Thursday, July 30, 2009

Where is this going?

Radio Free Europe has a nice opinion piece today about Azerbaijan's "steady descent into authoritarianism." I have written about this subject repeatedly on this blog. I did not have the perspective that natives of that country have, because I only moved there last year. I did, nonetheless, talk to many Azerbaijanis, and I understood that the repression has steadily increased in recent years.

I continue to be both confounded and fascinated by the question of democratization. Too often, it appears that the rather deterministic views of Carles Boix, Daron Acemoglu, and James A. Robinson have the bulk of supporting evidence. I cannot do justice to their work here. Suffice it to say that they all focus on the impact that economic resources and distribution of wealth have on the democratization of societies.

Azerbaijan potentially has many different sources of wealth, but in recent history its primary source of income has been from petroleum and natural gas. These are resources that are immobile. The oil in Azerbaijan may be depleted, but it will not decide to emigrate because of repressive government policies. When the source of wealth is intellectual, however, the rulers of the country must act more carefully. Factories can be moved. Trading offices can be closed and re-opened easily. If the rulers of a country want to hold onto this type of wealth, they must be careful not to enact policies that will cause the sources of this wealth to move.

Where does this leave Azerbaijan?

Not in a good place. The rulers of Azerbaijan control the wealth of their country. It's not going away quickly. In fact, because of Azerbaijan's delicate position between Russia and the West, the rulers of the country are trying to play a delicate game, flirting with both sides in order to achieve maximum freedom of action within their country, while picking whatever benefits they can from Russia and the West. The winners in the game - so far - are the rulers of Azerbaijan, while the bulk of the population in Azerbaijan loses as the country becomes increasingly autocratic and the distribution of income becomes increasingly skewed.

The sad thing about the analyses of the above political scientists is that even revolution does not change the situation that much. When the wealth is immobile, the succeeding regime is likely to be just as undemocratic as the one it replaced.

Russia is a wonderful example.