Putin’s testosterone is bad for democracy

7 Mar

Yanukovich’s overthrow is a warning to Putin as well: something similar may yet happen in Russia. In a post published last year we examined which countries may become more democratic in the mid-term. Ukraine was among them… and so was Russia.

It’s exactly a year since our post on how too much testosterone does not bode well for democracy. It dealt with the relationship between demography (reproduction rates, gender balances) and revolutions as well as economic growth.

In light of the events unfolding in Ukraine, we took another look at the map we made last year showing which countries are prone to democratizing until 2020, based on their demographic outlook and income levels. Poor countries with a lot of young people (and those with plenty of oil revenues) are less likely to become democracies. (See the box below for details on our estimates.)

democracy Democratizing countries (in blue) and those moving in a dictatorial direction (in red). The intensity of color reflects statistical probability. Click to view the interactive map. Source: own projections, from last year’s post.

Societies with a lot of young people (specifically young men between the ages of 15-30) are less likely to be democracies, and there is a greater risk of political instability. This is becoming an increasingly prominent scientific topic (see here, here and here.). In our regression analysis, we used measures of income, oil revenues, as well as the youth ratio to explain democratization. Based on this, we found that the probability of stable democracies emerging in poor countries or in oil producers is rather low. We used these results to project which countries are expected to democratize by 2020 (in blue), and which would instead move in a more autocratic direction (in red).

And – surprise, surprise – Ukraine is marked in dark blue on the map, meaning that our projections attached a high probability to it moving in a democratic direction. Ukraine’s society is ageing, there are no oil revenues to speak of, and while per capita income is not especially high, it is nonetheless sufficient for a more assertive middle class to emerge in the relatively prosperous regions of the country. (Income currently stands at $7,400 per capita at purchasing power parity, the same as China in 2010.)

Just to set the record straight: we are not trying to pat ourselves on the back here, claiming “we told you what would happen in Ukraine a year ago”. Not at all. In fact, the main message is that while you can forecast democratization pressures, no one can predict whether any given regime will actually change, and least of all when this change would occur. Also, it’s still far from certain that Ukraine will be more democratic at the end of the day, and whether it will be able to curb corruption and overcome its internal divisions.

For now, Putin brings the testosterone to the Ukrainian table

And what’s all this got to do with the testosterone mentioned last year? In that post, we wrote about how China’s one-child policy (and the selective abortions it led to) would result in 24 million single men by 2020. This could seriously undermine stability in China. (A little while back we also wrote about possible democratization in China: historical parallels suggest that rising incomes increase the likelihood of democratization.)


Speaking of Putin and testosterone… Source: lazerhorse.org

As for Ukraine, it is Putin’s testosterone that seems to be bad for democracy. Testosterone makes behavior aggressive (and unpredictable?). The “invasion” of Ukraine did indeed catch almost everyone by surprise…

But many sources have already pointed out that Russia itself isn’t a beacon of stability either, especially not economically. It is completely addicted to oil and gas. Oil and gas revenues account for 50% of central budget revenues. As global oil prices haven’t increased over the past few years, Russian GDP growth has decelerated to just 1% per annum. The already existing problem of capital flight has surely become much more grave an issue with the Ukrainian crisis (the ruble has fallen to an all-time low), and investor confidence will take a while to recover, even if a major military confrontation can be avoided, for now at least. But if oil prices were to start falling, which could easily happen, then the situation could become much worse.

Of course all this makes Putin’s behavior even more unpredictable in the short-term. With oil prices on the rise, it was easy to distribute generous hand-outs, but without money growing on the “oil tree”, foreign and economic policy could become even more erratic. (The same can be seen in Venezuela as well, which is further ahead on the trajectory Russia may yet follow.)

Euromaidan on the Red Square?

Although this hasn’t featured prominently in the latest analyses, but Yanukovich’s overthrow may serve as a warning to Putin himself, since something similar could yet happen in Russia as well, especially since the hand-outs can’t last forever.

Putin is obviously doing everything in his power to stifle dissent, and he does have more tools for this at his disposal than Yanukovich did. But he must also be aware that you can’t always shut everybody up, as the Maidan protestors pressing forward against bullets exemplified most poignantly.

And speaking of not being able to silence everyone: it was a small, yet meaningful moment when one of the hosts of the (pro-Russian) Russia Today TV channel condemned Russia’s intervention in Ukraine on-air. (She probably won’t be fired for this, as that would be bad PR, but we’re willing to bet some serious money that they won’t ever let her go on-air again. Since then a colleague of hers also resigned on air, making the score 2-0.)

Abby Martin takes a stand.

Keeping the options open

Though it may seem to be far-off right now, the possibility of once having to flee must feature somewhere hidden in the thinking of Putin and all the Russian oligarchs. And in such a situation, it’s going to be important to have access to their offshore accounts, so that they can finance their extravagant lifestyle on some remote tropical paradise in the Caribbean.

That’s why the West’s freezing of their bank accounts and the enacted travel barriers might be so painful for them. This could even turn the oligarchs against Putin – they care more about peace and calm than the big dogs do, since the smaller players won’t have any guarantee of asylum in some friendly country. This means that such targeted measures are indeed very effective weapons in the West’s hands. In fact, the looming threat of sanctions may have been the reason Putin has seemingly restrained himself so far.

Another possible  interpretation is that Putin has already achieved what he wanted: he will probably be able to de facto annex the Crimea to Russia, even if it may technically be independent (or remain part of Ukraine – after all, it doesn’t hurt to have a million pro-Russian voters in Ukrainian elections). The apparent “retreat” (although there are still tens of thousands of Russian soldiers in the Crimea even if they do not admit it) would further legitimize any future referendum on the peninsula’s “autonomy”. As for the rest, we’ll have to wait and see.

One thing is for sure:  there will be no end of history (the notion of the ultimate victory of Western-style systems) anytime soon, if anyone was still in doubt. Too many people (and with too much testosterone) have a stake in not letting history end. Of course, liberal democracies are more effective on the long-run than either ruthless dictatorships or Putin-style hardliner authoritarian regimes, even though on the short-run democracies may seem to be at a disadvantage. But we’ll leave that to another post…

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