The Natural-Resources And Democracy Curse

May 8, the date Vladimir Putin was appointed prime minister, might go down in history as the end of Russia's latest attempt at democracy. That date might stand alongside other similar milestones in Russia's history -- for example, Oct. 25, 1917, when the Bolsheviks overturned the temporary government that was to rule until elections; or Jan. 6, 1918, when the Bolsheviks dissolved the Constituent Assembly in protest over the results of national elections.

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.

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Although the "history and culture" argument gained a strong lead over other theories, the oil argument has also become popular recently and now competes with other attempts at rationalizing Russia's failure to build democratic institutions.

Russia's enormous natural resources, managed by the government on behalf of the people, can be exploited with relatively little effort. The voters have high expectations to receive an economic windfall from the country's natural-resource wealth, but, at the same time, they don't hold their leaders accountable. With high oil and gas prices on the world market, 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.

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.

Nations blessed with resources receive their wealth from nature and the higher powers that be. Whether or not this good fortune becomes a "curse" depends entirely upon the leaders and citizens of these nations.

Konstantin Sonin, a professor at the New Economic School, is a columnist for Vedomosti.