A part of the monument of the Gratitude for the Soviet Army Soldiers is pictured in Warsaw, Poland, May 23, 2016.
Kacper Pempel / Reuters

With Russia’s economy sagging, support for the government falling, and even President Vladimir Putin’s sky-high approval ratings beginning to come down to earth, there has been no shortage of speculation about Russia’s political stability. Some argue that a collapse of the Putin regime is imminent, whereas others are more cautious. A recent Foreign Affairs survey of experts found that most believed that political change in Russia was not on the immediate horizon, but there were plenty of dissenters—and, at any rate, our ability to predict political events in Russia has never been great.

Why has divining Russia’s political future been so hard? It is a challenge not because of the supposedly inscrutable Putin, the opacity of the political system, or the vagaries of the “Russian soul,” but because our two most prominent arguments about political change make precisely opposite predictions about Russia.

First, the bad news. Political scientists often argue that the nature of the current government helps predict the type of government that follows. Consider non-democracies. We often divide them into one-party governments like China, military governments like Egypt, and personalist governments like Russia. In personalist regimes, a single leader—Putin, in this case—rules over political parties and the military, determines who has access to high office, and has extraordinary influence on policy.

People hold a giant Russian national flag during a festive concert marking the second anniversary of Russia's annexation of the Crimea region, in Red Square in central Moscow, Russia, March 18, 2016.
People hold a giant Russian national flag during a festive concert marking the second anniversary of Russia's annexation of the Crimea region, in Red Square in central Moscow, Russia, March 18, 2016.
Maxim Shemetov / Reuters
Each type of non-democracy tends to go through distinct patterns of political change. For example, based on data of all non-democratic governments from 1946 until 2008, University of Rochester’s Hein Goemans found that personalist non-democracies such as Russia were especially likely to experience rocky political transitions.

In these systems, political change was much more likely to occur via non-constitutional means, such as coups or revolts, than through constitutional means. Seventy percent of personalist autocracies fell via this route versus 47 percent for military governments and 19 percent for one-party governments.

The rulers of personalist regimes also faced much worse prospects after leaving office. Eighty percent of personalist rulers ended in exile, jail, or below ground compared to 41 percent of leaders of military governments and 25 percent of leaders of one-party autocracies.

Compared to other countries, Russia is too rich and well educated to be so non-democratic.
In their sample, the prospects for transition to democracy were also far dimmer for personalist governments. Only 49 percent of personalist autocracies were replaced by more democratic governments compared to 78 percent of military-led autocracies. Thus, personalist autocracies are especially likely to beget another non-democratic regime. To top it off, personalist regimes were more prone to international conflict than other types of non-democracies. None of this is reassuring for global stability, considering that Russia is very personalist and looms very large in world politics.

However, another broad line of argument offers a more optimistic view of political change in Russia. Compared to other countries, Russia is too rich and well educated to be so non-democratic. A long line of research suggests that a country’s income and education levels are correlated with the type of government.

The details about precisely how wealth and education are related to political change are debated. Some suggest that these factors work by generating a robust civil society that can counter state power, and others point to broad changes in social values and attitudes. Still others argue that, although a country’s wealth does not help bring down autocracies, when governments fall in wealthy autocracies, the successor government is likely to be more democratic, for whatever reason.

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during the Victory Day parade, marking the 71st anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two, at Red Square in Moscow, Russia, May 9, 2016.
Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during the Victory Day parade, marking the 71st anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two, at Red Square in Moscow, Russia, May 9, 2016.
Grigory Dukor / Reuters
If wealth and government type are related, Russia’s prospects are more promising. At a GDP per capita of $25,411 measured using purchasing power parity, Russia is wealthier than 15 of the 16 Latin American democracies. Although measuring education levels is tricky, Russia scores very highly by most formal indicators. Education levels in Russia exceed those of all the Latin American democracies. This suggests that political change, however it comes to Russia, should lead to a more democratic alternative. Also in Russia’s favor are relatively high levels of urbanization and cultural and ethnic homogeneity.

To be sure, other factors may come into play, but are less likely to be decisive. Russia is oil-rich, but less so than many petro-states, and it has the potential to develop other economic sectors. Economic inequality is high in Russia, but lower than in many Latin American democracies. And, perhaps most important, Russia’s pretensions to being a global power may complicate political change.

In short, Russia is either on a dangerous path, or not. It is either primed for change from below or through a coup. Or neither. The consensus of experts suggests that change is unlikely. Predicting Russia’s future is particularly challenging because both theories have merit. The danger is to blindly follow one. Instead, observers need to keep an open mind about Russia’s political future.

What we do know is that, whenever and however political change does come to Russia, it will have an outsize impact on global politics—and on how we understand democratization.

  • TIMOTHY FRYE is the Marshall D. Shulman Professor of Post-Soviet Foreign Policy and the Director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University.
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