KOLKATA (THE STATESMAN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) – In 2018, Xi Jinping secured a path to rule indefinitely when the Chinese parliament, almost reversing the era of ‘collective’ leadership and orderly succession, abolished presidential term limits and handed Xi almost total authority.
An excited Donald Trump mused that he wouldn’t mind doing the same thing. Poor Trump – he is at the helm of the wrong country at the wrong time. The US would certainly not follow such “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, for sure.
But, across the Chinese border in the north, Russia took two more years to do the same.
And now about 78 per cent of voters have endorsed constitutional amendments that potentially allow 67-year-old Putin to rule as president until 2036, although, in January, Putin had said that he didn’t want Russia to return to the late Soviet- era practice of having lifelong rulers.
However, branding Putin the ‘New Tsar’ of Russia would be utterly cliched.
Western media has been doing so for quite some time now.
In fact, in 2015, Steven Lee Myers, who has covered Russia for The New York Times since 2002, wrote his book ‘The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin’.
After Boris Yeltsin’s resignation on the last day of 1999, Putin has been reigning Russia from the very beginning of this century.
Myers’ book covered some of the greatest exhibitions of Putin’s total power like the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi and the conquering of Crimea, both in 2014.
Also, at the centenary of Bolshevik Revolution, a Washington Post opinion piece read: “Russia has its czar a century after the October Revolution”.
Then, prior to the 2018 Russian presidential election, a documentary entitled ‘Putin: The New Tsar’ was produced by Oxford Films/BBC to place Putin’s unlikely rise from provincial obscurity in St. Petersburg to being the President of Russia in historical context.
In a recent interview, Putin didn’t agree with the idea that he could be called a tsar.
“I don’t reign, I work every day,” he said.
But Putin has now grabbed the power corridors of the Kremlin in such a way that he is undoubtedly among the few most powerful Russian rulers in history.
He is certainly no less powerful than even Ivan the Terrible of the 16th century or Peter the Great of the late 17th and early 18th century.
For centuries, Russia remained isolated in the north of Europe, mostly due to geographical and socio-religious reasons. Tsarism is almost inscribed in the genes of the Russians.
The October Revolution hit the roots of that mentality.
However, the millennia- old social inertia still influenced its experiment towards communism and post-communism.
Although some are excited about the drunken period of Boris Yeltsin, the democracy following Perestroika was not quite perfect.
Many think that Yeltsin’s era was like a mirage – the Russians were enthusiastic yet grossly unfamiliar with democracy.
The decade following the Soviet collapse was a history of lawlessness in many aspects.
Putin emerged amid such a political perspective.
Putin, as described by Myers, is an ultra-cool, extremely ambitious, calculative leader with few scruples.
It is almost impossible to decipher what drives the man who has so completely ruled Russia for the last two decades.
However, there is a story, Putin’s own favourite, behind the making of today’s Vladimir Putin.
In the dying days of East Germany in 1989, thousands of protesters once stormed Stasi headquarters in Dresden. Lieutenant Colonel Putin, a 37-year-old KGB officer there, called for armed backup, but was told “Moscow is silent”.
He went outside and lied to the crowds that he had heavily armed men waiting inside who would shoot anyone who tried to enter.
The bluff worked and the mob dispersed.
However, Putin felt he was watching one of the largest and most powerful empires the world had ever seen unravel in the most pathetic and humiliating way – “that the country was no more.”
In 1999, just before becoming president, Putin wrote in a Russian newspaper: “For the first time in the past 200-300 years, Russia faces the real danger that it could be relegated to the second, or even the third tier of global powers.”
Certainly, Putin has resurrected Russian pride – Russia regained its strong ‘first-tier’ nationhood status.
The world struggles to confront a newly assertive Russia.
That has to be the biggest achievement of Vladimir Putin.
And it is very unusual that someone – outside monarchy or communism – could achieve such a grip and absolute power.
For millions of Russians the only experience of democracy in the early years following the Soviet collapse spelt instability, poverty, and criminality.
In contrast, with his unorthodox brand of democracy, Putin orchestrated the preservation of a new kind of authoritarianism by consolidating power, brutally crushing revolts and swiftly dispatching dissenters. Putin’s Russia is neither ‘Soviet Union lite’ nor a liberal democracy.
“The Russian people are backward,” Putin once told a group of foreign journalists.
“They cannot adapt to democracy as they have done in your countries. They need time.”
Some prefer to call it a ‘managed democracy’ – providing only the semblance of popular will.
The term ‘sovereign democracy’ is a Kremlin coinage instead, which is markedly different from Hugo Chávez’s concept of sovereign democracy though.
Putin’s Russia might be an authoritarian state, but it is very different from a properly run dictatorship. Can we simply call it a ‘postcommunist’ state – still in the process of crystallisation?
There are elections, but a ruler for 18 years can still manage an astonishing 77 per cent of the votes even without much canvassing, with the runner-up getting only 12 per cent support.
Certainly, there cannot be a better illustration of democracy, communism, and post-communism than comparing three contemporary world-leaders – Donald Trump, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin.
For the time being, Putin, one of the defining politicians of his age, will determine how post-communism would evolve in the contemporary history of this planet.
The writer is Professor of Statistics at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata. The Statesman is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 24 newspaper titles.
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