All entries for Wednesday 07 December 2011

December 07, 2011

Russians, Be Careful What You Wish For

Writing about web page

The Russian parliamentary elections show that, whichever party Russians voted for, whether they voted under free and fair conditions or not, they voted overwhelmingly for a strongman. United Russia (one half of the vote) is for Putin. The Communist Party (one fifth) is for Ziuganov. The Liberal Democrats (one tenth) are for Zhirinovskii.

Neither liberal nor democratic, the Liberal Democrats' favourite term of abuse for advocates of a free and competitive political system is der'mokraty, "shittocrats." The Communists have called for Russia to undergo "re-Stalinization." United Russia follows the hazy notion of "sovereign democracy," implying a non-competitive dialogue between rulers and ruled.

On the face of it, the outlook for democracy in Russia is hopeless. Apparently, nearly all Russians espouse one or another form of authoritarianism.

All the more surprising and encouraging that 5,000 Muscovites have taken the risky course of public demonstration against vote rigging and electoral fraud. But what do 5,000 demonstrators count, out of 65 million voters?

More than would appear at first sight, perhaps. A new article by Henry Hale(2011) of George Washington University suggests how much may be going on below the surface. Hale argues that we often misinterpret Russian opinion polls and election outcomes. When we find that many Russians take a dim view of "democracy," we fail to check that we and they understand democracy the same way; it turns out we don't. When we find that Russians frequently favour a strong leader, we assume that this is in conflict with the idea of competitive elections and we fail to check whether Russians see the same conflict. This too turns out not to be true.

On the evidence, Hale argues, most Russians do favour a strong leader, but the same Russians, even those who rail against der'mokratiia, also favour competitive elections. They want a strong leader that they have chosen, a strong leader who will govern according to the law, treat the people fairly, and then submit himself to competitive re-election as the constitution requires.

Such attitudes set up an obvious paradox, Hale observes. Russians know what they want, but they cannot have it for long. Any leader strong enough to rule as Russians want to be ruled is also strong enough to bend the law, pressure the courts, and stuff the ballot boxes. This seems like an electoral equivalent to the Weingast (1995) paradox: "A government strong enough to protect property rights and enforce contracts is also strong enough to confiscate the wealth of its citizens."

Hale has two conclusions. First, "Russia’s leaders, including even the highly popular Putin, are desired not as dictators but as powerful delegates with an expansive—but still limited—mandate to ‘get things done’. Limits include: that the basic rights of the opposition not be violated; that the leader not have a right to remain in complete power for life; and that the people retain the right to select a successor in a free, fair and competitive process when that leader’s constitutional term limits are up." It is logical therefore that, as Putin has increasingly overstepped these limits, he should gradually be losing his earlier support and legitimacy.

Second, Hale confirms that Russians are "the enablers of their own autocracy—but for reasons different from those usually given." The underlying problem is "not any kind of culturally embedded or historically developed support for autocracy, but the preference for a kind of democracy that nevertheless relies on electing a strong leader as a way of concentrating national efforts on the resolution of major national challenges."

Or, in the words of W. W. Jacobs: "Be careful what you wish for."


  • Hale, Henry E. 2011. The Myth of Mass Russian Support for Autocracy: The Public Opinion Foundations of a Hybrid Regime, Europe-Asia Studies 63:8, pp. 1357-1375.
  • Weingast, Barry R. 1995. The Economic Role of Political Institutions: Market-Preserving Federalism and Economic Development. Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization 11:1, pp. 1-31.

I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).

Economics Blogs - BlogCatalog Blog Directory

Mark talks about why and how he blogs on Warwick’s Knowledge Centre.

Search this blog

Blog archive



Most recent comments

  • Great article on coronavirus Keep sharing your knowledge with us Educational and technology blog by Amrit on this entry
  • Thanks! Trying to work this out—as far as I knew, Joan Littlewood had the author down as "unknown." … by Mark Harrison on this entry
  • Powerful stuff, Mark. I look forward to reading the memoir. The lyric to "and when they ask us" was … by Robert Zara on this entry
  • Great history lesson. Something that was never taught in school, nor hinted about to egg your on to … by Julian Fernander on this entry
  • Thanks Tony! by Mark Harrison on this entry
Not signed in
Sign in

Powered by BlogBuilder