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Russia, Iran and Venezuela may ‘democratize’ by 2020: Research

The oil crash of 2014-2015 may trigger a wave of democratization in crude-exporting countries across the world, Renaissance Capital said on Tuesday.

The emerging market-focused investment bank based its analysis on the oil price collapse of 1985. It said this event helped trigger democratization in oil-exporting places including Mexico, Iran, Algeria and the former Soviet Union between 1988 and 1990.

"We wonder if the 2014-2015 oil price fall may provoke similar democratization in Russia, Iran and Venezuela in 2018-2020," Charles Robertson, chief economist at Renaissance Capital, said in a report on Tuesday.

He said the sample of countries was too small to provide a high degree of certainty on this scenario, but that investors should be "prepared for the unlikely to happen."

An employee looks out over the illuminated petroleum cracking complex at an oil refinery operated by OAO Lukoil, in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia.
Andrey Rudakov | Bloomberg | Getty Images
An employee looks out over the illuminated petroleum cracking complex at an oil refinery operated by OAO Lukoil, in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia.

Robertson said Russia and Venezuela's current political systems combined autocratic and democratic elements, like elections. Iran he described as an autocracy, although the country does hold presidential and legislative elections.

On a scale ranking countries from -10 (full autocracy) to 10 (full democracy), he rated Russia and Venezuela at 4 and Iran at -7.

This democratization was seen applying only to countries whose oil exports were small in net per capita terms. Compared with Qatar and Kuwait, each of which exported over 600 barrels of oil per day per 1,000 people in 2015, Venezuela exported 63 barrels and Russia and Iran even less.

"(Large net) energy exporters (per capita) don't become democracies. Countries that are net oil exporters do not tend to tax their people, so they don't give them a vote," Robertson said.

Oil prices have rallied sharply this year, but remain far below the levels above $100 per barrel at which oil traded prior to the commodities slump that began in July 2014. Light crude futures for October traded just below $45 per barrel on Wednesday

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"As countries get richer, they all end up becoming democracies, unless they are oil exporters or are a city-state called Singapore," Robertson said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin was seen as key to determining political trends in his country. The next presidential election there will be held in 2018.

"Without President Putin at the helm, we think Russia can again become a democracy as it was in 2000-2006. It is rich enough to avoid a further shift towards autocracy," Robertson said.

He saw Malaysia as another middle-income country that might re-democratize, in part due to the ongoing corruption scandal that allegedly involves Prime Minister Najib Razak.

"If the governing coalition is defeated at the August 2018 election (after effectively being in power since 1955), then Malaysia may well return to a 'democracy' category ranking. The trigger may be the current corruption scandal," he said.

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