Sergei Guriev

The reality of the empty refrigerator to win a TV.

From Hitler to Stalin and Mussolini to Mao — world dictators of the XX century by heart learned the famous saying by Niccolo Machiavelli: “it’s better feared than loved.” However, most modern dictators, it seems, seek to maintain the loyalty of their people, not giving them what they want, and manipulating them and making them think that they have it all already. And nobody uses this approach more skillfully than the President of Russia Vladimir Putin, says Russian economist Sergei Guriev , Project Syndicate (translation is “modern times”).

Ratings of support for Putin has declined significantly in recent years, however, they remain high: surveys show that 61% of Russians assess his work positively. If presidential elections were held today, 44% of voters would vote for Putin. No other candidate would not have received double-digit support.

Putin is clearly not owes its popularity to the achievements in managing the economy. Regaining the presidency in 2012, he persistently fails to fulfill promises to reform, to improve the performance and volumes of investments, and the level of life of Russians. And it seems that his government had no plan to speed up the stagnating GDP growth.

According to forecasts of the International monetary Fund in the next five years the average growth rate of GDP in Russia will amount to less than 2%. In 2021 Russia’s share in world GDP (converted at purchasing power parity) is expected to fall below 3% for the first time in recent history. In nominal terms, this factor will be even lower to 1.8% (according to forecasts). But what is most important, the real incomes of Russian households is now 10% lower than in 2014, and they do not show any symptoms of the upcoming growth.

So how do we explain the continuing popularity of Putin? Daniel Treisman and I prove in our recent work, for Putin and other autocrats answer is the ability to control the information received by people. This allows the leader to convince the majority population that, despite the imperfection of the mode, this mode is the best option for the country.

To perform this task in the digital age is very difficult. A growing number of educated citizens (or, as we call them, “informed elite”) realizes the shortcomings of the regime. So for autocrats imperative is preventing the attempts of these elites to tell the truth to society.

First, the important role played by repression. But in contrast with the widely known mass repression in the past (they were designed to intimidate all potential opposition), the current repression is targeted and that is critical, they can be denied. For example, the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was not admitted to the presidential election in 2018, but officially it was not for political reasons, but because he was convicted on charges of fraud (the conviction was later repealed by the European court of human rights). Such methods allow Putin to pretend that he’s got the power in free and fair elections.

Second, modern information autocrats are actively engaged in censorship. Russia is among the 20% of countries with the worst indicators in rankings of press freedom compiled by Freedom House and organizations “reporters without borders”. And shows “Index of Internet freedom”, compiled by Freedom House, the Internet in Russia is less free than in Kazakhstan or Turkey. This shows how important online censorship in the information autocracies with high levels of Internet penetration. According to the report Google Transparency Report, Russia is in first place in the world in the number of official requests to remove online content. In the first half of 2019, Russia has made more than 10 thousand such requests. In second place is Turkey with only 1 thousand queries. (China is not included in this rating).

Since the Constitution of Russia directly forbids censorship, one of the main tasks of the Kremlin censors is to hide from the public information about their activities. Overall, they are good at it. According to our trasmano with the data in the information autocracies like Russia, the society as a whole is much more optimistic assesses the state of press freedom than the educated elite.

The third key tool of silencing informed elite co-optation. The Russian elite who have chosen not to resist the Putin regime, and not to be subjected to repression and censorship, and to maintain this mode, you get a generous reward. But in order for this corrupt system to work, Putin is obliged to ensure that it brings more rewards than they could give them a competitive system.

However, no matter how effective these tools, the task of control over information becomes increasingly difficult. For example, a very strong platform for independent and opposition bloggers and political satire became YouTube. And since YouTube is an important source of entertainment for ordinary Russians, the Kremlin cannot simply block this platform, finding thus the scope of their censorship activities.

China has largely managed to avoid this problem by building a controlled version of the Internet, including social network and platform for entertainment. But he began to implement this strategy immediately, as soon as the Internet penetration and the Chinese people are simply no experience of using a free YouTube. Meanwhile, the Russians have integrated into the global Internet, therefore, these methods are used already too late.

The problem is complicated by the fact that the number of informed elites in Russia is growing. As a newly admitted leading Russian propagandist Dmitry Kiselev, training, humanitarian (and social) Sciences is giving rise to social unrest. Is it any wonder, when he complained that “too many” Russians studying these subjects.

The majority of the population of Russia will not be well informed overnight. But the regime is forced to allocate more resources to gagging-informed elites, so most will suffer economically. Over time, the reality of the empty refrigerator outweigh the eternally optimistic information coming from TVs and computers, and the Foundation of Putin’s information autocracy starts to fall apart.