The Vladimir Putin School of Leadership

FOLLOW THE LEADER? The brand of authoritarian rule wielded by Russian President Putin is being practised by some of the biggest developing nations' leaders.


    Aug 07, 2014

    The Vladimir Putin School of Leadership

    THE leaders of some of the biggest developing nations - China, India, Turkey and South Africa - are acting increasingly like Russian President Vladimir Putin.

    It may be that democracy as the West understands it will have to compete with a new strain of authoritarianism, much as it did with communism in Soviet times.

    "I feel our personalities are quite similar," China's Xi Jinping told Mr Putin last year. He has since been likened to the Russian leader for exacting selective justice against his political rivals and making a show of personally eradicating corruption rather than building institutions to counteract it.

    Mr Putin has famously focused his anti-corruption efforts on enemies such as opposition leader Alexei Navalny, rather than on his billionaire friends who are so improbably good at winning government contracts.

    The historian William Dalrymple has publicly worried that India's Narendra Modi could become a sort of "Indian Putin".

    Mr Modi, who put pressure on human rights activists and opposition journalists while he ran Gujarat, soon reinforced the comparison by having books containing an extreme nationalist version of history sent to the state's schoolchildren - a riff on Mr Putin's vision of a unified, definitive history textbook for Russia.

    Recep Tayyip Erdogan has grown increasingly Putinesque in his second decade as Turkey's leader. He has crushed major street protests by the liberal and leftist opposition, and all branches of power in Turkey are now under his control as he prepares to become the country's most powerful president since founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

    One commentator has described South Africa's Jacob Zuma and Mr Putin as "soul brothers". They are both dangerous to cross, and they have a common background: Mr Putin is a former KGB intelligence officer and Mr Zuma ran the African National Congress' intelligence operation in exile.

    It's not that Mr Putin himself is inherently evil or contagious. The crucial similarities are not really among the leaders themselves, but among all authoritarian regimes, regardless of the continents on which they operate. The most typical ones:

    The leader's personal power either exceeds the legal allotment or allows the leader to change the law when needed;

    Justice is selective and politically motivated ("For my friends, everything, for my enemies, the law"), often in the guise of anti-corruption campaigns;

    Censorship of the media falls short of totalitarian repression but stifles dissenting opinions;

    The regime associates itself with "traditional values", revisionist history and strong nationalist rhetoric;

    Leaders express irritation with Western preaching, believing that the West operates just as cynically, only less openly.

    These are not the characteristics of a smattering of rogue regimes. This is how the world's populous nations, with all their emerging economic and geopolitical clout, are governed.

    The Western version of democracy had a chance to spread after communism fell in the 1990s, but it has failed to take root where the world's untapped economic potential is concentrated.

    The West squandered its opportunity by cynical and self-serving interference in the emerging world's affairs. It botched democracy's marketing campaign: While democratic values themselves are hard to tarnish, the politicians who put themselves forward as their champions did not live up to the task.

    That's what Michael McFaul, the former United States ambassador to Russia, put more diplomatically in a New York Times article:

    "The US does not have the same moral authority as it did in the last century. As ambassador, I found it difficult to defend our commitment to sovereignty and international law when asked by Russians, 'What about Iraq?'

    "Some current practices of American democracy also do not inspire observers abroad."

    Democratic nations need to do a better job of leading by example, so that their governance model would have a stronger appeal to emerging nations than the simple recipes of authoritarianism.