Jul 20th 2016

The Strongman’s Power Trap


MOSCOW – 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 Erdoğan, 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, Erdoğan, 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 Erdoğan’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 publicized 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 behavior 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 five-year 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, Erdoğan 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 Erdoğan 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.


Nina L. Khrushcheva is Professor of International Affairs and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at The New School and a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2016.
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