“Natural-Resource Curse”?

Is oil a boon or a blessing? When it comes to Russia, more and more analysis are seeing it as the former. As Konstantin Sonin argues, the “natural-resource curse” is now a favorite among those who seek to explain Russia’s skewed trajectory toward democracy. For Sonin, the oil curse is now displacing other favorite explanations for Russia’s inability to extricate itself from the tar pit of backwardness. Sonin writes,

The arguments over why Russia repeatedly runs into roadblocks in its path toward democracy will continue as long as the country exists — which is to say eternally. The excuses used to explain these failures also seemed to be eternal: Russia’s subjugation under the Mongolian yoke; the immensity of Russia’s territory and its need for expansion; or the “unique Russian mentality” that is somehow not conducive to democracy. Even the country’s severe climate is cited as one reason for its backwardness.

Russia democratic derailment is so perplexing that some are turning to where Putin and Medvedev sit as an clue to the configuration of power. It’s as if Sovietologists’ practice of finding out who was in charge by where they stood on Lenin’s Mausoleum wasn’t inane enough. But that is the logical outcome of seeing the Russians as eternally backward. Since they aren’t like us, and because of genetics or history can’t be like us, then we will have to decipher their barbarous symbolic order to uncover their hidden secrets. Such is the thrill and the frustration of studying an “abnormal” country.

As Sonin notes, whether the “natural-resource curse” is actually a curse remains to be seen. Sure there isn’t much historical precedent of oil rich countries becoming flower gardens of democracy. Sure it seems that most oil rich countries are wallowing in the morass of lopsided economies, polarizing wealth, and dependency. But the problem for Sonin isn’t oil as such. It’s the power dynamic between rulers and people.

The “natural-resource curse,” which is the theory that high oil and gas profits weaken economic and political development in the long term, is not always a given. The true impact of the curse depends on a nation’s particular history and culture. In some countries, governmental institutions are so stable that even a sharp rise in prices for resource exports would not threaten their integrity. Even in a country without successful experience in democratic development, the efforts of the ruling elite, coupled with the proper political awareness on the part of the people, could prevent the country from sliding into a dictatorship.

This is a nice theory. But “political awareness on the part of the people” has shown to be quite malleable to the whims of leaders. Maybe Sonin has a better ear, but I don’t hear many Russians clamoring for a redistribution of all that oil wealth. In fact, the population appears have been lulled into political content by the dazzling allure of consumerism. The plenitude of new cars, clothes, stereos, cell phones, DVD players, and flat screen TVs if not actually consumed, at least present the potential of consumption. The trickle down of oil wealth to Russia’s middle classes is enough to produce a reinforcing objective and subjective sense of stability. Enough Russians see and feel a bright tomorrow, which acts as a gloss over whatever problems that exist. There is a unspoken pact between leaders and people. One that says, to quote Sonin, “the country’s leaders don’t have to bend over backwards to earn the right to stay in power, and the people aren’t overly concerned about how their government is structured, or who controls what.” With a deal like that, why would any Russian what to muck it up with something as unpredictable as democracy?