The strong­man’s power trap

The Myanmar Times - - News - NINA L KHRUSHCHEVA news­room@mm­times.com

EAR­LIER this year, when Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin an­nounced that he was form­ing a 400,000-man na­tional guard that would re­port only to him, many Rus­sians won­dered why a new mil­i­tary force was needed. Af­ter all, Rus­sia’s army was sup­pos­edly back: Putin had equipped it with new toys and even ar­ranged for two small wars – in Ge­or­gia in 2008 and in Ukraine, start­ing in 2014 – to prove it.

But the failed coup against Putin’s fel­low strong­man, Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan, points to an im­por­tant rea­son for es­tab­lish­ing a Prae­to­rian guard. Putin has so hol­lowed out Rus­sia’s demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions that the only means to re­move him from power now would be through a mil­i­tary putsch.

Putin, Er­do­gan and even Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping all have sim­i­lar, jus­ti­fi­able fears about their po­lit­i­cal sur­vival. All three came to of­fice in sys­tems that place real con­straints on the ex­er­cise of power – even if the sys­tem is other­wise un­demo­cratic or an in­fant democ­racy ready to be stran­gled in its cra­dle. In Er­do­gan’s case, Turkey had the rule of law and in­sti­tu­tional checks and bal­ances on ex­ec­u­tive power; and in Putin and Xi’s case, there were un­writ­ten rules sanc­ti­fied by decades of prece­dent.

These rules – es­tab­lished in Rus­sia by Nikita Khrushchev af­ter Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953 and in China by Deng Xiaop­ing fol­low­ing Mao Ze­dong’s death in 1976 – were de­signed to take the mur­der­ous­ness out of top-level gov­er­nance by guar­an­tee­ing that a leader would not threaten the life and safety of ei­ther his pre­de­ces­sors or his col­leagues. In this sys­tem, a gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial may be re­moved from power or placed un­der house ar­rest, but there is no risk of im­pris­on­ment or phys­i­cal harm against him or his fam­ily.

Putin came to power in 1999 in part be­cause he un­der­stood, and more im­por­tantly ap­peared to ac­cept, this tra­di­tion. Boris Yeltsin did not choose Putin as his suc­ces­sor be­cause of his re­mark­able ad­min­is­tra­tive gifts, but be­cause Putin as­sured him that, if he were put in charge, Yeltsin and his fam­ily would be pro­tected from any le­gal or po­lit­i­cal ret­ri­bu­tion.

In Yeltsin’s case, Putin kept his end of the bar­gain. But other­wise, Putin has shown lit­tle re­straint in go­ing af­ter his ri­vals. For ex­am­ple, the oli­garch Boris Bere­zovsky was driven into ex­ile, where he was con­tin­u­ously hounded and ha­rassed, un­til he was found dead in his home in 2013, al­legedly hav­ing taken his own life. Mikhail Khodor­kovsky, the bil­lion­aire owner of Yukos Oil and a pos­si­ble ri­val for po­lit­i­cal power to Putin, was stripped of his com­pany, im­pris­oned and later ex­iled.

Lower-pro­file ri­vals and en­e­mies have suf­fered harsher treat­ment. Ex­iled Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer Alexan­der Litvi­nenko, to take one highly pub­li­cised ex­am­ple, died from ra­di­a­tion sick­ness in 2006 in the United King­dom, af­ter be­ing poi­soned with polo­nium. In that case, an of­fi­cial UK in­quiry con­cluded that Putin might have been aware of the mur­der plan; in oth­ers, Putin’s per­sonal in­volve­ment is un­known. But the over­all mes­sage is clear: Putin an­swers to no rules, and there are no lim­its to the reach or ruth­less­ness of his ret­ri­bu­tion, no mat­ter how pow­er­ful in Rus­sia a per­son may once have been.

In China, Xi, a pro­fessed ad­mirer of Putin’s meth­ods, has adopted the Rus­sian’s play­book as he has con­sol­i­dated power. Since Deng’s fi­nal years in power, in the late 1980s, a form of col­lec­tive lead­er­ship within the Com­mu­nist Party has ruled China, with the same un­writ­ten con­ven­tions pro­tect­ing the most pow­er­ful from ret­ri­bu­tion. Un­der Xi, how­ever, col­lec­tive lead­er­ship has given way to one-man rule, and the un­writ­ten rules of be­hav­iour have been junked.

Like Putin, Xi uses anti-cor­rup­tion mea­sures to dis­patch ri­vals and con­cen­trate power in his own hands, and he has been even more ruth­less than Putin in do­ing so. Hun­dreds of se­nior gen­er­als in the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army have been purged and im­pris­oned on cor­rup­tion charges.

More­over, Xi has vi­o­lated the Party norm of not pur­su­ing mem­bers of the Polit­buro Stand­ing Com­mit­tee, beyond re­mov­ing them from of­fice. Con­sider the ex­am­ple of Zhou Yongkang, China’s long-time in­ter­nal se­cu­rity chief, who has been im­pris­oned on charges of bribery, cor­rupt­ing state power (for al­legedly hav­ing too many mis­tresses) and leak­ing state se­crets. Mem­bers of his fam­ily have also been im­pris­oned.

Zhou’s fall came not long af­ter the trial and im­pris­on­ment of Bo Xi­lai, a can­di­date for Stand­ing Com­mit­tee mem­ber­ship who may have been plan­ning a coup against Xi. Both men’s im­pris­on­ment pre­cip­i­tated the down­fall of a vast net­work of se­nior lead­ers, in­clud­ing pro­vin­cial gov­er­nors and the head of the China Na­tional Pe­tro­leum Com­pany.

By vi­o­lat­ing Party norms and un­writ­ten agree­ments among the rul­ing elite, Putin and Xi, it is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly clear, un­der­stand that they can never re­lin­quish power vol­un­tar­ily with­out fear­ing for their fu­ture safety. Lit­tle won­der, then, that af­ter 17 years of rule, Putin will run again for pres­i­dent – vir­tu­ally un­op­posed – in March 2018.

Xi, how­ever, has a prob­lem. In 2017, he will com­plete his first fiveyear term, and prece­dent per­mits him only one more five-year term. Be­cause five of the seven mem­bers of the Stand­ing Com­mit­tee are to be re­placed in 2017, this would be the mo­ment for his op­po­nents to chal­lenge him by nom­i­nat­ing a suc­ces­sor. The mere ex­is­tence of a po­ten­tial re­place­ment could be a po­lit­i­cal death sen­tence for Xi, given wide­spread anger against him within the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment.

Since the failed coup in Turkey, Er­do­gan has cracked down on those al­legedly be­hind it, hav­ing pro­duced a sus­pi­ciously con­ve­nient ar­rest list for thou­sands of politi­cians and mil­i­tary and ju­di­cial per­son­nel, whom he ac­cuses of threat­en­ing his “demo­cratic” rule. But Er­do­gan now faces a stark choice: fol­low Putin and Xi down the path of au­to­cratic no re­turn, or re­trace his steps back to­ward func­tion­ing democ­racy. With even his po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents sup­port­ing him against the mil­i­tary coup, the Turk­ish peo­ple have made their pref­er­ence known.

– Project Syn­di­cate Nina L Khrushcheva, the au­thor of and

is pro­fes­sor of in­ter­na­tional af­fairs and as­so­ciate dean for aca­demic af­fairs at The New School and a se­nior fel­low at the

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