Modern-Day Dictatorships

Contemporary Autocrats aren’t like past dictators. Most now claim legitimacy on the country through rigged elections, with a handful of capitalist friends and hi-tech weaponry of social media

By Geeta Singh

DICTATORSHIP has changed its nature and face in the 21st century. Contemporary Autocrats aren’t like past dictators. Most now claim legitimacy through rigged elections, which is why votes in authoritarian countries are often accompanied by repression, with a handful of capitalist friends and hi-tech weaponry of social media. A government that faces democratic elections, even skewed ones, must still take these things into account. In countries where the opposition, media, and public opinion matter less, the balance is different.  

Great philosopher Karl Marx joked that “history repeats itself twice, first as tragedy then as farce”. In the case of Russia, It doesn’t. Most Russian leaders have aspired to emulate the achievements of the two preeminent modern rulers, Peter the Great and Stalin, both revolutionary tsars, both brutal killers. Putin is not Stalin. Stalin was a Marxist; Putin is a 21st-century tyrant, who, while homogenised characters of Romanov and Soviet imperialism, is a populist and nationalist, a practitioner of modern-day identity politics.  But he also uses both old-fashioned military heavy metal and the new hi-tech protection and defence of social media.

For autocrats and would-be autocrats around the world, the Chinese government offers a package that looks something like this: Agree to follow China’s lead on Hong Kong, Tibet, the Uyghurs, and human rights more broadly. Buy Chinese surveillance equipment. Accept massive Chinese investment. Then sit back and relax, knowing that how bad your image becomes in the eyes of the international human-rights community, you and your friends will remain in power. 

One can find these traits in Muslim countries, which may be expected to object to the oppression of other Muslims. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has stated baldly that “we accept the Chinese version” of the Chinese-Uyghur dispute. The Saudis, the Emiratis, and the Egyptians have all allegedly arrested, detained, and deported Uyghurs without much discussion. Not coincidentally, these are all countries that seek good economic relations with China, and that have purchased Chinese surveillance technology. 

PUTINISM OF RUSSIA

Across the world nowadays, people are asking if Russian President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin is a new Stalin. A picture of Putin was viral before the invasion of Ukraine in which Putin was looking closely at the pictures of  Soviet heroes – Lenin and Stalin. Who knows, he might be looking for a new cult personality for himself by combining the heroism of Lenin and the dictatorship of Stalin! If we look at the deteriorating democracies in the world, Russia comes predominantly because President Putin has made the country his personal privy fiefdom. 

The Uyghurs are the largest minority ethnic group in China's north-western province of Xinjiang.

Not just Uyghurs, the repression of other minority communities in China also continues. The Xi government is now targeting 70 million Christian residing in China

As per the constitution, no person could be President more than twice, so Putin has changed the constitution. He became president 22 years ago and his term would have ended in 2024 if the constitution had not been amended in Russia in 2020. But this possibility has been lost after the proposed reshuffle received support from 78 percent of the people of Russia. After the constitutional amendment is implemented, Putin can contest elections for two terms of six years each in 2024 and 2036. 

In January 2020,  Putin called for changes to the Constitution, which included the removal of term limits. In a speech to the State Duma in March 2020, Putin cited the example of US President Franklin D Roosevelt, who served four terms — starting 1932, 1936, 1940 and 1944. Roosevelt’s four-term presidency paved the way for the 22nd Amendment to the US Constitution, ratified in 1951, that limited the Presidential term to two four-year terms. In his speech, as reported by Reuters, Putin gave the reference that Roosevelt had to serve four terms because of the problems the US was facing at the time (Great Depression, World War II) and that, therefore, putting limits on Presidential terms was sometimes superfluous. 

Russian voters have overwhelmingly backed a referendum on constitutional changes that includes a provision allowing Putin to remain in power until 2036 when he will be 83 years old. With nearly all of the ballots counted, the tally for the voting that has taken place over a full week showed a 78% “yes” vote, according to Russia’s Central Election Commission. The commission estimated the turnout was 65% of eligible voters although the opposition accused the government of rigging the vote. 

The noted scholar of Russian History, Stephen Kotkin, who has written a biography of Joseph Stalin, comments that the reign of Putin isn’t the same regime like Stalin’s or the tsar’s, either. In his interview with New Yorker, Kotkin said, “there’s been tremendous change: urbanisation, higher levels of education. The world outside has been transformed. And that’s the shock. The shock is that so much has changed, and yet we’re still seeing this pattern that they can’t escape from. You have an autocrat in power—or even now a despot—making decisions completely by himself. Does he get input from others? Perhaps. We don’t know what the inside looks like. Does he pay attention? We don’t know. Do they bring him information that he doesn’t want to hear? That seems unlikely. Does he think he knows better than everybody else?”

