Why the West wants an authoritarian Russia

A false dichotomy is being imposed upon us – either democracy as directed by the West and in exchange for our raw materials, or relative autonomy and authoritarianism. But the truth is that Russia is perfectly capable of being open, democratic, and autonomous.

Russia is doomed to authoritarianism: this point of view has become ever more popular in the Western media over the past couple of years. Russia’s problem, they say, is that it’s rich in natural resources, particularly oil and gas. The ruling elites can’t afford to lose power, since they fear losing control over commodities revenue streams as well; especially since they can also use petrodollars to buy the loyalty of ordinary citizens. And the higher those export prices climb, the stronger the authoritarian regime, the higher the cost of losing power, and the greater the opportunities for bribing the electorate.

They say there is no escaping this vicious circle. Suffice it to look at the list of major oil exporters: Iran, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Nigeria, and now Kazakhstan as well.

Oil-exporting countries which don’t seem to have any problems with democracy (Norway, Canada, Mexico) are either part of the West or following in its political wake.

And Russia is offered a choice: either being a democracy – at the cost of giving the West more or less strict control over our raw materials (access to fields, freedom of transit, profits taken out of Russia), or becoming an autocracy, where control over raw materials is an end in itself and a means of survival for the ruling region. Either our commodities revenues and the power they generate are handed over to the West, and then democracy is possible; or Russia’s elites refuse to integrate into the West on the terms they are offered, and then authoritarianism is inevitable: in order to safeguard itself and its privileges, the regime will crush the opposition and close off Russia from the democratic West.

To put it simply, the idea is that reluctance to share commodities revenues – with the West, or with political opponents – is a sure path to authoritarianism and isolation.

The reasoning in question cannot be called entirely false. There is indeed some observable correlation between petroleum exports and political regimes. Still, there is one flaw here: a false dichotomy is being imposed upon us – either democracy as directed by the West and in exchange for our raw materials, or relative autonomy and authoritarianism. But the point is that the autonomy would indeed be relative. The fact that any given country has an authoritarian regime certainly doesn’t prevent the industrialized nations from deriving every benefit from oil-and-gas trade with that country. Actually, it’s even more convenient for them: authoritarian elites aren’t really interested in proper development, so they’re doomed to keep exporting raw materials as the only way to maintain their own power and total control.

Thus, it’s hardly surprising to see that many in the West would like to do business with an authoritarian Russia. It would be more in line with their accustomed ways of thinking (Cold War memories persist), and more pragmatic, since the probability of implementing Orange techniques in present-day Russia is vanishingly small. Therefore, they have tempted, are tempting, and will continue to tempt the Russian political class with authoritarianism. Your country can’t handle democracy, they tell us, so don’t even bother trying. Look at Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan: president for life, now with a one-party parliament. Nice and convenient for everyone! So you can go ahead and have an autocracy too. It would be nice and convenient for you. And we’ll keep buying your oil and gas anyway. At the same time, they keep trying to intimidate us: missile defense, criminal prosecutions, “Georgian missiles,” the polonium affair. The message: no matter how hard you try, we’ll never recognize Russia as a democracy.

But that’s the whole point: we shouldn’t be trying to build a democracy for the sake of the West and its recognition. We should be doing it for ourselves. An authoritarian Russian elite would be easier for the West to hold on a short leash; and in the immediate historical outlook, it would be easier for the West to get rid of such an elite, if anything happens. In contrast, an open and democratic Russia, with a fast-growing and competitive economy, firmly defending its national interests, promises to be a very difficult partner for the West. (For example, such a Russia could deprive Britain of its long-held status as the world’s second-largest oil-and-gas power, after the USA.)

But that’s precisely the kind of Russia we ought to build. It’s a realistic goal. The idea of “more oil, less democracy” isn’t an objective law of nature at all.