In Praise of a Measured Response to the Ukraine Crisis

Yesterday afternoon, I tweeted that the Obama administration wasn’t getting enough credit for its measured response to the Ukraine crisis so far, asserting that sanctions were really hurting Russia and noting that “we”—by which I meant the United States—were not directly at war.

Not long after I said that, someone I follow tweeted that he hadn’t seen a compelling explanation of how sanctions are supposed to work in this case. That’s an important question, and one I also haven’t seen or heard answered in depth. I don’t know how U.S. or European officials see this process beyond what they say in public, but I thought I would try to spell out the logic as a way to back up my own assertion in support of the approach the U.S. and its allies have pursued so far.

I’ll start by clarifying what I’m talking about. When I say “Ukraine crisis,” I am referring to the tensions created by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its evident and ongoing support for a separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine. These actions are only the latest in a long series of interactions with the U.S. and Europe in Russia’s “near abroad,” but their extremity and the aggressive rhetoric and action that has accompanied them have sharply amplified tensions between the larger powers that abut Ukraine on either side. For the first time in a while, there has been open talk of a shooting war between Russia and NATO. Whatever you make of the events that led to it and however you assign credit or blame for them, this state of affairs represents a significant and undesirable escalation.

Faced with this crisis, the U.S. and its NATO allies have three basic options: compel, cajole, or impel.

Compel in this case means to push Russia out of Ukraine by force—in other words, to go to war. So far, the U.S. and Europe appear to have concluded—correctly, in my opinion—that Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine does not warrant a direct military response. The likely and possible costs of war between two nuclear powers are simply too great to bear for the sake of Ukraine’s autonomy or territorial integrity.

Cajoling would mean persuading Russian leaders to reverse course through positive incentives—carrots of some kind. It’s hard to imagine what the U.S. and E.U. could offer that would have the desired effect, however. Russian leaders consider Ukraine a vital interest, and the West has nothing comparably valuable to offer in exchange. More important, the act of making such an offer would reward Russia for its aggression, setting a precedent that could encourage Russia to grab for more and could also affect other country’s perceptions of the U.S.’s tolerance for seizures of territory.

That leaves impel—to impose costs on Russia to the point where its leaders feel obliged to change course. The chief tool that U.S. and European leaders have to impose costs on Russia are economic and financial sanctions. Those leaders are using this tool, and it seems to be having the desired effect. Sanctions are encouraging capital flight, raising the costs of borrowing, increasing inflation, and slowing Russia’s already-anemic economic growth (see here and here for some details). Investors, bankers, and consumers are partly responding to the specific constraints of sanctions, but they are also responding to the broader economic uncertainty associated with those sanctions and the threat of wider war they imply. “It’s pure geopolitical risk,” one analyst told Bloomberg.

These costs can directly and indirectly shape Russian policy. They can directly affect Russian policy if and as the present leadership comes to view them as unbearable, or at least not worth the trade-offs against other policy objectives. That seems unlikely in the short term but increasingly likely over the long term, if the sanctions are sustained and markets continue to react so negatively. Sustained capital flight, rising inflation, and slower growth will gradually shrink Russia’s domestic policy options and its international power by eroding its fiscal health, and at some point these costs should come to outweigh the putative gains of territorial expansion and stronger leverage over Ukrainian policy.

These costs can also indirectly affect Russian policy by increasing the risk of internal instability. In authoritarian regimes, significant reforms usually occur in the face of popular unrest that may or may not be egged on by elites who defect from the ruling coalition. We are already seeing signs of infighting among regime insiders, and rising inflation and slowing growth should increase the probability of popular unrest.

To date, sanctions have not dented Putin’s soaring approval rating, but social unrest is not a referendum. Unrest only requires a small but motivated segment of the population to get started, and once it starts, its very occurrence can help persuade others to follow. I still wouldn’t bet on Putin’s downfall in the near future, but I believe the threat of significant domestic instability is rising, and I think that Putin & co. will eventually care more about this domestic risk than the rewards of continued adventurism abroad. In fact, I think we see some evidence that Putin & co. are already worrying more about this risk in their ever-expanding crackdown on domestic media and their recent moves to strengthen punishment for unauthorized street rallies and, ironically, calls for separatism. Even if this mobilization does not come, the increased threat of it should weigh on the Russian administration’s decision-making.

In my tweet on the topic, I credited the Obama administration for using measured rhetoric and shrewd policy in response to this crisis. Importantly, though, the success of this approach also depends heavily on cooperation among the U.S. and the E.U., and that seems to be happening. It’s not clear who deserves the credit for driving this process, but as one anonymous tweeter pointed out, the downing of flight MH17 appears to have played a role in deepening it.

Concerns are growing that sanctions may, in a sense, be too successful. Some observers fear that apparent capitulation to the U.S. and Europe would cost Russian leaders too much at home at a time when nationalist fervor has reached fever pitch. Confronted with a choice between wider war abroad or a veritable lynch mob at home, Putin & co. will, they argue, choose the former.

I think that this line of reasoning overstates the extent to which the Russian administration’s hands are tied at home. Putin & co. are arguably no more captive to the reinvigorated radical-nationalist fringe than they were to the liberal fringe that briefly threatened to oust them after the last presidential election.

