A pan­demic is tai­lor-made for dic­ta­tors

The Day - - OPINION - BY MEL GURTOV Mel Gurtov, syn­di­cated by PeaceVoice, is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of po­lit­i­cal sci­ence at Port­land State Univer­sity, Ore­gon and blogs at “In the Hu­man In­ter­est.”

One trait dic­ta­tors have in com­mon: They be­lieve in rul­ing for life. And since they’re dic­ta­tors, they can count on sup­port­ers to echo their am­bi­tion and push for laws to en­sure eter­nal con­trol. We’re see­ing this sce­nario play out in Hun­gary un­der Vik­tor Or­ban, China un­der Xi Jin­ping, Tur­key un­der Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan, and Rus­sia un­der Vladimir Putin. (Is­rael’s Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu is a wannabe lifer; his case is pend­ing.)

All these men have seized on COVID-19 as an op­por­tu­nity to in­ten­sify re­pres­sion and fur­ther weaken checks on their au­thor­ity. Here’s the Rus­sia story so far.

In an ob­vi­ously chore­ographed move, Putin gave the go-ahead to a con­sti­tu­tional change that would al­low him to serve an­other two terms af­ter his cur­rent term ex­pires in 2024.

“I’m sure the time will come when the high­est, pres­i­den­tial au­thor­ity in Rus­sia will not be, as they say, so per­son­i­fied — not so bound up in a sin­gle per­son,” Putin said. “But that is how all of our past his­tory came to­gether and we can­not, of course, dis­re­gard this.”

Of course not; “sta­bil­ity” in lead­er­ship is key. Who would dis­agree? Af­ter all, didn’t Stalin rule un­til his death? Why shouldn’t Putin have life­time ten­ure, like Stalin or, more re­cently, Xi Jin­ping?

Putin’s thinly veiled ini­tia­tive to en­sure his con­tin­u­a­tion in power fol­lows the tra­di­tional model of dic­ta­tors. First, you mod­estly de­flect “pop­u­lar de­mand” that you con­sider stay­ing in of­fice. Then you show in­ter­est, but say it’s up to your leg­is­la­ture and the courts to make the call. Your lack­eys re­spond by say­ing “so­ci­ety” re­quires a strong leader, and put in place a new law that opens the way to leader-for-life.

Fi­nally, you con­sent: As Putin said, two terms for a pres­i­dent are enough, but not now, when Rus­sia faces so many “threats.” Ah, there you have it: na­tional se­cu­rity.

Then a pan­demic sweeps across the world, and while it brings unan­tic­i­pated prob­lems, it also pro­vides an op­por­tu­nity for au­to­crats to re­dou­ble their claim to ab­so­lute rule. In Rus­sia, as in the U.S., China, and other coun­tries, Putin ini­tially said the sit­u­a­tion was un­der con­trol, but by late March he ac­knowl­edged that it was “ob­jec­tively im­pos­si­ble” to stop the virus from spread­ing.

The mayor of Moscow and a group of doc­tors pointed out that the of­fi­cial, very low in­fec­tion fig­ures were greatly un­der­re­ported. (As of April 1, Rus­sia is re­port­ing about 2,700 cases of COVID-19 and only 24 deaths.) Putin post­poned a vote sched­uled for April on a ref­er­en­dum that would en­dorse the con­sti­tu­tional change.

Moscow is now un­der self-iso­la­tion rules. Just so hap­pens that post­pone­ment, cou­pled with reg­u­la­tions to re­strict pub­lic gath­er­ings, also pre­vent peo­ple from protest­ing the ref­er­en­dum. Other new laws al­low the au­thor­i­ties to mon­i­tor peo­ple’s move­ments.

The sit­u­a­tion is tai­lor-made for Putin to de­clare him­self the com­man­der-in-chief in a war on COVID-19, just as Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, Xi, and Or­bán have done. Af­ter all, who but Putin can lead Rus­sia, for­ever?

You say it can’t hap­pen here?

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