Russia Flunks Out
It's that time of year again, when countries begin to receive their national report cards from the array of international proctors who evaluate their performance across a wide gamut of empirical criteria. And this means it's time once again for Russia to take its place in the corner facing the wall wearing a dunce cap.
Before we look at Russia's results, a word about the predictable responses from the apologists for the Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, who is directly accountable.
Their first response will be to claim that the whole myriad of studies by impartial international experts is nothing but a racist international conspiracy against Russia. Unfortunately for the apologists, Putin himself has already negated this claim.
A year ago last summer, Putin made a rather startling admission: He not only agreed that the World Bank's "Doing Business" survey was valid, he pledged to improve Russia's dismal ranking from #120 in 2011 to #50 in 2015 and #20 by 2018.
Putin's pledge called for Russia to improve 100 places in the rankings in six years, or about 17 places per year. This meant that Russia's ranking for this year should have been 86 -- and it was actually 92, significantly off the pace Putin promised but showing marked improvement. Russia still has a long way to go, however, and despite its improvement still languishes precariously close to the bottom half of all world nations in encouraging business activity.
So what's the fall-back position of Putin's apologists now that Putin himself has negated their main talking point? They will say that even if the studies are accurate, Russia's results would be far, far worse if Putin's draconian neo-Soviet crackdown had not been implemented, that he saved Russia from the abyss. There are two huge problems with this argument.
First, assuming that it's true, Russia's consistent ranking outside the top 50 countries in the world clearly means it does not deserve its membership in the G-8 or G-20 or UN Security Council, nor really to be taken at all seriously by the group of more civilized countries who stand above it.
Second, there's no evidence that it's true. In fact, compelling arguments have been made that Putin's authoritarian model is holding Russia back, not pushing it forward, and there are no significant substantive arguments to the contrary. The data clearly confirm that Russia lags well behind its economic baseline when pursuing social development.
Russia is ninth in the world by population and eighth by total GDP. Given Russia's large size, rocket technology, and substantial income, the country does shockingly poorly when compared to other countries, regardless of what criteria are applied or who applies them. Unfortunately, Putin hasn't made it a priority to improve any of Russia's other results.
If you look at a broad range of 15 critical international surveys, "Doing Business" is one of only six where Russia ranks in the top half of all world nations. Its best score is 47th out of 184 countries when ranked for per capita GDP by the International Monetary Fund. That places it in the top 16% of all world nations.
There are two critical issues with Russia's per capita GDP ranking which make this "best" result not very good at all.
First, Russia lags to a shocking extent behind its fellow G-8 members. The worst-performing G-8 nation besides Russia is Italy, which ranks #24 and has a per capita GDP more than double that of Russia. Russia ranks behind the likes of Uruguay and Chile, and needs to be compared to backwaters like Venezuela and Kazakhstan to look good.
More importantly, in no other international survey is Russia able to sustain its top-fifty position. Russia's GDP ranking is due largely to Russia's vast fossil fuel resources, which have dramatically increased in value over the past decade due to rising international demand. It's not due to innovation, efficiency, or hard work, and that explains why Russia isn't able to translate its economic performance into tangible benefits for the population.
For instance, Russia's next-highest score comes on the United Nations Human Development Index, but there it slides from 47th to 55th (out of186 nations, placing it in the top 30% of all countries surveyed). The HDI evaluates countries for life expectancy, education, and income. Russia's slide occurs because although Russia has a relatively solid system of basic education (Russian universities are another story) and a top fifty per capita GDP, its life expectancy performance is appalling. The World Health Organization ranks Russia 130th out of 198 nations, the bottom third of the planet.
There's simply no reason why a well-run Russia could not do better on the HDI than its per capita GDP score would indicate. Putin himself has admitted, for example, that Russia should be #20 on the Doing Business survey. Instead of doing better, however, Russia predictably does significantly worse. If you use Russia's population size or total GDP amount as the benchmark, Russia's HDI score is quickly exposed as an absolute outrage. The reason for this failure is simple: Putin chooses to devote massive amounts of Russian resources to his cold war against the United States, which includes massive military spending and aggressive acts of imperialism in former Soviet space.
There are three other major indices which, like the HDI, seek to measure personal wellbeing. Russia's performance on these tests is truly miserable. The Legatum global investment group prepares what is calls a "prosperity index" which evaluates a much broader range of factors including economic opportunity, safety, and freedom as well as education and health. Here, Russia ranks 61st out of 142 nations, still in the top half of world nations but only barely, and even further out of line with its per capita GDP score.