Still, it is at least a plausible scenario, and the U.S. and E.U. have to be prepared for the possibility that Russian aggression will get worse before it gets better. This is where rhetorical and logistical efforts to bolster NATO are so important, and that’s just what NATO has been doing. NATO is predicated on a promise of collective defense; an attack on any one member state is regarded as an attack on all. By strengthening Russian policy-makers’ beliefs that this promise is credible, NATO can lead them to fear that escalations beyond certain thresholds will carry extreme costs and even threaten their very survival. So far, that’s just what the alliance has been doing with a steady flow of words and actions. Russian policy-makers could still choose wider war for various reasons, but theory and experience suggest that they are less likely to do so than they would be in the absence of this response.

In sum, given a short menu of unpalatable options, I think that the Obama administration and its European allies have chosen the best line of action and, so far, made the most of it. To expect Russia quickly to reverse course by withdrawing from Crimea and stopping its rabble-rousing in eastern Ukraine without being compelled by force to do so is unrealistic. The steady, measured approach the U.S. and E.U. have adopted appears to be having the intended effects. Russia could still react to the rising structural pressures on it by lashing out, but NATO is taking careful steps to discourage that response and to prepare for it if it comes. Under such lousy circumstances, I think this is about as well as we could expect the Obama administration and its E.U. counterparts to do.

Russia Throws Cuba a Lifeline

Russia has just reinvigorated its relationship with Cuba, and I suspect that this renewed friendship of convenience will help Cuba’s Communist regime stick around longer than it would have without it.

A few things happened, all apparently part of an elaborate quid pro quo. First, while visiting Cuba last week, Russian president Vladimir Putin announced that his country was forgiving nearly all of Cuba’s lingering Soviet-era debt to Russia, or more than $30 billion. Then, a few days later, reports emerged that Cuba had agreed to allow Russia to re-open a large Soviet-era intelligence-gathering facility used to surveil the United States during the Cold War. While in Havana, Putin also spoke of reviving broader military and technological cooperation with Cuba, although he did not say exactly what that would entail. Last but not least, Russia and Cuba reportedly also signed some significant economic contracts, including ones that would allow Russian oil companies to explore Cuban waters.

Putin’s government seems to be responding in kind to what it perceives as a deepening  U.S. threat on its own borders, and this is important in its own right. As a specialist on the survival and transformation of authoritarian regimes, though, I am also interested in how this reinvigorated relationship affects prospects for political change in Cuba.

Consolidated single-party regimes, like Cuba’s, are the most durable kind of autocracies, but when they do break down, it’s usually an economic or fiscal crisis that sets the process in motion. Slumping state revenues shrink the dole that encourages various factions within the party to stay loyal to the ruling elite, while wider economic problems also give ordinary citizens stronger motivations to demand reform. When frustrated citizens and disgruntled insiders find each other, the effect can be especially potent. Economic crisis doesn’t guarantee the collapse of single-party regimes, but it does significantly increase the probability of its occurrence.

The Soviet Union bankrolled Havana for many years, and the Cuban economy has been limping along since that funding stream disappeared along with the country that provided it. In 2o11, the Communist Party of Cuba finally responded to that malaise as formal theory leads us to expect that it would: by experimenting with some limited forms of economic liberalization. These reforms are significant, but as far as I can tell, they have not yet led to the kind of economic renewal that would give the ruling party a serious boost.

One of the reasons the Cuban regime managed to delay those reforms for long was the largesse it received from its close friends in Venezuela. As I discussed in a post here last year, Hugo Chavez’s government used its oil boom to help finance the Cuban regime at a time when Havana would otherwise have been hard pressed to search for new sources of revenue.

With Hugo Chavez dead and Venezuela’s economy in crisis, however, this support has become unreliable. I had expected this uncertainty to increase pressure on the Communist Party of Cuba to expand its liberalization in search of new revenues, and for that expanded liberalization, in turn, to improve prospects for popular mobilization and elite defections that could lead to broader political reforms.

The renewed embrace from Russia now has me revisiting that expectation. The forgiveness of more than $30 billion in debt should provide an immediate boost to Cuba’s finances, but I’m also intrigued by the talk of new oil concessions. For years, the Cuban government has seemed to be hoping that hydrocarbons under its waters would provide it with a new fiscal lifeline. That hasn’t happened yet, but it sounds like Russia and Havana increasingly see prospects for mutual gains in this sphere. Of course, it will also be important to see what other forms of economic and military support are on offer from Moscow and how quickly they might arrive.

None of these developments magically resolves the fundamental flaws in Cuba’s political economy, and so far the government shows no signs of rolling back the process of limited liberalization it has already begun. What’s more, Russia also has economic problems of its own, so it’s not clear how much help it can offer and how long it will be able to sustain that support. Even so, these developments probably do shrink the probability that the Cuban economy will tip soon into a deeper crisis, and with it the near-term prospects for a broader political transformation.

Another Chicken Little Post on China

Last fall, I described what I saw as an “accumulating risk of crisis” in China. Recent developments in two parts of the country only reinforce my sense that the Communist Party of China (CPC) is entering a period during which it will find it increasingly hard to sustain its monopoly on state authority.

