Total Scores Are Not All That They Seem:
The Cases of Iran, Lebanon, and Russia
Published June 17, 2015
By Hannah Blyth
Fragile States Index 2015
In viewing the annual Fragile States Index scores for a particular country, it is important to look at the underlying indicators to properly understand a country’s challenges and performance. Even where a country may have an overall trend in one direction, its individual indicators may actually be heading in very different directions.
Russia, for example, is the fourth most-worsened country year-on-year in 2015, and yet over the past decade it ranks among the most improved. How is this possible? Well, it’s complicated. Russia faces well-publicized challenges that have suddenly taken a turn for the worst. Its adventures and increasingly hostile overtures in its region are placing pressure on the country, as are the related economic sanctions from the West. Meanwhile, falling oil prices have further harmed an economy that banks on commodity prices being at a higher level. The overall decade trend for Russia is one of improvement, yet its individual indicators tell a different story — as much as a number of indicators are significantly improving (such as Demographic Pressures and Human Flight), others are headed in the opposite direction (such as Group Grievance, State Legitimacy, Human Rights, and External Intervention).
As the machismo figurehead of Russian power pulls media stunts on state media, President Putin’s increasingly authoritarian leadership of the world’s largest landmass nation has had implications both within and beyond its expansive borders. Donning his ice hockey gear to play in front of thousands in Russian fans in the stadium that had hosted the Sochi Winter Olympic just a few months earlier, the 62-year old President and his Defense Minister won a choreographed match alongside retired Soviet hockey legends - a not so subtle ode to their incursion and annexation of Crimea that same month. At arm’s length, it would seem Putin enjoys overwhelming Russian support for his ethno-nationalist foreign policy as well as domestic political mantle. However such overt displays of physical power belies the deepening of repression against free media, LGBT rights, and even the ability of independent NGOs to operate within the country. One of the last remaining free television stations in Russia, TV Rain, was shut down in January 2014 after broadcasting a poll asking viewers to vote on whether Leningrad should have surrendered during World War Two. With the indicators for Group Grievance worsening to 9.3 and Human Rights and Rule of Law to 8.9 for the 2015 Index, combined with an economy in serious decline, the Russian leadership should have more cause to pay attention to the murmuring instability within his own borders.
Similarly, a country’s total score and even year-on-year trend can sometimes be somewhat misleading. Though Iran has remained completely unchanged in 2015, it has nevertheless worsened over the past decade. Its individual indicator scores are also quite variable, with a significant difference between, for example, decent Public Services versus high pressure on Factionalized Elites and poor Human Rights scores. The country has been able to remain steady overall in 2015, despite economic challenges and increasing insecurity in the region. Since the reformist-backed President Rouhani took power in June 2013, the country has seen progress in 2014 in areas such as a re-engagement with the West over nuclear talks which led to some sanctions relief, and short term improvements in Group Grievance and Uneven Economic Development indicators. Iran’s prominent military support in 2014 for neighboring Iraq to fight Da'esh, commonly known as Islamic State, is likely to have had a rallying effect domestically, along with widespread support among the youth-dominated population for a nuclear deal that would see sanctions lifted. However with Iran holding almost 10 per cent of world crude oil reserves, and as the second largest oil consuming country in the Middle East, the country’s economic indicator was weakened in 2014 by the dramatic fall in world oil prices. Over the past decade, Iran’s Group Grievance indicator has worsened by 1.6 points, reflective of the long term factitious nature of the divided conservative and reformist Iranian political landscape, causing deep rifts within Iranian society over issues of religion, gender and the country’s future direction. While optimism in the short term across at least some indicators for Iran may continue, it still has a long path ahead to enact lasting political and economic reform to achieve domestic stability.
Just as we have analyzed with the case of Kenya, a country’s neighbors can have a significant impact on a country. No clearer is this the case than in Lebanon. The impact of the Syrian civil war has continued to worsen refugee pressures on the already fragile Lebanese state, which according to the UNHCR became the country with the highest per-capita concentration of refugees in the world in 2014. The refugee crisis, which rose to more than 1.1 million refugees residing within Lebanon by July 2014, has worsened socio-economic effects on the domestic population, and weakened both the Security Apparatus and the country’s Rule of Law. Porous areas of the Lebanese and Syrian border continue to enable not only the mass influx of Syrian refugees, but also facilitate movement of weapons and human trafficking into the neighboring Syria. Battles between the Lebanese army and insurgents from Syria who overran the border town of Arsal in August 2014 has also undermined the state’s border security, along with border clashes in October between Hezbollah and Syrian fighting force Jabhat al-Nusra, adding to the decade Index trend which has seen the Security Apparatus indicator worsen by 1.3 points. Compounding the external pressures is the ongoing fragile political power sharing system, with the Lebanese Parliament failing to reach consensus on a successor for President Suleiman who ended his term in May 2014, and continues to be marred by deep sectarian divisions. Yet in the face of such a patchwork of insecurity, political and economic fragility, and simmering sectarian divides which feed into the wider Syria and Iraq conflict, the Lebanese state remains intact. This resiliency, while it will inevitably continue to be tested in 2015 and beyond, must continue to be built upon if it is to avoid the risks of a return to its civil war past.