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Why IR Theory Gets Russia Wrong

Moscow’s Predictably Unpredictable Politics

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

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