The first part of the country drawing fresh attention is Hong Kong, where pro-democracy activists have mobilized a new nonviolent challenge to the Party’s authority in spite of the center’s pointed efforts to discourage them. Organizing under the Occupy Central label, these activists recently held an unofficial referendum that drew nearly 800,000 voters who overwhelmingly endorsed proposals that would allow the public to nominate candidates for elections in 2017—an idea that Beijing has repeatedly and unequivocally rejected. Today, on 1 July, tens of thousands of people marched into the city’s center to press those same demands.

1 July 2014 rally in Hong Kong (AP via BBC News)

The 1 July rally looks set to be one of the island’s largest protests in years, and it comes only weeks after Beijing issued a white paper affirming its “comprehensive jurisdiction” over Hong Kong. Although the official line since the 1997 handover has been “one country, two systems,” the expectation has generally been that national leaders would only tolerate differences that didn’t directly challenge their authority, and the new white paper made that implicit policy a bit clearer. Apparently, though, many Hong Kong residents aren’t willing to leave that assertion unchallenged, and the resulting conflict is almost certain to persist into and beyond those 2017 elections, assuming Beijing doesn’t concede the point before then.

The second restive area is Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where Uyghurs have agitated for greater autonomy or outright independence since the area’s incorporation into China in 1949. Over the past year or so, the pace of this conflict has intensified again.

The Chinese government describes this conflict as a fight against terrorism, and some of the recent attacks—see here and here, for example—have targeted and killed large numbers of civilians. As Assaf Moghadam argues in a recent blog post, however, the line between terrorism and insurgency is almost always blurry in practice. Terrorism and insurgency—and, for that matter, campaigns of nonviolent resistance—are all tactical variations on the theme of rebellion. In Xinjiang, we see evidence of a wider insurgency in recent attacks on police stations and security checkpoints, symbols of the “occupying power” and certainly not civilian targets. Some Uyghurs have also engaged in nonviolent protests, although when they have, the police have responded harshly.

In any case, the tactical variation and increased pace and intensity of the clashes leads me to believe that this conflict should now be described as a separatist rebellion, and that this rebellion now poses a significant challenge to the Communist Party. Uyghurs certainly aren’t going to storm the capital, and they are highly unlikely to win sovereignty or independence for Xinjiang as long as the CPC still rules. Nevertheless, the expanding rebellion is taxing the center, and it threatens to make Party leaders look less competent than they would like.

Neither of these conflicts is new, and the Party has weathered flare-ups in both regions before. What is new is their concurrence with each other and with a number of other serious political and economic challenges. As the conflicts in Xinjiang and Hong Kong intensify, China’s real-estate market finally appears to be cooling, with potentially significant effects on the country’s economy, and pollution remains a national crisis that continues to stir sporadic unrest among otherwise “ordinary” citizens. And, of course, Party leaders are simultaneously pursuing an anti-corruption campaign that is hitting higher and higher targets. This campaign is ostensibly intended to bolster the economy and to address popular frustration over abuses of power, but like any purge, it also risks generating fresh enemies.

For reasons Barbara Geddes helps to illuminate (here), consolidated single-party authoritarian regimes like China’s tend to be quite resilient. They persist because they usually do a good job suppressing domestic opponents and co-opting would-be rivals within the ruling party. Single-party regimes are better than others at co-opting internal rivals because, under all but exceptional circumstances, regime survival reliably generates better payoffs for all factions than the alternatives.

Eventually, though, even single-party regimes break down, and when they do, it’s usually in the face of an economic crisis that simultaneously stirs popular frustration and weakens incentives for elites to remain loyal (on this point, see Haggard and Kaufman, too). Exactly how these regimes come undone is a matter of local circumstance and historical accident, but generally speaking, the likelihood increases as popular agitation swells and the array of potential elite defectors widens.

China’s slowing growth rate and snowballing financial troubles indicate that the risk of an economic crisis is still increasing. At the same time, the crises in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and the many cities and towns where citizens are repeatedly protesting against pollution and corruption suggest that insiders who choose to defect would have plenty of potential allies to choose from. As I’ve said before, I don’t believe that the CPC regime is on the brink of collapse, but I would be surprised to see it survive in its current form—with no legal opposition and direct elections in rural villages only—to and through the Party’s next National Congress, due in in 2017.

China and Russia and What Could Have Happened

Twenty five years ago, I was strolling down Leningrad’s main drag, Nevsky Prospekt, with a clutch of other American undergraduates who had recently arrived for two months of intensive language study when Professor Edna Andrews dashed up to us with the news. “They’re shooting them,” she said (or something like it—who can trust a 25-year-old memory of a speech fragment?) with obvious agitation. “They’re shooting the students in Tiananmen Square!”

Had Edna not given us that news, we probably wouldn’t have heard it, or at least not until we got home. In 1989, glasnost’ had already come to the USSR, but that didn’t mean speech was free. State newspapers were still the only ones around, at least for those of us without connections to the world of samizdat. Some of those newspapers were more informative than others, but the limits of political conversation were still clearly proscribed. The Internet didn’t exist, and international calls could only be made by appointment from state-run locations with plastic phones in cubicle-like spaces and who-knows who listening while you talked. Trustworthy information still only trickled through a public sphere mostly bifurcated between propaganda and silence.

What’s striking to me in retrospect is how differently things could have turned out in both countries. When she gave us the news about Tiananmen, Edna was surely agitated because it involved students like the ones she taught being slaughtered. I suspect she was also distressed, though, because at the time it was still easy to imagine something similar happening in the USSR, perhaps even to people she knew personally.

