Streetwise Professor has written a good post on the personality cult built up around Vladimir Putin:
But perhaps the most telling indicator is the increasingly bizarre cult of personality being constructed around Putin. Putin’s apotheosis is occurring on his 62nd birthday.
A society that does this is not healthy. A society that does this is deeply insecure. A society that does this is desperate to believe that it is the hands of a savior because the alternative is too frightening to contemplate.
The prof’s second paragraph is absolutely correct. At one point in my career I was working in a Middle Eastern desert where there were giant posters of the rulers everywhere. A grizzled American who was on my team made a comment on them:
“See, when you are in a country with pictures of the rulers everywhere, it means the place could go to rat-shit at any minute. I was in Iran during the Revolution in 1979. Before the Revolution there were posters of the Shah everywhere…everyone loved the Shah. Then one morning we woke to find the Shah’s picture replaced by the Ayatollah’s, and now everyone loved the Ayatollah. Guys were in the office, telling us we needed to leave, who a couple of days before were saying how much they loved the Shah.”
He wasn’t wrong. If a ruler feels the need to plaster his mug over every building and his goons insist his portrait adorns every office wall, then his grip on power is weak (with one or two exceptions: Thailand’s king is genuinely popular, but then he doesn’t meddle in politics). Colonel Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, and Bashar Assad all commanded their portraits be everywhere, their persons adored in open displays of worship yet presided over unstable countries whose population quickly turned on them when given the chance. Turkmenbashi would also have fallen into this category had his country not been stable simply by virtue of nobody being in the slightest bit interested in it. And we have Ukbekistan’s Islam Karimov (who is probably more of a Turkmenbashi than a Saddam Hussein) and North Korea’s Eric Cartman continuing in much the same manner. It is a near certainty that when North Korea eventually collapses, it will do so with alarming speed leaving absolute chaos behind.
There is a reason for this. In Germany, for example, it doesn’t really matter too much who the Chancellor is. The civil service and local governments run most administrative functions of the state, and the state institutions are mature and robust enough such that they don’t need daily political direction from the Reichstag. If Angela Merkel dropped dead tomorrow, German citizens abroad would not be left stranded, Poland would not suddenly fear an invasion from the west, and the future of Siemens would look no less secure. But in a country where everything is micromanaged by a single person, perhaps surrounded by a handful of close advisers, and institutions deliberately kept weak, ineffective, and dependent on the leader for regular direction and funding, then the country can quickly descend into chaos in the event of a change of leadership simply because nobody knows what they are supposed to be doing any longer. At the same time a handful of people are usually fighting for power and control of the country, thus throwing the place even deeper into chaos. Simple state functions like issuing driving licenses, providing electricity, and paying salaries grind to a halt and the rest of the world looks on wondering what the next leader will be like. Angela Merkel’s successor might be a little less disposed towards the UK and a little more towards France, but fundamentally nothing much will change.
Compounding this is the fact that authoritarian leaders usually crush all opposition, leaving behind no credible alternative. Which is good for them, for a while, but it means there is no succession plan: and without a succession plan, yet more chaos reigns in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the leader. And this is where Russia finds itself now. Putin’s grip on power has become so strong that there is no credible opposition to him, and it is extremely difficult to gauge what type of regime would follow him in the (ultimately inevitable) event of his demise (the North Koreans solved this issue by implementing a regal succession policy). Political discourse in Russia is at such a low point that – like the Thai king – even discussion of a potential successor regime is frowned upon and seen as a sign of disloyalty. This might not be such a problem if Russia’s institutions – treasury, courts, foreign office, civil service, military – had been cleared of corruption, properly funded, and granted some degree of independence in the Putin years but there has been little improvement over the past decade and they still remain weak, divided, and vulnerable to whatever winds may blow from the Kremlin.
At some point, though probably not soon, Putin will fall. When he does, it is likely Russians will awake to a country in absolute chaos. Russia has a terrible record in this department, with leaders normally being deposed while on holiday (wouldn’t it be ironic if this happened to Putin when in Crimea?) freeing the ringleaders to take control from Moscow. When Putin goes, one can expect various factions to fight each other for the top job – members of Putin’s inner circle who consider themselves his rightful successor, pitched against clans who have waited on the sidelines for years and now feel it is their turn, and a dozen or more opportunistic psychopaths who will chance their arm. Added to this will be regional bosses looking to take advantage of the chaos in Moscow to expand their money and power bases, eliminate opponents, and settle scores. As we saw last time around, when Russians do this sort of thing they do so openly and brutally, and the population suffers terribly. Outsiders – Ukraine and China, to name two interested parties – might also be tempted to take advantage of Russia’s weakness to redraw a few borders. Would the West even care?
Despite his relatively young 62 years, Putin has precious little time to strengthen Russia’s institutions and allow an opposition to develop such that a succession plan can be outlined and chaos avoided (and no, saying “Sechin will take over from me” is not a succession plan that will avoid chaos: I’d give him about a week following Putin’s demise for him to be either dead or fleeing for his life). But there’s no way he’s going to do this, and the personality cult that has developed around him has as good as sealed Russia’s fate in the post-Putin era.