Saturday, February 18, 2012

Will Putin Be the Next Qadafi?

In the run-up to the 2000 elections, the totally unknown Vladimir Putin engineered the Chechen crisis in order to convince Russians that he could save them from the chaos and war. In 2004, he managed to make Russians believe that the choice they faced was between him and the oligarchs. Khodorkovsky was thrown in jail and the majority of Russians preferred to believe that their president had finally broken the chain connecting him to Yeltsin's self-enriching circle. In 2008, contrary to expectations, he decided not to run for a third term, thus promising substantial changes in the framework of existing power. In all three cases, in other words, presidential elections were framed by a dramatic and easily comprehensible public narrative.

In 2012, by contrast, Putin has no story to tell. It is completely unclear in what way public interest could possibly be served by his returning to the Kremlin. He is not coming back to handle the Chechens, because they are now allegedly his most loyal supporters: United Russia won an eye-popping 98 per cent of the vote in Kadyrov's fiefdom. Nor is Putin coming back to save the Russians from the oligarchs, because the new oligarchs are his old St. Petersburg buddies. All those who had hoped that the regime could be modernized under a younger president feel humiliated by their own embarrassing naivety. In 2012, Putin has not only lost his image as someone who can solve crises: he is no longer able to create new crises which he can triumphantly resolve because, at this point, any crisis that emerges will be blamed on him. The only thing Putin can tell those who ask why he wants to return to the Kremlin is that he has nowhere else to go. (That he needs to stay in power to protect his "business interests", while widely assumed, is obviously not a tale for public consumption.)

Putin is now facing a dilemma similar to the one Gorbachev faced in the last two years of the Soviet Union. Genuinely competitive elections, assuming that he won them, might possibly rescue his collapsing legitimacy. But winning an election that he might have lost [In other words, being caught cheating in an election __ ed.] would not be the end of Putin's troubles. Afterwards, he would start to be held publicly responsible for his actions. The media would freely report on his business associates and the opposition would be constantly after him, pointing out all the promises he failed to keep. This means that he would perhaps keep power temporarily but that eventually he would lose. Shooting at protesters is an even less attractive option, even if it were feasible. In 1993, true enough, Yeltsin shelled the parliament; but back then Russian society was ideologically divided and the most radical democrats supported Yeltsin's decision to shoot. The West was also behind Yeltsin. Today, Putin can reasonably fear that shooting at relatively affluent urban crowds might land him where Gaddafi ended up. History shows that only politicians with a strong social support base – rooted in ideology, religion, or kinship – dare shoot at protesters. _Eurozine
Vladimir Putin may well be the wealthiest man in the world. He made his billions in the same way any number of dictators and quasi-dictators around the world -- he stole them. Just like his friends, the neo-oligarchs, Putin has a deft set of hands in the public cookie jar.

But that is how Russia and the third world have always done business. The big strong man and his friends get the first chance at the booty. Next come the elite and connected who are just outside the first circle. Then comes everyone else.

It worked well for Qadafi, Mubarak, Idi Amin, and a long line of dictators -- until it didn't work any longer. In the third world, dictators are generally replaced by other dictators of one stripe or another. US President GW Bush tried to replace a dictatorship in Iraq with a democratically elected government, and it is unlikely the country will ever completely recover. Of course, Iraq was never anything to write home about in the first place. But the tripartite country in perpetual turmoil should be a caution to other would be external democratisers -- in Arab countries or in Russia.

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