In 1989, politics had already started to move in the Soviet Union, but neither democratization nor disintegration was a foregone conclusion. That spring, citizens had picked delegates to the inaugural session of the Congress of People’s Deputies in elections that were, at the time, the freest the USSR had ever held. The new Congress’ sessions were shown on live television, and their content was stunning. “Deputies from around the country railed against every scandal and shortcoming of the Soviet system that could be identified,” Thomas Skallerup and James P. Nichol describe in their chapter for the Library of Congress’ Russia country study. “Speakers spared neither Gorbachev, the KGB, nor the military.”

But the outspokenness of those reformist deputies belied their formal power. More than 80 percent of the Congress’ deputies were Communist Party members, and the new legislative body the deputies elected that summer, the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, was stuffed with “old-style party apparatchiks.” Two years later, reactionaries inside the government mounted a coup attempt in which President Gorbachev was arrested and detained for a few days and tanks were deployed on the streets of Moscow.

Tank near Red Square on 19 August 1991. © Anatoly Sapronyenkov/AFP/Getty Images

That August Putsch looks a bit clowny with hindsight, but it didn’t have to fail. Likewise, the brutal suppression of China’s 1989 uprising didn’t have to happen, or to succeed when it did. In a story published this week in the New York Times, Andrew Jacobs and Chris Buckley describe the uncertainty of Chinese policy toward the uprising and the disunity of the armed forces tasked with executing it—and, eventually, the protesters in Tiananmen Square.

“At the time,” Jacobs and Buckley write, “few in the military wanted to take direct responsibility for the decision to fire on civilians. Even as troops pressed into Beijing, they were given vague, confusing instructions about what to do, and some commanders sought reassurances that they would not be required to shoot.” Seven senior commanders signed a petition calling on political leaders to withdraw the troops. Those leaders responded by disconnecting many of the special phones those commanders used to communicate with each other. When troops were finally given orders to retake the square “at any cost,” some commanders ignored them. At least one pretended that his battalion’s radio had malfunctioned.

As Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan show in their study of civil resistance, nonviolent uprisings are much more likely to succeed when they prompt defections by security forces. The Tiananmen uprising was crushed, but history could have slipped in many other directions. And it still can.

The Arab Spring and the Limits of Understanding

Last week, the online magazine Muftah ran a thoughtful piece by Scott Williamson and Caroline Abadeer about “why Arab Spring protests successfully produced regime change in some countries but not in others.” As they see it,

Understanding the outcomes of the Arab Spring uprisings requires answering the three interlinked questions about the region’s unrest posed here. First, where did protests transform into uprisings that could sufficiently threaten the regime’s hold on power? We have argued monarchies and oil-wealthy regimes can erect more barriers to prevent protest escalation, and thereby protect the government. Next, we asked why militaries abandoned regimes in some countries where uprisings occurred, but cracked down violently on the opposition in others. We have suggested that a military tied to the regime by familial, tribal, ethnic, or sectarian connections would be more likely to support the regime. Finally, in cases where the military repressed the opposition, we asked why such repression was successful in some countries but not in others. Because resources are important in this regard, we have argued that oil-wealthy regimes were more likely to successfully repress their opponents, and that resources brought to bear by foreign powers for or against the regime could also have a significant impact on the outcome.

Their essay is grounded in careful study of relevant theory and the societies they describe, and the array of contingent effects they identify all seem plausible. Still, I wonder if the authors are too confident in the explanatory power of their discoveries. As it happens, the Arab Spring has largely followed gross patterns in democratization from the past century or so. Popular uprisings rarely occur in consolidated authoritarian regimes, and when they do, the regime usually survives. When authoritarian regimes break down, another autocracy usually ensues. In cases where an attempt at democracy does happen, it usually fails, either by military coup or by the ruling party’s unfair consolidation of power.

The rules of thumb I just described overlook a lot, including virtually all of the features that people who live in or closely follow politics in those societies would care deeply about. That gross simplification doesn’t make them wrong, though. In fact, their absurd simplicity may be a more accurate representation of the limits of our knowledge than the more elaborate maps we draw with the benefit of hindsight. Sometimes we can grasp the generalities but still struggle with the specifics.

This state of affairs is not unique to the social sciences. A while back, the Guardian carried a story about the problem of limestone rot in historic British buildings. As the piece described,

The gargoyles at York Minster are losing their grimaces, pinnacles are turning to powder at Lincoln Cathedral and Wells Cathedral in Somerset has already lost most of its beautiful statues on the west face. Hundreds of years worth of grime and British weather are taking their toll on these treasured historic buildings, with the limestone they are made from simply being eaten away.

Because these structures are treasured, scientists set to work on trying to learn more about this rot in hopes of finding ways to slow or stop it. Even in the supposedly more predictable world of the “natural” sciences, though, this puzzle turns out to be quite a challenge.

[Researchers] already know what makes limestone decay. Chemicals such as sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides from air pollution react with the stone to make it dissolve. This sometimes creates a hard, black, gypsum crust on the outside, leaving a soft, crumbly stone underneath. Road salt is a modern-day scourge, spraying on to the base of walls and eating into the stone. And rain, wind and snow can also cause problems, with winter freeze-thaw cycles forcing open cracks.