“He’s getting what he wants to hear. In any case, he believes that he’s superior and smarter. This is the problem of despotism. It’s why despotism, or even just authoritarianism, is all-powerful and brittle at the same time. Despotism creates the circumstances of its own undermining,” the scholar added. Kotkin has a distinguished reputation in academic circles. He is a professor of history at Princeton University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, at Stanford University. He has myriad sources in various realms of contemporary Russia: government, business, and culture.

EUPHORIA OF NATIONALISM

However, Putin is showing Russians the dream of the glorious past of the Soviet Union, but somewhere in his skin-deep dream, his secret ambitions are hidden. Through the war in Ukraine, he wants to create a frenzy of nationalism in his country so that he can quell the voices of dissent and rebellion against him. Last year in January, millions of people marched against Putin from other cities to Moscow, but now many of them are jailed. 

In his mind, the events leading to December 25, 1991, when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) ceased to exist as a sovereign state should not have happened. The collapse of the former USSR was gradual, but Putin feels Russia was taken advantage of its weakest point by the rest of Europe. Now, he dreams of a remaking of the former union.

On the war front, Russia has taken a decisive lead over Ukraine. More than 5 months have passed since Russia’s invasion and the whole world has nonchalantly watched the catastrophe of Ukraine with its innocent civilians dying mercilessly. Barring some economic sanctions imposed on Russia, powerful countries and the United Nations could not do much. And surprisingly these sanctions do not matter too much for Russia as was expected, because Putin has the full support of its bred-in-the-bone ally — China. The economic cooperation between Putin and Xi Jinping has increased with a surge in Yuan-Rouble trade of 1067 percent since the beginning of the war. It is an out-and-out strategic friendship to reduce the power of the United States of America.

UNDEMOCRATIC TRANSITION IN BELARUS

Siarhei Tsikhanouski is a video blogger who wanted to challenge Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko but he was sentenced to 18 years in prison on charges of organising mass unrest and of inciting social hatred. 

Kim Jong-un, Supreme Leader of North Korea
Kim Jong-un, Supreme Leader of North Korea

Through his YouTube channel “The Country for Life,” Siarhei and some of his followers drove around Belarus in a car with the logo “Real News” to showcase the lives and plights of people they met both in the countryside and big cities. The blogger decided to run for President as a result of urging from his subscribers but the Central Election Commission refused to accept Tsikhanouski’s documents. At the time of registration, he was under arrest for participating in December 2019 protests against Belarusian integration with Russia. So his wife, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, submitted her documents for registration as a presidential candidate. She probably won the 2020 presidential election in Belarus, and because the Belarusian dictator she probably defeated, Sviatlana was forced out of the country immediately afterwards. 

Recently Kim Jong Un’s dictatorship is intensifying its crackdown on “decadent” Western fashion trends in North Korea, such as coloured hair, tight trousers, and piercings

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya became the leader of the democratic forces in Belarus and a serious opponent to long-time leader Alexander Lukashenko. Many see her as the true election winner. After the Central Election Commission declared Lukashenko reelected as President for the sixth term,  in a vote that the opposition and the West denounced as a sham. The country witnessed massive protests, as well as a violent crackdown by security forces.  

Mass demonstrations unfolded across Belarus. These were both a spontaneous outburst of feeling—a popular response to the stolen election—and a carefully coordinated project run by young people, some based in Warsaw, who had been experimenting with social media and new forms of communication for several years. Many countries have refused to accept the election result. In a country of fewer than 10 million, up to 1.5 million people would come out in a single day, among them pensioners, villagers, factory workers, and even, in a few places, members of the police and the security services, some of whom removed insignia from their uniforms or threw them in the garbage. Faced with the greatest popular challenge in his 27 years in power, President Alexander Lukashenko was quick to churn out anti-Nato rhetoric, aimed at Putin as much as at domestic audiences. 

The political crisis that has gripped Belarus, an ally of Russia,  for the past 2 two years has seen Lukashenko’s transition from a peacemaker to a pawn in Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine. After hosting talks in 2015 to end fighting in eastern Ukraine, Belarus has now opted to facilitate the Russian attack on its neighbour — Ukraine. 

