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A New Cold War?

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Putin visiting the Tuva Republic, Siberia, 2007
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Mission to Moscow

Why Authoritarian Stability Is a Myth

The conventional explanation for Vladimir Putin's popularity is straightforward. In the 1990s, under post-Soviet Russia's first president, Boris Yeltsin, the state did not govern, the economy shrank, and the population suffered. Since 2000, under Putin, order has returned, the economy has flourished, and the average Russian is living better than ever before. As political freedom has decreased, economic growth has increased. Putin may have rolled back democratic gains, the story goes, but these were necessary sacrifices on the altar of stability and growth.

This narrative has a powerful simplicity, and most Russians seem to buy it. Putin's approval rating hovers near 80 percent, and nearly a third of Russians would like to see him become president for life. Putin, emboldened by such adoration, has signaled that he will stay actively involved in ruling Russia in some capacity after stepping down as president this year, perhaps as prime minister to a weak president or even as president once again later on. Authoritarians elsewhere, meanwhile, have held up Putin's popularity and accomplishments in Russia as proof that autocracy has a future -- that, contrary to the end-of-history claims about liberal democracy's inevitable triumph, Putin, like China's Deng Xiaoping did, has forged a model of successful market authoritarianism that can be imitated around the world.

This conventional narrative is wrong, based almost entirely on a spurious correlation between autocracy and growth. The emergence of Russian democracy in the 1990s did indeed coincide with state breakdown and economic decline, but it did not cause either. The reemergence of Russian autocracy under Putin, conversely, has coincided with economic growth but not caused it (high oil prices and recovery from the transition away from communism deserve most of the credit). There is also very little evidence to suggest that Putin's autocratic turn over the last several years has led to more effective governance than the fractious democracy of the 1990s. In fact, the reverse is much closer to the truth: to the extent that Putin's centralization of power has

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