But the manner in which limestone erodes is puzzling. “We often see a single block of limestone get hollowed out, while others around it remain fresh,” said Dr Viles. It is not clear what makes one block more vulnerable than another.

The struggles of these researchers who understand the relevant causal mechanisms much better than we political scientists do remind us that we should remain open to the possibility of constrained randomness. The odds of a revolutionary moment vary in grossly visible ways, but they are still just odds. As sailors and cyclists can tell you, sometimes a squall hits when the weatherman said it would almost certainly stay dry. That doesn’t mean the models behind that forecast were fundamentally flawed, and our ability to see in retrospect how that storm arose doesn’t always make future ones any more predictable. Maybe the scientists studying limestone rot have finally figured out what makes one block more vulnerable than another and can now accurately predict which stones and statues will go soonest. Given the limited state of our knowledge about human social dynamics and the extreme complexity of the systems involved, I am not optimistic that social scientists will soon achieve a similar level of understanding, and thus foresight, about the transformation of political institutions.

To be clear, I do not think that the kind of post hoc analysis in which Williamson and Abadeer engage is fruitless. On the contrary, after-the-fact process-tracing and comparative analysis, be it narrative or statistical, is fundamental to the development of new ideas about what causes the phenomena we study. We may not understand a lot, but we certainly understand a lot more than we did a few hundred years ago, and this repetitive and meandering interplay of deduction, prediction, and observation is why. We just need to be careful not to get too cozy with the stories we spin when we look backwards, to succumb to what Daniel Kahneman aptly calls “the illusion of understanding.” The real test of our discoveries’ explanatory power isn’t their ability to make sense of the cases from which they were constructed; it’s their ability to help anticipate the occurrence and outcomes of the next batch. If authors like Williamson and Abadeer really want to test the inferences they’re drawing from the Arab Spring, they should start telling us what those inferences foretell about the prospects for, and outcomes of, future tumult in that part of the world.

Personally, I remain optimistic about broad trends and uncertain of the details. Many of the authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa may still look firm, but that doesn’t mean their foundations aren’t rotting. When those blocks do visibly crumble, the same meso– and macro-level systemic forces that have been driving the spread of democratic institutions for a while will probably drive these societies in that direction, too. As with the Arab Spring, we can expect a lot of variation in the timing and details, and we can expect some reversions to authoritarian rule to follow, but nothing yet leads me to believe that the now-familiar rules of thumb have stopped working.

The Moral of the Tale of Soviet Reform

According to the Moscow Times,

The Communist Party of China has compelled its officials to watch a documentary about the Soviet Union’s collapse to draw lessons on how not to govern, and to ensure that they remain disciplined amid economic reforms.

The film “has been shown at dozens of political meetings during the past few months” as part of a larger push to shore up party discipline during a period of economic reform, a process that carries significant political risks.

So what’s the takeaway those party functionaries are supposed to glean? According to social scientist Yakov Berger:

Market reforms are one thing, and political reforms are a completely different thing.

So…”Just say no”? Now I’m curious to see the film. After all, it’s not like the CPSU under Gorbachev set out in 1986 with a plan to allow free speech and multiparty democracy.

Glasnost’ is now widely used as shorthand for sweeping political reform, a throwing open of the gates (or tearing down of the walls?) impeding civil liberties in authoritarian regimes. In fact, as Joseph Gibbs and others have argued, glasnost’ actually got its start in the early 1980s as a limited blurring of the lines on permissible speech that was explicitly intended to work in service to the Communist Party’s larger agenda of economic restructuring, or perestroika. By that time, some party leaders recognized that inefficiency was stifling the Soviet economy, that planners would need better information to combat these ills, and that many bureaucrats would try to resist any changes. Glasnost’ was the solution those party leaders hit on. Under this new policy, citizens were allowed to speak more openly about certain aspects of their work or the economy in an effort to help ferret out the waste and corruption that was dragging the USSR down. In essence, glasnost’ was a whip the party leadership could employ against its own bureaucracy in pursuit of greater efficiency. This was decidedly not freedom of speech, however, and it certainly did not entail any larger ideas about ending the Party’s monopoly on power, an eventuality that many national party leaders bitterly contested until pretty late in the game.

Well, what happened? Unintended consequences, that’s what. People responded strategically to these new developments and began to probe the openings glasnost’ created. Like China, the USSR was a large country ostensibly governed by a massive and variegated political machine. Party officials at the local and regional and national level argued among themselves about how to respond to attempts to probe the limits of glasnost’, and the results of those arguments varied. Those variations suggested further openings that reformists and activists then explored further, a process that led eventually but hardly directly to wider political change.

Chinese officials seem to believe, or at least to hope, that they can avoid this path by responding firmly to attempts to convert economic reforms into political challenges, by sharply distinguishing between the two and only doing the one. Maybe they’re right, but I don’t think so. It’s worth recalling that the Soviets sometimes tried to draw clear lines, too—in Tbilisi in April 1989, for example—but those harsh responses didn’t always have the desired effect.

So, yes, market reforms are one thing and political change another, but my summation of the Soviet experience would be a bit different. As I see it, reform of any significant scope or scale is a process that you can try to guide, but it is not something that you can control. Have fun trying to ride the tiger, President Xi.

N.B. This is a slightly edited version of a post that I wrote on Tumbling Chimp yesterday morning.

Can Venezuela’s Maduro Survive Hyperinflation?

