COMMENT: Russia: "I want to drink like a savage Scythian"

By bne IntelliNews June 4, 2012

Ivan Tchakarov of Renaissance Capital -

"Now temperance is not appropriate

I want to drink like a savage Scythian"

Alexander Pushkin

Facing down Russia prejudices

On May 29, Ian Bremmer and Nouriel Roubini published an opinion piece in the Financial Times arguing that Russia should be dropped from the list of BRIC nations as Russians are rude (because President Vladimir Putin did not attend a recent G8 meeting), autocratic (no proof offered), corrupt (because Russia ranks 143rd in Transparency International's corruption index), disappearing (because the population is falling), drunkards (because alcoholism is rampant) and unwelcoming to business (because Russia does not create the requisite conditions for businesses to develop and grow). They go even further, claiming that Russia is "becoming increasingly less relevant - as a political power or as an attractive emerging market."

Had this piece not been written by two well-respected and astute social scientists, it would deserve to be thrown, without the slightest pang of conscience, to rot in the dustbin of history. However, this would not be the morally right thing to do, as the authors' collection of loosely assorted generalisations, banal platitudes and old Cold War fears (unhelpfully) perpetuate a number of oft-repeated myths about Russians and their Scythian temperament - barbarian and rude, iconoclastic and extreme, lacking the restraint and moderation of the cultivated European/American citizen. Here, we modestly proffer a factual riposte.

Who were the Scythians and what do they represent?

The Scyths were nomadic Iranian-speaking tribes that left Central Asia in eighth century BC to rule the steppes around the Black and Caspian seas for 500 years. 19th century Russian intellectuals came to see the Scyths as a sort of mythical ancestor race of the eastern Slavs. Orlando Figes, one of the most eminent Russian historians, writes in his bestseller (and this analyst's favourite book), Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia, that: "The Scythian poets - as that loose group of writers which included Blok and Bely called themselves - embraced this savage spirit in defiance of the West, despite having their poetry immersed in the European avant-garde." However, this spirit of defiance was more a reflection of the frustration the Scythians felt for the fact that Russia's values had been misunderstood and underestimated by the West. Now, to the cold facts.

The myth of Russia's autocratic state

In his recent fascinating book, "The Return", Daniel Treisman, a professor of political science at UCLA, asks whether, "at the same level of economic development, Russia's political system stands out as less effective and democratic." Treisman employs the widely used Polity IV database, compiled by a team of political scientists. It evaluates the authority characteristics of national regimes, rating them from -10 (pure autocracy) to +10 (pure democracy). Figure 1 shows various countries' democracy ranking scaled by PPP - adjusted GDP per capita. The dotted line plots the average relationship between the two variables, and suggests richer countries tend to be more democratic. Russia's Polity IV score is very close to the line, implying the country is neither less nor more democratic given its income levels, and that it is, to quote Treisman, "certainly not the outlier" many portray it to be.

How corrupt is Russia really?

The big problem with the corruption argument in Russia is that it has become so entrenched in public perception that any piece of evidence against it is automatically assumed to be inherently flawed. The most popular indicator of corruption is that produced by Transparency International (TI). However, the TI index is a perception index that asks international businessmen for their perception of corruption, whether or not they have done business in the respective country. Hence, the results are vulnerable to distortions based on portrayals of a country in the press (exactly like the one we now discuss). Treisman argues that the best data come from surveys that ask residents of individual countries whether they or their relatives have recently been asked to pay a bribe. Figure 2 shows international data (again compiled by TI) indicating (unsurprisingly) that richer countries tend to be less corrupt. Russia, with 18% of people saying yes to the question of having to pay a bribe, is exactly on the line describing the average relationship between corruption and income per capita. This suggests Russia is no more or less corrupt than countries with similar income levels.

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