Politics & Policy

A Tale of Two Dictators

“There is a tide in the affairs of men,” Cassius informs Brutus in persuading him to mount a coup,” that taken at the flood leads onto fortune.” It leads onto other things too, among them, as Cassius discovers in the course of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” defeat and death. But the early stages of a successful coup and dictatorship are often smiled upon by fortune. Filipinos and foreign visitors both were impressed by the early days of the Marcos coup. It had replaced near-anarchy with civil order and ordinary apolitical citizens were accordingly grateful. Argentina’s generals brought an end to terrorism; Pinochet delivered not only order but prosperity; Castro promised social justice. All of them seemed better than the terrorism/anarchy/oppression they had replaced.

None of these happy outcomes lasted — except, paradoxically, Castro’s, which in every other respect has been the least successful dictatorship of those listed. Over time people became accustomed to the benefits of order and angry at the loss of liberty. Almost all dictatorships end badly for the dictator. Either he is ousted in a coup, or forced to flee, or murdered, or — like Mussolini — murdered and humiliated simultaneously. In short, dictatorship is a roller-coaster. A sensible despot — of which there are few — gets out of the car before it starts to descend.

Last weekend Hugo Chávez and Vladimir Putin were given different reasons to reflect on this truth. Chávez expected — and was expected by others — to win handily the Venezuelan referendum that inter alia would have installed him in power permanently. The fact that according to the official figures he was defeated narrowly suggests that he in fact lost heavily. His roller-coaster car is already heading downwards.

Some of his earlier supporters must have voted against him this weekend. If media reports are accurate, they did so because they valued democracy. The referendum would have taken the power to choose mayors from the voters and given it to — Chávez! They drew the appropriate conclusion. Some who voted for Chávez undoubtedly did so from the fear that he would win and might perhaps punish their resistance. They now have cause to reconsider their timidity.

The high price of oil has been sustaining Chávez in money, popularity, and power until the present. It will probably not rise higher in the medium term — and it may fall. So it will be no easier and maybe harder for Chávez to purchase support from the voters. All these factors count against him. The Bolivarian Revolution no longer looks inevitable.

If Chávez subsequently decides to push through the referendum a second time, as he has hinted doing, he could probably win only by blatant cheating and arm-twisting. It is far from certain that the armed forces — his original and most important power base — would support an openly undemocratic election. His strongest ally, the (ailing) Castro, looks unable to offer the kind of interventionist help he gave Allende and the Grenadian Marxists (with unhappy results on both occasions). Chávez’s other neighbors — both those allied to him and those he seeks to subvert — will see that he is a reduced figure and act accordingly.

In short, Chávez would be sensible to buy a vacation home outside Havana and plan his departure from the carnival. He may not, however, be sensible. He also has the resources to attempt an internal coup, if not to ensure its success. To provide for that eventuality, the Bush administration should ask the Organization of American States to embark on contingency plans for isolating and containing an undemocratic Chávez regime.

Chávez’s defeat should be a lesson for Putin too. It is certainly a necessary one, because the latter’s roller-coaster car is still in its upward stage. Russia’s parliamentary elections last weekend were both rigged — the European equivalent of the OAS called them “neither free, nor fair, nor democratic” — and successful. His party won more than 60 percent of the vote. Indeed, in a nostalgic echo of Soviet days, it won 99 percent in some areas.

This result will encourage Putin to continue his slow-motion coup. He still wields power (just about) constitutionally even if many of his government’s actions — using regulatory powers to intimidate industries into submission, expropriating others that resist, closing down media critics, arresting dissidents and confining them, Soviet-style, in mental institutions — offend against both democracy and liberty. He still enjoys the gratitude of the Soviet voters for making them richer and ending the chaotic “robber capitalism” of the later Yeltsin years — even if “robber capitalism” has ended only through the KGB state’s elimination of rival robbers and world oil markets deserve the credit for Russia’s temporary prosperity. He still has just about enough international respectability to receive congratulations from President Sarkozy on his transparently fraudulent electoral success.

If Putin could halt even at this stage, retreat from some of his government’s more brutal and manipulative methods, surrender power at the end of his presidential term, and retire gracefully into the private sector, he would be admired by Russians for restoring a stable, prosperous democracy and forgiven for his crimes in office. He might even be rewarded for his prudence with a high-sounding international job. Russia’s future would then be a case of aprés lui, le dèluge.

As things stand, however, Putin seems intent on being there when the deluge occurs. That would entail some such maneuver as Putin’s appointing himself prime minister, installing a tailor’s dummy as president, and continuing to rule in reality. Western nations would still negotiate with him out of diplomatic necessity — as we are currently doing over Iran — but something vital would have changed. Russia’s leader would have sunk to the level of Third World dictators who are treated as less than equals in serious international politics. Few serious nations would be willing to come to his aid when the deluge eventually struck.

Exactly what shape that deluge might take cannot be predicted — a fall in energy prices is the most likely candidate. It would subject the current Russian economy and regime to enormous strains, sweep away the current unreal euphoria of Russian opinion, sharpen the demographic and other problems of Russian society, and weaken the Kremlin in its dealings with neighboring countries it currently seeks to bully on issues from missile defense to energy pricing. Putin’s popularity would quickly be replaced by ignominy. His departure from office might then be a brutal affair involving things far less pleasant than a generous pension, a state dacha, and secret-service protection.

Democratic political leaders may resent their fixed terms and subjection to the voters. They should be grateful that these rules limit not only the damage they inflict, but also the damage that can be inflicted on them.

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