Venezuela is probably sliding into a period of hyperinflation, says the Cato Institute’s Steve Hanke. A picture in a recent blog post of his pretty much tells the story:

venezuela_chart_22

The economic crisis of which this inflationary spiral is just one part has lots of people wondering how long Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, can hang on to power. Historical evidence on what happens to political leaders during periods of hyperinflation could give us a good starting point for hazarding a prediction on that matter. Best I can tell, though, this isn’t something that’s been studied before, so I decided to scrounge up some some data and take a look.

I started with a table Hanke and Nicolas Krus published in 2012 that identifies all episodes of hyperinflation around the world since the late eighteenth century (here). By their definition, a hyperinflationary episode starts when there is a month in which prices increase by at least 50%, and it ends when the inflation rate drops below that threshold and then stays under it for at least a year. Their table identifies when each episode began and ended and the peak and average daily inflation rates involved. The good news is that this data set exists. The bad news is that it is only posted in PDF form, so I had to type it into a spreadsheet to start working with it.

According to Hanke and Krus’ table, there have been more than 50 spells of hyperinflation around the world in the past couple of centuries. As the plot below shows, virtually all of those occurred the past 100 years in three clusters: one in the 1920s, another in the 1940s, and the last and by far the largest in the 1990s following the disintegration of the USSR and Yugoslavia.

Hyperinflation Episodes around the World, 1790-2012

Hyperinflation Episodes around the World, 1790-2012

The duration of those episodes has varied widely, from a few months or less (many cases) to more than five years (Nicaragua from 1986 until 1991). As you can see in the histogram below, the distribution of durations seems to be bimodal. Most episodes end quickly, but the ones that don’t usually go on to last at least two or three years.

Duration of Hyperinflation Episodes, in Months

Duration of Hyperinflation Episodes, in Months

The average daily rate of inflation in those episodes has varied much less. As the next histogram shows, nearly all of the episodes have involved average daily rates in the low single digits. Cases like Zimbabwe in 2007-2008, when the daily inflation rate averaged nearly 100% (!), are quite rare.

Average Daily Inflation Rates during Episodes of Hyperinflation

Average Daily Inflation Rates during Episodes of Hyperinflation

To analyze the fate of political leaders during these episodes, I used the Archigos data set to create a variable indicating whether or not a country’s chief executive was replaced during or soon after the episode of hyperinflation. Suspecting that those fates would depend, in part, on the nature of a country’s national political regime, I also used a data set I created in a past professional life to add a variable marking whether or not a country’s political regime was democratic when the episode started.

A quick look at a contingency table confirmed my hunches that political leaders often lose their jobs during periods of hyperinflation, but also that the pattern differs across democracies and autocracies. Of the 49 episodes that occurred in cases for which I also had data on leaders’ fates and regime type, leadership changes occurred during or soon after 18 of them (37 percent). Eleven of those changes occurred in the 23 cases that were democracies at the time (48 percent). The other seven leader changes came from the 26 episodes that occurred under authoritarian regimes (27 percent). Based on those data alone, it looks like chief executives in democracies are about as likely to lose their jobs during a hyperinflationary episode as they are to hang on to them, while autocrats face more favorable odds of political survival of roughly 3:1.

Of course, the episodes of hyperinflation aren’t identical. As we saw above, some last a lot longer than others, and some involve much steeper inflation rates. To get a sense of how those things affect the fate of the leaders who preside over these dismal spells, I used the ‘glm‘ command in R to estimate a logistic regression model with my binary leadership-change indicator as the outcome and democracy, episode duration, and average daily inflation rate as the covariates. Guessing that the effects of the latter two covariates might be mediated by regime type, I also included interaction terms representing the products of my democracy indicator and those other two variables.

The model is admittedly crude,* but I think the results are still interesting. According to my estimates, the severity of the episode isn’t systematically associated with variation in the fate of national leaders in either type of political regime. For both democracies and autocracies, the substantive effects of the average daily rate over the course of the hyperinflationary episode were roughly zero.

By contrast, the duration of the episode does seem to matter, but only in autocracies. Democratically elected leaders are relatively vulnerable no matter how long the episode lasts. For their part, autocrats aren’t very likely to get knocked out of office during short episodes, but in episodes that persist for a few years, they are about as likely to get tossed as their democratic counterparts. The plot below shows just how bad it gets for autocrats in long-lasting hyperinflationary episodes, assuming average severity. Part of that’s just the additional exposure—the longer the episode, the more likely we are to see a leader exit office for any reason—but the estimated probabilities we see here are much higher than the base rate of leadership change in authoritarian regimes, so it looks like the extended spell of hyperinflation is probably doing some of the work.

Hyperinflation Episode Duration and the Probability of Leadership Change

Hyperinflation Episode Duration and the Probability of Leadership Change

So what does all this tell us about Maduro’s prospects for political survival, assuming that Venezuela is sliding into a period of hyperinflation? I consider Venezuela’s political regime to be authoritarian, so f I only had these statistics to go by, I would say that Maduro will probably survive the episode, but the chances that he’ll get run out of office will increase the longer the hyperinflation lasts. I’m not an economist, so my best guess at how long Venezuela might suffer under hyperinflation is the average duration from Hanke’s list. That’s a little shy of two years, which would give Maduro odds of about 4:1 to of weathering that storm.

