Bryan Caplan  

Popular Putin's Persecutions: What's the Point?

Tolstoy on Disagreement... Late to the Party...

Western media and the Russians I know agree: Putin is popular. An op-ed in the Washington Post says "He Delivers. That's Why They Like Him."

Russians support their president because he did something rare for a politician: He delivered. Russia today is a resurgent economic power, with the tenth-largest economy in the world. Eighty percent of the economy is privatized, according to the Accounts Chamber of the Russian Federation. And the country is flush with oil revenue, having overtaken Saudi Arabia as the world's leading producer of oil.

The ruble is convertible again, a move designed to increase confidence among foreign investors, and it is once again the currency of choice. The Putin administration has instituted a flat, transparent income tax of 13 percent that Russians are actually paying -- in stark contrast to the situation of mutual suspicion a decade ago. Public debt is low and the stock market has taken off. Per-capita income and consumer spending are up sharply. And the middle class is growing rapidly while crime is down.

Moscow was once an isolated bubble of prosperity, but as I saw on a recent business trip to 10 Russian cities, growth is now a national phenomenon. Every skyline bristled with cranes.

If this is all true, however, what's the point of persecuting the opposition? There is overwhelming evidence that this is going on, and it's hard to believe that Putin isn't ultimately behind it. But if he's really so popular, why risk looking like a paranoid despot?

One possibility: Russians cheer when Putin "gets tough" with e.g. Chechens; could it be that they see persecution of the Russian opposition in the same light? In other words, where Westerners see Putin trying to squelch democratic competition, maybe Russians see a strong leader teaching nay-sayers a lesson.

Can this be right? If not, what's really going on? Responses from Russians are especially welcome.

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COMMENTS (14 to date)
James D. Miller writes:

Putin hopes to be in power a long time and knows Russia could face tough economic times in the future. By cracking down on the opposition today while he is popular and so can get away with it, Putin is reducing the chance of being forced from power in a future state in which he is disliked by most Russians.

Matt writes:

Bias. When things look good, the leaders get a pass.

Unit writes:

It's a common strategy: make believe that there's a conspiracy out to get you (cosmopolitans, enemies of the people, etc...), and use that to accumulate power. Such strategy works less well if there are too many free-speaking whistle-blowers or in the presence of a legitimate opposition party.

Richard Pointer writes:

I would say that when you look at how US democracy is run, we have many interest groups that vie for influence and power. Much of the time they spend their energy blocking other groups from achieving their goals.

But in Russia, the number of groups is low and they tend or tended to be Oligarchs (it shouldn't be that hard to see that media/business also has huge clout here in the US). It is not so easy to create this balance that is in the West. A short cut might be to mandate economic reform while punishing groups interested in power such as Oligarchs or business community. Add to that the complete bankrupcy of liberal ideals among Russians, familiar with Yeltsin style shock therapy, and you have a public with a revulsion for 'democrats'.

It's kinda hard blame them.

Tyler Cowen writes:

It personally offends him and he cannot tolerate it. Surely you have known people like this in conversation, and they didn't even have any guns (or nuclear weapons and polonium) behind them.

Patri Friedman writes:

Look like a paranoid despot? I'm pretty sure he is a paranoid despot! I think he wants more than just popularity, he wants to be a long-term dictator.

TGGP writes:

Putin and other heads of post-communist states not aligned with the West (as the "Color Revolution" folks are) usually attribute the opposition to groups funded by George Soros and the U.S government (who are not popular among Russians). A lot of the time they're right. Persecuting them could make him more popular. Is he persecuting the Communist Part (by that I don't mean the National Bolsheviks) to the same extent? They are clearly the lingering remains of the past system and disliked by the West so my explanation would not fit persecution of them.

ed writes:

It sounds like the biggest reason he's popular is because he was lucky enough to be around when oil went to $100/barrel. Perhaps he realizes that he might not always be so lucky.

Patrik writes:

Putin doesn't want to appear unconstitutional (realising that institutions do matter), hence he must leave the presidency when his term is up. However, he does want to hold on to power. In order to boost his influence , he has held an election (or rather a referendum) to signal that he is the one whom the Russians wants to be in charge. Therefore, any new occupier of formal post of power will know with very high certainty (especially if they themselves lack a popular mandate) that they must do what Putin says.
Good results for Putin in this election translates to more informal power.

Alex Tabarrok writes:

Because the best thing in life is to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women.

vadim writes:

My hypothesis: Putin appears more popular than he really is, especially where it really matters. In Moscow the turnout is just over 50% and United Russia got just over 50% of the votes, according to the official data:®ion=0&global=1&type=0&sub_region=0&prver=0&pronetvd=null (Russian).

A big reason he appears more popular than he is is that the opposition is so divided and pathetic. Hence it is in his interest to keep the opposition divided and pathetic.

Stephen writes:

Well executed false-flag operations. The FSB-orchestrated terror attacks on apartment buildings throughout the country, the theater in Moscow showing Nord-ost, and probably the hostage taking in Beslan have, as in the US, bolstered the anti-terror credentials of its leader.

TGGP writes:

Reason's video blog has a clip of some Putin Youth talking about why they dislike Kasparov and the opposition.

Ozornik writes:

You guys are so-o-oo funny in building your theories on assumption that Putin operates on the same mentality/logic as western/US politicians do. Try the mobster’ one instead.
It’s like driving up the hill – once you take your foot off the pedal, you’re slipping down.
To stay in power you have to keep proving 24x7 you ARE in power. Someone didn’t show you enough respect? Slap him across the face. Gave you an odd look? Beat the hell out of him. And if in doubt – kill first. Also, once in a while it is exceptionally beneficial to surprise your best enemy with a very public lesson in humiliation, then, instead of killing, to leave him suffering as a permanent reminder of your might for any prospective challenger. (Khodorkovsky, anyone?)
Oh, btw, keep in mind – there is no retirement. Once you’re not in control, it’s in everyone’s interest to eliminate you from the scene. (Unless you’re rapidly decaying drunkard like Yeltsin).

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