Do Oil Prices Explain Russian Authoritarianism?

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The "resource curse," as it's called, has long been a popular phenomenon in international relations scholarship. Applied broadly, the theory can be pretty persuasive: countries with massive endowments of natural resources (especially certain ones, like oil or mineral reserves) tend to have worse, more corrupt governments. Take a quick glance at certain regimes in the Middle East, South America and Africa, and it starts to make sense.

Today, The Washington Post's Anne Applebaum applies the resource curse more narrowly in her examination of the Kremlin. Applebaum posits that since the '70s, declines in oil prices have directly resulted in less authoritarian behavior from the Russian government. Conversely, an uptick in oil prices has recently emboldened the Kremlin to abuse civil liberties, wage wars and suppress dissent.

Right now the price of oil is $90 a barrel and rising. Here's what Applebaum sees happening in Russia:

The blocking of corruption investigations; the expressions of support for the brutal and violent "elections" in neighboring Belarus; the deaths of journalists; all of these seem designed to contradict the distinctly friendlier, reformist language that the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, was using until recently.

Why the change of tone? Why now? Many complex theories have been hatched to explain it. This being Russia, none can be proved. But perhaps the explanation is very simple: Oil is once again above $90 a barrel--and the price is rising. And if that's the reason, it's nothing new. In fact, if one were to plot the rise and fall of Soviet and Russian foreign and domestic reforms over the past 40 years on a graph, it would match the fall and rise of the international oil price (for which domestic crude oil prices are a reasonable proxy) with astonishing precision.

She goes on to attribute the increase in oil prices in the '70s to the Soviet Union's war in Afghanistan and resistance to democratic reforms domestically. When prices dropped in 1986, then-Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev loosened the Krelmin's grip, enacting the perestroika and glasnost reforms. With oil prices still low in '89, the Berlin Wall fell, Central European states were freed and the Cold War ended. Then prices rose again in 1999, Vladimir Putin took over and launched the second Chechen war. Coincidence? Applebaum thinks not. She ends her piece on a foreboding, yet indecisive note:

Now it is 2011, Putin is very much in the foreground, and Khodorkovsky has just been sentenced by a kangaroo court. As I write these words, oil is at $92.25 a barrel. Is this analysis too simplistic? Sure it is. But I haven't yet heard a better explanation.

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