Of course, those statistics aren’t all the information we’ve got. Other things being equal, authoritarian regimes with leaders in their first five years in office—like Venezuela right now—are about three times as likely to transition to democracy as ones with guys who’ve been around for longer, and democratic transitions almost always entail a change at the top. We also know that Maduro so far has been a “boring and muddled” politician, and that there are some doubts about the loyalty he can expect from the military and from other Chavista elites. Putting all of those things together, I’d say that Maduro’s presidency probably won’t last the six years he won in the April 2013 election. Who or what might come next is a whole other question, but as a new leader presiding over an inflationary spiral with weak skills and a shaky coalition, Maduro would seem to have the deck stacked against him.

Data and code for the plots and modeling can be found here and here, respectively.

* To really do this right, I would want to plot survival curves that treat the time from the onset of the hyperinflationary episode to the leader’s exit as the outcome of interest, with right censoring at the episode’s end and regime type as an initial condition. As they say in academese, though, the data preparation that more careful analysis would require was beyond the scope of this blog post. I mean, I’m not Brett Keller.

China’s Accumulating Risk of Crisis

Eurasia Group founder Ian Bremmer has a long piece in the new issue of The National Interest that foretells continued political stability in China in spite of all the recent turbulence in the international system and at home. After cataloging various messes of the past few years—the global financial crisis and U.S. recession, war in Syria, and unrest in the other BRICS, to name a few—Bremmer says

It is all the more remarkable that there’s been so little noise from China, especially since the rising giant has experienced a once-in-a-decade leadership transition, slowing growth and a show trial involving one of the country’s best-known political personalities—all in just the past few months.

Given that Europe and America, China’s largest trade partners, are still struggling to recover their footing, growth is slowing across much of the once-dynamic developing world, and the pace of economic and social change within China itself is gathering speed, it’s easy to wonder if this moment is merely the calm before China’s storm.

Don’t bet on it. For the moment, China is more stable and resilient than many realize, and its political leaders have the tools and resources they need to manage a cooling economy and contain the unrest it might provoke.

Me, I’m not so sure. Every time I peek under another corner of the “authoritarian stability” narrative that blankets many discussions of China, I feel like I see another mess in the making.

That list is not exhaustive. No one of these situations seems especially likely to turn into a full-blown rebellion very soon, but that doesn’t mean that rebellion in China remains unlikely. That might sound like a contradiction, but it isn’t.

To see why, it helps to think statistically. Because of its size and complexity, China is like a big machine with lots of different modules, any one of which could break down and potentially set off a systemic failure. Think of the prospects for failure in each of those modules as an annual draw from a deck of cards: pull the ace of spades and you get a rebellion; pull anything else and you get more of the same. At 51:1 or about 2 percent, the chances that any one module will fail are quite small. If there are ten modules, though, you’re repeating the draw ten times, and your chances of pulling the ace of spades at least once (assuming the draws are independent) are more like 20 percent than 2. Increase the chances in any one draw—say, count both the king and the ace of spades as a “hit”—and the cumulative probability goes up accordingly. In short, when the risks are additive as I think they are here, it doesn’t take a ton of small probabilities to accumulate into a pretty sizable risk at the systemic level.

What’s more, the likelihoods of these particular events are actually connected in ways that further increase the chances of systemic trouble. As social movement theorists like Sidney Tarrow and Marc Beissinger have shown, successful mobilization in one part of an interconnected system can increase the likelihood of more action elsewhere by changing would-be rebels’ beliefs about the vulnerability of the system, and by starting to change the system itself.

As Bremmer points out, the Communist Party of China has done a remarkable job sustaining its political authority and goosing economic growth as long as it has. One important source of that success has been the Party’s willingness and capacity to learn and adapt as it goes, as evidenced by its sophisticated and always-evolving approach to censorship of social media and its increasing willingness to acknowledge and try to improve on its poor performance on things like air pollution and natural disasters.

Still, when I think of all the ways that system could start to fail and catalog the signs of increased stress on so many of those fronts, I have to conclude that the chances of a wider crisis in China are no longer so small and will only continue to grow. If Bremmer wanted to put a friendly wager on the prospect that China will be governed more or less as it is today to and through the Communist Party’s next National Congress, I’d take that bet.

Hugo Chavez’s Death and Prospects for Political Liberalization in Cuba

You’ve heard of the butterfly effect, right? Well, what about the Chávez effect?

Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez died early this week, and his absence will probably have ripple effects on the stability of political regimes in several other countries with which Chávez’s was closely tied. Chávez’s international influence had waned in recent years with the exit from the global political stage of his foil, George W. Bush; the re-emergence of Brazil as a regional economic heavyweight; profound stresses on Venezuela’s own economy, wrought in part by evident flaws in Chávez’s “Bolivarian revolution”; and, of course, the decline in Chávez’s health as he struggled with the cancer that eventually killed him.

Even in poor health and diminished political stature, though, Chávez loomed large in the politics of several other countries, and none more so than Cuba. At least in part, that interdependence stemmed from the close personal relationship between Chávez and Cuba’s Fidel Castro. As Victoria Burnett wrote about yesterday for the New York Times, however, there was also a very practical aspect to the close relationship between Cuba and Venezuela under Chavez as well.

