In their classic work "Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy," recently translated into Russian for the first time, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson imagine a dictator making a cost-benefit analysis. 

The imaginary autocrat is trying to make an optimal decision by calculating the cost of repression. Will it cost him less and make his situation more comfortable if he introduces some elements of democracy? 

At a time when the Russian economy is shrinking, Vladimir Putin faces a dilemma, which can also be called "Problem-2018," as it is the choice that awaits him at the end of his current presidential term. It is a choice between greater repression and more democracy within the confines of the current "information-based dictatorship."

In Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman's formulation, the modern-day Russian regime is an "information-based dictatorship, " because it uses outright repression sparingly and relies much more on propaganda tools. As these two authors explain, "So long as force is not too cost-effective, it is used against the general public only as a last resort after co-optation, censorship, and propaganda have failed."

Andrei Kolesnikov
Kolesnikov is a senior fellow and the chair of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
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As the economy gets worse, so official propaganda is intensifying, and with it selective repression. The recent sentences, reminiscent of the Stalin era, meted out to the alleged "terrorists" and "enemy agents" Oleg Sentsov from Ukraine and Eston Kokhver from Estonia were PR actions intended to educate the Russian public. 

If the situation gets completely out of hand, if propaganda, selective repression, and a constant state of a hybrid warfare no longer do the trick, then there has to be a next phase: either comprehensive repression or a decision to embark on the path of reform and introduce some democracy.

Democracy should bring prosperity. In a paper published in 2014, the very same Acemoglu and Robinson answered the conundrum that had bothered social thinkers for years, concluding that democracy does indeed cause economic growth.

Of course, the president, his inner circle, and the wider elite are trying, as usual, to choose the do-nothing option and hoping the problem will go away. 

They revealed this strategy of "postponing decisions" with their reaction to the "Strategy-2020" state economic program. The program was supposed to kick-start a new phase of modernization of the Russian economy and re-start the Putin presidency of 2012. The authors of Strategy-2020 received genuine thanks for their ideas. Their obedience was appreciated too: they had heeded the advice not to stick their noses into politics and social issues and keep to economics and finance.

Yet the actual outcome was very different. Either no action was taken or the exact opposite of what Strategy-2020 recommended occurred. For instance, defense spending was increased, while expenditures on healthcare and education were cut.

The official message was "Thank you, dear experts. We asked you to come up with ideas that required no change from the status quo. But your road-map still calls for change. Absolutely not!" 

Yet, even if reform is rejected, mass repression is not an attractive option either. It is expensive, it upsets the balance in the elite, and it increases uncertainty. Nor would it reduce the risk of the regime losing power.

This fear drives everything the regime does. It underlines their "no-strategy strategy," in which propaganda is used to cover up a crisis, and, instead of reforms, a New Syria or Northern China project is devised, which are in turn substitutes for the failed Novorossiya project in eastern Ukraine. 

Fear of regime change also lies behind the almost hysterical reaction to the supposed threat of revolutions. The Arab Spring and the Maidan frightened this regime as much as the Prague Spring of 1968 scared Leonid Brezhnev.

Russia's leaders are nervously groping for ways of preserving themselves. They recently replaced Russian Railway boss Vladimir Yakunin with the "technocrat" Oleg Belozerov in a quest for greater efficiency or, rather, survival. But Belozerov and other second-tier technocrats who are available to fill an entire government will not help. As the word "technocrat" suggests, men like this offer a technology, not a strategy. 

For the last few years the symbol of Russia has been a knight standing at a crossroad and pondering, not choosing either one road or the other. 

The knight does not move, even as everything is in motion around him. Bearded volunteers go off to fight; bulldozers destroy contraband cheese. The television quotes radicals like Dmitry Enteo or Alexander Prokhanov, where it once quoted Tolstoy or Chekhov. 

The knight wonders to himself, "Shall I set my people free or press down on them more? Which will cost me more?" And all the while, the oil price keeps falling. 

This publication originally appeared in Russian on

  • Andrei Kolesnikov