Having crossed his Rubicon, Putin lands in Central Asia

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Staff Editor

Karimov_and_Putin
Photo Credit: www.kremlin.ru

When Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin announced last week that he intended—and had always intended—to return to the presidency, he effectively tore down a flimsy veil of constitutional rectitude that had separated Russia from the autocracies of Central Asia. For over four years, Russians were invited to believe that unlike the perpetual presidents in those countries, their leader would uphold the rule of law and make way for new blood in the form of his chosen successor, Dmitri Medvedev. Now, however, it appears that Medvedev’s entire presidency was an artifice designed to circumvent the ban on more than two consecutive terms.

In this sense, the maneuver was only the most elaborate and circuitous among many similar techniques employed by the rulers of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan, as well as Azerbaijan and Belarus. These presidents have relied on rigged referendums and rubber-stamp legislatures to enact repeated term extensions of one type or another. When it comes to elections, they have methodically suppressed any genuine opposition parties and then won lopsided votes against the nonentities that remained. In 2007, Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan brazenly secured a new term without bothering to remove the constitutional restriction. (For a summary of term-limit manipulation in each country, see the text box on page 5 of the release booklet for Freedom House’s Nations in Transit 2011 survey. Russia’s gradual convergence with Central Asian governance standards is apparent in the Nations in Transit scoring data.)

Notably, Arab leaders like Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt also used such devices to remain in power for decades. In their countries, the strategy brought only decay, injustice, frustration, and finally upheaval. It is true that revenues from extractive industries have provided a semblance of material progress and macroeconomic growth in some authoritarian states in Central Asia, the Middle East, and sub-Saharan Africa. But the inherent corruption and “legal nihilism” of these opaque governance systems have ensured that wealth is not distributed fairly or constructively, paving the way for future crises. The examples of the Arab Spring have shown that macroeconomic growth is not enough to satisfy an abused and neglected citizenry.

So why does Russia seem determined to reject the proven democratic standards that prevail in the rest of Europe? Some 19th- and 20th-century historians argued that Russia was fundamentally “Asiatic” in its political culture and therefore inclined to despotic rule. In many cases they traced this supposed heritage to the Mongol conquest of Russian lands in the 13th century. However, the numerous modern democracies in Asia contradict such forlorn theories. One of them is Mongolia itself; an opposition candidate won the presidency there in 2009.

When it comes to endless presidential incumbency, Russia now does not even fare well in comparison with China, perhaps the world’s leading authoritarian state, which at least provides for a regular infusion of new leadership from within its carefully guarded one-party system. One U.S. commentator has mischievously suggested the creation of a Soviet-style Politburo to plan for a similar succession in Russia.

The real reasons behind the new Putin candidacy are difficult to fathom, but the simplest explanation may be that Russia has become trapped in the ontology of dictatorship: the tyrant is he who seizes so much power that he cannot safely give it up. In the process of eliminating all potential threats to his authority, Putin has gutted all institutions but himself, leaving nothing to protect his life, liberty, and property if he were to leave office. And so, like his Central Asian counterparts, he could feel compelled to rule until death.

The current authoritarian leaders of the region may owe their cynical attitude toward the institutions of democracy to the Soviet Communist Party background many of them share. From this perspective, politics is a sort of spycraft, consisting of ruthless, amoral gamesmanship. The official ideology—be it late-Soviet Marxism or electoral democracy—is a hollow cant, and the extent to which the public can be forced to accept it is a measurement of the regime’s strength. Those who genuinely believe in such constructions are seen as fools, and those who adopt the rhetoric of foreign competitors must be their agents.

Rulers relying on such an approach are safe only so long as the official charade is plausible enough—and the rewards and penalties for accepting or rejecting it are tangible enough—that it does not become prohibitively humiliating for the public to swallow.

Many Russians have already expressed dissatisfaction with the explanations Putin and Medvedev are offering for their bizarre rotation. Voters will have an opportunity to do so collectively during the parliamentary elections in December. While manipulation of the electoral framework and the collapse of even some Kremlin-approved opposition parties will ensure that the ruling United Russia party retains its huge majority, the voter turnout figures remain important to the regime as a symbol of the system’s legitimacy. There may be a telling gap between the official turnout number and independent reports of empty, cricket-haunted polling stations across Russia.

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