Cuba receives more than 100,000 barrels of oil a day from Venezuela, purchased on favorable terms as part of an exchange that has tens of thousands of Cubans working in Venezuelan clinics, schools and ministries. The subsidized oil accounts for about two-thirds of Cuba’s consumption and is credited by many Cubans with keeping the lights on and the air-conditioners running during the brutal summer heat.

It’s possible that Chávez’s successors will indefinitely sustain this generosity, but I doubt it. Venezuela was already struggling to get its own economic house in order. Meanwhile, Venezuela’s oil production has declined in recent years and its domestic consumption has steadily risen, leaving less of the surplus that bankrolled Chavez’s largesse. Even if Chávez’s successors come from the Bolivarian movement he built, it’s hard to see how they will be able to keep subsidizing other regimes when their own has fallen on hard times. And, of course, absent Chávez, Venezuela’s opposition parties stand a much better chance of clawing its way back into government—if not in next month’s special election, then certainly in the ones to follow.

chavez460

As Venezuelan largesse dries up, the pressure on the Communist regime in Cuba to search out new sources of revenue will sharply increase. It’s possible that Castro & co. will find another great foreign patron, just as they did when Venezuela stepped into the shoes the Soviet Union had filled for so long before its collapse left Cuba in the lurch. Possible, but, I think, unlikely. Following a similar “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” logic, the Islamic Republic of Iran also has an affinity with Cuba, but Iran’s got serious financial troubles of its own. China seems a more capable future patron, but it’s hard to imagine the Chinese government doing something as provocative to the U.S. as flat-out bankrolling the Cuban regime with so little to gain from it. What China is already doing is helping to finance the hunt for oil in Cuban waters. A major oil strike would throw the Cuban government a new lifeline, but as John Sullivan noted in a September 2012 piece for the New York Times Magazine, “So far, though, the wells have come up dry or disappointing.”

If the Cuban regime can’t find a new foreign patron or strike oil, it will be increasingly tempted to try political liberalization as an alternative strategy. I laid out the logic behind this choice in a conference paper I wrote in 2007 and summarized it again in a recent article on North Korea for Foreign Policy‘s Democracy Lab. Quoting at length from the latter:

To understand why a seemingly stable dictatorship would ever give its political opponents an opening, it helps to consider the political economy of authoritarianism. Dictators repress their citizens because it helps them stay in power. Political rivals can’t beat you if they can’t get organized, and they’ll find it very hard to organize if they can’t meet, talk, or reach out for support. Following this logic, we usually think of political liberalization as something that dictators resort to only when forced by restive mobs threatening to end their rule, if not their lives.

What that conventional view misses, though, are the financial and economic trade-offs that harsh repression entails. First, the machinery of monitoring and repression can be expensive, and the information it produces isn’t always reliable, so shrewd autocrats will always be looking to cut costs and improve outputs in these areas. Second, and less obviously, repression indirectly imposes drag on an economy by inhibiting productive exchanges among citizens. These market frictions can create a gap between an economy’s actual growth rate and the growth it might achieve with a freer citizenry.

When a dictator’s revenues depend on the performance of his country’s economy, these trade-offs give him some incentive to loosen restrictions on civil liberties. The question is when that incentive becomes strong enough to outweigh the political risks of reform.

The conventional view of political liberalization tells us this shift only occurs when dictators face an imminent threat of revolution. If the end already seems nigh, rulers might try to prolong their tenure by meeting their opponents halfway and hoping that compromise satisfies the mobs at the gates. This process is sometimes described as liberalization “from below,” because it’s driven by popular unrest.

Careful consideration of the political and economic trade-offs involved, however, suggests another possibility: Dictators might also pursue “liberalization from above,” gambling on reform when the economy is stagnating and political opposition is especially weak. Under these circumstances, expanded freedoms of speech and movement can open new avenues for economic growth without immediately producing a serious political challenge. There might be plenty of pent-up demand for political change, but revolutions require organization, and organization takes time, so shrewd rulers might attempt to shoot those rapids in search of calmer waters on the other side.

Viewing Chavez’s departure through the lens of this theory, I think the prospects for significant political liberalization in Cuba in the next few years just improved markedly. In fact, there were many signs that the Cuban regime was already leaning in this direction, including moves since 2010 to allow more private enterprise, loosen restrictions on property rights, and, most recently, the decision to end the exit visa requirement for travel abroad. I think those modest reforms reflect the very pressures noted above, and the departure of the Cuban regime’s greatest patron and ally will only turn the screws tighter. Late last month, Raul Castro announced that he would retire when his second term as president ends in 2018. In light of this week’s news from Venezuela, I would be surprised to see Castro’s tenure last that long, and I suspect that transition will go much deeper than a simple change of leadership.

Baltic Protest in the Gorbachev Era: Causes, Dynamics, and Consequences

I wrote my dissertation in the mid-1990s on ethno-nationalist mobilization in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania during the Gorbachev years. In 2008, I met an editor from an academic press who invited me to dust off that dissertation and publish it as a book. After recovering the file from a floppy disk with a disk drive at my town’s public library (seriously), I reformatted and lightly edited the manuscript to ready it for publication.

In the end, I decided not to publish the book after a couple of colleagues whose work I admire took a look at it and said they didn’t think it was quite ready for academic prime time. Still, in hopes that the work might still be useful to other researchers, I’ve gone ahead and posted the lightly revised manuscript on the Web. You can find it here.

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