The Russian Social Contract: An Emblem of Illegitimacy

Regimes typically legitimize themselves one of two ways; either through provision and protection of transparent institutions that enshrine liberty, rights, democracy, and the rule of law – often seen as vaguely Western ambitions – or through broad-based rising living standards – what could be seen as the Chinese or Singaporean route. Putin's regime fails on both of these fronts, and therefore the "Russian Social Contract" with which he came to power should be discarded.


 Increasingly, as discourse regarding the USA and Russia unfolds, comments and opinions across various platforms have been deflecting blame at Putin onto the USA, arguing that Putin was as democratically elected as Obama or that Putin is delivering rising living standards not matched by the USA. By organizing the facts surrounding these two lines of arguments, they can be empirically disproved, and in the process demonstrate Putin's scarce legitimacy.

When it comes to democratic institutions, all globally-respected sources paint the same picture.

  • The Economist Intelligence Unit  ranked the USA 19th for the strength of its democracy, Russia 132nd, seven places worse than the previous year.
  • Freedom House assesses the existence of political rights and civil liberties by giving a score of 1 (most free) through to 7 (not free), the USA scores 1 in both and has a Freedom Rating of 1, Russia scores a 6 in both and has a Freedom Rating of 6.
  • Reporters Without Borders ranked the Russian press environment 152nd out of 180 this year - just behind Gambia, a country in which a 2013 parliamentary Information and Communication Act mandates a 15-year jail term and a fine of 3 million Dalasis (about $70 000) for use of internet to spread dissent, in case anyone engages in "unpatriotic behavior" - the USA stands at 49th.
  • The BBC listed earlier this year six opponents of Putin who have been murdered, there is no such similar statistic for Obama.

Russian democracy is so incomparable to American democracy, it is wrong to even call it as such, hence why The Economist terms it an "authoritarian regime".

Russia's lackluster performance on rights and liberties is not to be blamed on its communist heritage. One need only glance at Poland and the Czech Republic to see the possibilities; both have freedom ratings of 1 by Freedom House, Reporters Without Borders ranks their press environments 18th and 13th respectively, and the Economist terms them flawed democracies. Turning to the World Justice Rule of Law Index 2014- which scores countries from 0 to 1 on criteria within fields such as constraint of government power, absence of corruption, open government, fundamental rights, order and security, regulatory enforcement, and criminal justice – Russia underscores Poland and the Czech Republic in all main categories and in 41 of 43 subcategories.

stats Russian Rights Lag Behind (EIU)

Marginal differences in scores between the Czech Republic, Poland, and the USA. Russia's apathy towards rights is intentional.

Of course US democracy is deeply flawed, with American academics being the first to admit it, often highlighting wealth distribution among many other issues in need of perennial examination, but the point is this – even with its shortcomings, cherished institutions such as civil liberties, individual rights, the rule of law, and democratic process  are exactly that in the USA: cherished. In Russia, the evidence would suggest apathy at best.

Turning now to living standards, a point could be made that Russian GDP per capita has risen steadily under Putin (although still not as fast as the USA or Czech Republic for the same period), but such a point neglects two factors: firstly, the rise in GDP was largely via high oil prices, and he mismanaged the economy anyway by failing to diversify away from oil dependency; secondly, and more importantly, GDP per capita is a poor barometer for standard of life – life expectancy and health are more significant.

To compare Russia directly with the US would be somewhat unfair given that the US has had over 200 years to develop a market economy based on strong property rights and open competition, whereas Russia had to transition out of the communist model. Therefore I will compare Russia and the US alongside other transition economies, again Poland and the Czech Republic provide good yardsticks. In 1975, a boy born in Russia could expect to live around 4.5 years longer had he been born in Poland or the Czech Republic, as of 2013 that difference has widened to 7 and 9 respectively. Compared to the USA the difference is even starker: in 1960 an American boy could expect to live 5 years longer, as of 2013 he can expect over double that. To emphasize the weak performance of Russian life expectancy, a comparison with Timor-Leste can be made. If you took two 10-year old boys, one from Timor-Leste and one from Russia, the Russian can expect to live 2 years shorter than his Timorese counterpart, despite the fact that around 50% of the population of Timor-Leste lives below the poverty line.

stats Russian Male Life Expectancy Performing Poorly (World Bank)

Russian males are only just starting to live longer than they did in 1986

Nicholas Eberstadt in Foreign Affairs used the term ‘fateful leap backward' to describe the country's deteriorating health record: according to the 2011 UN AIDS report, since 2001 AIDS cases have increased 250% in the Eastern European, Russian, Central Asian region, with an estimated two thirds of all cases coming from Russians, and according to Vadim Povroksy, head of the state AIDS center, "the last 5 years of the conservative approach have led to a doubling of the number of HIV infected people".

But perhaps most telling is the multidrug-resistant (MDR) tuberculosis story. Russia is third to only India, a country with some 1.1 billion more people, and China, a country with 1.2 billion more people, for multidrug-resistant tuberculosis cases, but what is most astounding is the relationship between tuberculosis and MDR Tuberculosis. What was drug-susceptible becomes drug-resistant through improper treatment, or as the WHO puts it, "essentially, drug-resistance arises in areas with poor control programs". In some ways, the ratio between Tuberculosis and MDR Tuberculosis can be seen as a metric for the effectiveness of medical infrastructure.

TB and MDR TB Cases (7 Year Average)

Russian Notified TB Cases: 171,505

Indian Notified TB Cases: 1,492,510

Russian MDR TB Cases: 5,565

Indian MDR TB Cases: 11,650

Despite India having almost 1.5 million tuberculosis cases, only some 11 000 become drug-resistant. Russia manages 5 000 drug resistant cases from just 170,000 regular cases, four times the rate of India.

Political commentators in Russia and throughout the West have long spoken of the "Russian Social Contract" that Putin came to power with; the tacit agreement whereby the Russian people would trade their political rights in return for rising living standards and stability. It would seem the contract was not upheld, all serious sources indicate that, indeed, rights were traded away, but the increases in living standards never felt.

Stefan Nielsen is an intern from London working at before returning to the UK this autumn to begin reading Philosophy, Politics and Economics at LSE. His work at Atlantic Community is largely editorial and research-based


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