The harmful consequences of communist rule on human development and economic well-being are manifest. If some idealists still hope that communist promises of raising the living conditions of workers and peasants deserve to be trusted, the example of North Korea should undermine their naivete.
North Koreans are again starving to death but — with borders now closed — can no longer escape or bring in food from abroad. Threatened with execution, few dare to enjoy smuggled videos from South Korea or the West. What funds the regime earns or hacks from abroad go to nuclear-tipped weapons, or cognac for the great leader.
The performance of other communist and post-communist regimes — Russia, China, Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, and the former Soviet republics in Central Asia — is also far below that of free, lawful societies. Of course, few leaders anywhere are beyond reproach. A former US president has been indicted for federal crimes and a former UK prime minister has been sanctioned by Parliament for deliberately misleading the House of Commons. On a spectrum of bad behavior, however, the leaders of communist and ex-communist lands operate in a dark realm of their own. Their crimes are made more heinous by their claims to know what is best for their subjects.
For starters, all communist and post-communist societies are profoundly corrupt. The Transparency International Corruption Perception Index shows that year after year, Russia has been one of the most corrupt places in the world. Its index rank deteriorated from 90th place in 2004 to 137th in 2023 — worse than Belarus at 91. North Korea, a purveyor of munitions to Putin’s forces, placed 171st.
Ukraine at 116th tied with Algeria and Zambia in 2023, but even in wartime has climbed six places since 2015. In March, the Council of Europe’s anti-corruption group said Ukrainian officials had demonstrated a strong commitment to change and lauded the country’s determination to continue tackling graft despite the situation caused by Russia’s all-out invasion as “remarkable.”
Another measure is the United Nations Human Development Index, which analyzes three factors that enhance human choice — health. education, and income. Switzerland and Norway scored highest on the HDI in 2022; Russia ranked 52nd and China 79th. The USA fell to 21st.
The HDI says nothing about politics, but Freedom House follows political rights and civil liberties. It reports year after year that Russia and China — like other communist or post-communist states from Belarus to North Korea to Cuba — are “not free.” Vietnam — profoundly challenged by climate change — has locked up its five leading environmental activists.
The Global Innovation Index (maintained by the World Intellectual Property Organization) placed Russia 47th in the world in 2022 — far behind many countries with lower GDP per capita. China, however, ranked 11th—the only middle-income country in the top 30.
There is another useful view on this issue produced by the Fund for Peace, which publishes a table of fragile states. On this measure, Russia is far more fragile than most of Europe — 78 places from the bottom. Both Belarus and Ukraine were less fragile in 2022 at 91st and 92nd from the bottom; China was just above the halfway mark at 96; the USA, more fragile than most Western countries at 138; the least fragile — the most stable — was Finland, 177.
Kremlin claims that most Russians are content with the quality of their life are not credible. The World Happiness Index (based on Gallup World Poll data) asks respondents to rate their satisfaction with the quality of their life. It shows that Russians’ satisfaction ranks at 78th in the world; one place lower than Turkmenistan. Many of Putin’s subjects are malcontent. Much of their putative GDP per capita goes to regime cronies and oligarchs.
Finland and Denmark, the least corrupt, also topped the Happiness Index, which asks people to evaluate their quality of life on a scale from 1 to 10. Here the USA ranks 16th; China, 71st; and Russia, 76th. Least happy, no surprise, is Afghanistan. North Korea was not surveyed, probably because such questions are not encouraged (and the answer is too obvious.)
How do these measures of intangibles match up with material wealth? Very roughly. Russia and China had similar per capita incomes in 2022 at $14,700 and $13,630. Finland and Denmark rated the happiest, with incomes ($51,000 and $66,000) much lower than Norway ($89,000) or the United States ($76,400). The highest per capita incomes were in Ireland ($107,000) and Switzerland ($95,000).
Thus the West’s two major challengers, Russia and China, do poorly in the cultivation of human and humane values. North Korea does the worst on all counts, but all communist and ex-communist regimes struggle to serve their people.
Walter Clemens is an Associate at Harvard University Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and Professor Emeritus of Political Science, at Boston University. He has written wrote two books on North Korea and now Blood Debts: What Putin and Xi Owe Their Victims (Westphalia, July 2023).
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.