stability” to Russia, McFaul & Stoner-Weiss observe:

In fact, the frequency of terrorist attacks in Russia has increased under Putin. The two biggest terrorist attacks in Russia’s history — the Nord-Ost incident at a theater in Moscow in 2002, in which an estimated 300 Russians died, and the Beslan school hostage crisis, in which as many as 500 died — occurred under Putin’s autocracy, not Yeltsin’s democracy.”

This is about the same as to say that since no major terrorist attacks have occurred in the United States post-9/11, the Bush presidency has provided a steady improvement of democratic institutions in the country.

One can endlessly debate which model, authoritarian or democratic, is better for a country’s economic development. McFaul & Stoner-Weiss are absolutely correct when they say that “for every authoritarian success such as Singapore, there is a resounding failure such as Myanmar."  I’d also add that about a half of the world’s poorest people live in what we are accustomed to call "the largest democracy in the world", India. 

But this is not actually the point that McFaul & Stoner-Weiss want to discuss. Their article is not about democracy or authoritarianism in Russia or elsewhere. And they are smart enough to know the obvious: Russia and Russians are better off now than they were eight years ago.

In reality, McFaul & Stoner-Weiss’s piece is simply an angry response, however late and irrelevant, to Russia’s rejection of the incompetent advice McFaul & Co was providing to Yeltsin’s government in the 1990s.

One would only hope, a subconscious attempt at apology, too.

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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One Response to Mission Impossible, McFaul Style

  1. McFaul says:

    I appreciate the interest in our article. But you missed the main point of the piece. We never claimed that Russians were better off in the 1990s than today. On the contrary, we wrote very clearly that Russians today have never been richer. Are claim is that autocracy has had little to do with this growth, that’s all. mike

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