Putin, COVID-19 and Autocracy
Updated: May 31, 2020
As Russia grapples with the Corona virus Russians trust in how Vladimir Putin has handled the crisis is at an all-time low. Despite the positive propaganda many Russians are getting really tired of the former KGB intelligence officer, Prime Minister and then President of Russia, Vladimir Putin: tired of the assassinations, purges, harassment and jailing of political activists and opponents; tired of the muzzling of print and broadcast media; tired of the homophobia; tired of the lack of free and fair elections.
From the time of the founding of the Russian state by Ivan III (1462–1505), Russia has never been much of a democracy. Even though today Russians are arguably more 'free' than they were under Soviet rule, as in most autocratic regimes there is a great deal of self-censorship. I suspect that for some time the majority of Russians have tolerated Putin because they are better off in a material way--and let's be honest, capitalism and kleptocracy do not, by any means, need democracy in order to thrive and flourish.
But it is clear Russians are growing weary of Putin's macho conservatism. If he disappeared today there wouldn’t be many tears shed, and life would go on in Russia. However, it is by no means obvious that if Putin were suddenly, gone things would change. Russia and the former Soviet Union continue to rely on a monopoly of executive power. This does not mean it is a regime condemned to autocracy, but simply that it would require a systemic or foundational change to move things toward democracy. One can only hope that the recent demonstrations in Moscow are the beginning of a call for this kind of radical change.
This is as it should be. The rise of so-called 'populist' autocrats that spread intolerance, hatred and xenophobia must inevitably give rise to resistance against oppression. We tend to think power is wielded by only the most powerful in acts domination and coercion that exclude, repress and censor. But there are also productive and positive modes of power that give rise to defiance, refusal, resistance and collective forms of solidarity.
The road to autocracy begins with leaders who make a point of scapegoating and demonizing the other--the vulnerable minorities or 'immigrants'. The next step is to weaken and eventually dismantle the checks and balances on government power needed to preserve human rights and the rule of law. Judiciary independence withers away and government agencies that might have once protected public interests and rights are handcuffed, or in neoliberal regimes become captive of corporate interests. That such a state of affairs could potentially emerge out of what was once a democracy only reminds us that democracies are not self-perpetuating but require constant vigilance.
In the present world, creeping autocracy and fascism is everywhere evident: Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Saudi Arabia's Mohammad bin Salman, Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Poland’s de facto ruler, Jarosław Kaczyńsk, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, China's Xi Jinping, America's Donald Trump, North Korea's Kim Jong-un and Russia's Putin all testify to this. These hateful regimes seem eternal, but they are not.
We are seeing more and more resistance, more and more doubt about elites, mainstream politics and establishment politicians. Right now environmental activists, democracy rights advocates and other civic groups are beginning to push back and they are mounting increasingly effective forms of resistance around the world. The responsibility to defend human rights and democratic rule shows up even in the darkest of times.
The promise of rights-respecting democratic rule, the promise of governments that are accountable to the needs of all citizens rather than the minority power elite is still a powerful, vital and motivating vision.