The New Economics Foundation's "Happy Planet Index," moreover, crucifies Russia. There, Russia ranks a dismal #122 out of 151 countries surveyed. The HPI is specifically designed to challenge the HDI on issues pertaining to sustainability and the actual perceptions of the people who live in a given country. Toxic, wasteful, gloomy Russia, a world leader in suicides, does not fare well when such topics are introduced into the conversation.
Finally, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development publishes a "Better Life Index" which limits itself to a small group of 30 relatively advanced countries and uses similarly broad metrics for evaluation. Here Russia is exposed as noncompetitive, consistently ranking at or near the bottom of the group.
Competitiveness is in fact a bugaboo for Putin's Russia. Its current lowly position on the "Doing Business" index is confirmed by the World Economic Forum, which publishes surveys of business competitiveness and tourism competitiveness. Here again, Russia barely makes it into the top half of all world nations, ranking 64th out of 148 in business and 63rd out of 140 in tourism.
But competitiveness is a point of pride for Russia compared to its performance in measures that pertain to freedom and integrity. In these five surveys there is only one word to describe Russia's results and that word is barbarism.
If upon learning that the Walk Free Foundation ranks Russia #49 out of 162 nations for the prevalence of slavery (meaning only 48 countries in the world have more slavery than Russia) you concluded that Russia couldn't possibly do worse than the bottom 30% of the world, you know Russia poorly. That is Russia's best result in this area.
The Transparency International think tank ranks Russia a nauseating #133 out of 176 world nations, the bottom quarter of the entire world, for social and political corruption.
But that is nothing: The World Justice Project ranks Russia #78 out of 97 countries for implementation of the rule of law. That's nearly the bottom fifth of planet, if you are counting.
When measured for economic freedom by the Heritage Foundation, Russia winds up in the same position, just outside the bottom fifth of the planet, ranking #139 out of 177 nations for economic repression. But that's still not as low as Russia is capable of sinking.
Close to rock bottom for Russia comes when it is evaluated for press freedom by Reporters Without Borders. Here, Russia ranks a stunning #148 out of 179 nations reviewed, meaning that only 17% of world nations are worse than Russia where crushing the media is concerned. The fact that Putin feels he can't allow the press to report on his performance, of course, may be the most telling indication of all as to how bad that performance truly is.
We've saved the very worst for last, however.
Russia plumbs the absolute depths when it comes to charitable giving. According to the Charities Aid Foundation, despite Russia's massive oil profits windfall and supposed economic resurgence, only 19 countries in the entire world, out of 146 reviewed, are more stingy when giving to the needy than Putin's Russia. That places Russia in the bottom 14% of all world nations in this category.
Over and over and over again, then, Putin fails to even as much as match his country's per capita GDP performance when applying its resources and delivering quality of life to its citizens and seeking to advance Russia as a civilization. And instead of taking a good hard look at itself with an eye towards reform, Russia's response to this failure is to restrict freedom and the flow of information so that the status quo will be preserved, the same failed "strategy" that was employed by the USSR.
Russia's per capital GDP figure, anemic though it may be, is vastly overstated. It implies a level of wealth across Russian society which the population simply does not enjoy; it was recently reported that Russia has the most unequal distribution of wealth of any significant nation on the planet. Russia's per capita GDP figure obscures the fact that the vast majority of Russian citizens are living in squalor and poverty, earning only $3-5 per hour, and supporting a tiny oligarchy of superrich as well as an aggressive, imperialistic state regime.
It's the same situation that obtained in Soviet times, and one cannot expect the ultimate results for the people of Russia to be any different.
How bad are things in Putin's Russia these days? When Russian artist Pyotr Pavlensky searched for metaphor to properly express the extent of "the apathy, political indifference and fatalism of modern Russian society," he found he needed to be pretty extreme: He stripped naked and nailed his scrotum to Red Square. When the artists from the Pussy Riot collective wanted to express similar feelings in a more moderate way and just sang a brief song of protest in Russia's main cathedral, they were jailed by Putin for multiple years. When Alexei Navalny took an even more moderate approach and simply challenged Putin at the polls, he too was arrested.
Welcome back to the USSR!
Follow Kim Zigfeld on Twitter @larussophobe.