The Kremlin talks about creating the next China, but Russia’s path is more likely to be something like that of Angola — an oil-dependent state that is growing now because of high oil prices but has floundered in the past when oil prices were low and whose leaders seem more intent on maintaining themselves in office to control oil revenues and other rents than on providing public goods and services to a beleaguered population. Unfortunately, as Angola’s president, José Eduardo dos Santos, has demonstrated by his three decades in power, even poorly performing autocracies can last a long, long time.
Identifying China as a model — instead of the United States, Germany, or even Portugal — already sets the development bar much lower than it was just a decade ago. China remains an agrarian-based economy with per capita GDP below $2,000 (about a third of Russia’s and a 15th of Germany’s). But the China analogy is also problematic because sustained high growth under autocracy is the exception, not the rule, around the world. For every China, there is an autocratic developmental disaster such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo; for every authoritarian success such as Singapore, there is a resounding failure such as Myanmar; for every South Korea, a North Korea. In the economic-growth race in the developing world, autocracies are both the hares and the snails, whereas democracies are the tortoises — slower but steadier. On average, autocracies and democracies in the developing world have grown at the same rate for the last several decades.