Before Alexander Lukashenko was elected President in 1994, Belarus pursued closer economic and political ties with Russia. Lukashenko quickly grasped that economic integration with Russia was a good idea. He pushed for economic and foreign policy cooperation between the two countries. In 1999, Belarus and Russia signed a treaty establishing the Union States. This vaguely defined entity saw both states retain their sovereignty but share some supranational institutions. 

In 2014, Lukashenko avoided formally recognising Russia’s annexation of Crimea and instead made overtures to the west. By 2020, relations with the Kremlin had reached a new low. Stephen Biegun, who was the US deputy secretary of state at the time, describes the change as a shift to “more sophisticated, more controlled ways to repress the population.” Belarus became a textbook example of what the journalist William J Dobson has called “the dictator’s learning curve”.

PUTIN’S INFLUENCE ON ALLIES

The Lukashenko rescue package, reminiscent of the one Putin had designed for Bashar al-Assad in Syria six years earlier, contained economic elements too. Russian companies offered markets for Belarusian products that had been banned by the democratic West—for example, smuggling Belarusian cigarettes into the European Union.

Political commentator Anne Applebaum working with The Atlantic magazine writes about the measures President Lukashenko used to torture dissent voices. She writes, “Techniques that had been used successfully in the past to repress crowds in Russia were seamlessly transferred to Belarus, along with personnel who understood how to deploy them. Russian television journalists arrived to replace the Belarusian journalists who had gone on strike, and immediately stepped up the campaign to portray the demonstrations as the work of Americans and other foreign “enemies.”

Russian police appear to have supplemented their Belarusian colleagues or at least given them advice, and a policy of selective arrests began. As Vladimir Putin figured out a long time ago, mass arrests are unnecessary if you can jail, torture, or possibly murder just a few key people. The rest will be frightened into staying home. Eventually, they will become apathetic, because they believe nothing can change.

Lukashenko turned against his people and transformed himself from an autocratic, patriarchal grandfather—a kind of national collective-farm boss—into a tyrant who revels in cruelty. Reassured by Putin’s support, he began breaking new ground. Not just selective arrests—a year later, human-rights activists say that more than 800 political prisoners remain in jail—but torture, rape, kidnapping and, quite possibly, murder.

Lukashenko’s violent crackdown brought on Western sanctions, which intensified after Minsk hijacked an international flight over its airspace. Last year to arrest a passenger, dissident journalist Roman Protasevich, one of Lukashenko’s warplanes forced a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania to land in Minsk. Though Belarus provoked outrage in the West after this incident, nothing much happened to Lukashenko’s government. The President also manufactured a migrant crisis on the Polish border, which earned Belarus widespread condemnation and further sanctions.

AUTOCRAT OF  VENEZUELA

Nicolas Maduro Moros, Venezuelan President and labour leader, won the special election held in April 2013 to serve out the remaining term of then-President Hugo Chávez, who had died in March, that year. He has been in power since 2013, and mass protests against his government began in 2015. 

In 2017 Nicolas Maduro, the President of Venezuela, scrambled to cling to power as his country was battered by an unprecedented economic crisis. And in the process, he became a Dictator. Maduro was tossing political opponents into prison. He was cracking down on growing street protests with lethal force, with government security forces killing at least 150 demonstrators in recent months. 

In the last 19 years, Erdogan has been chasing a dream to become the Caliph, or in other words, the ruler of the Muslim world

Maduro has repeatedly postponed regional government elections to stave off threats to his party’s power. And in July 2017, he held a rigged election for a special legislative body that superseded forcefully the country’s Parliament — the one branch of government that was controlled by his political opposition. The new super body was carte blanche to rewrite the country’s constitution and expanded its executive powers. Maduro and his supporters since then have had total control of the government, and they’re showing no signs of slowing down.  Eventually, in 2019, Maduro released 22 political prisoners and pardoned 110 more. But in December, Venezuela held elections that, once again, failed to meet democratic standards. Maduro’s party, unsurprisingly, won. 

In a series of damning reports, the United Nations has characterised the Maduro regime’s killing and imprisonment of protesters as “crimes against humanity.” Many countries have imposed increasingly harsh sanctions on Venezuela over many years.

Venezuela—once Latin America’s wealthiest country, is now home to hyperinflation and near-universal poverty due to the failed socialist policies of Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro. Now, the country is an international pariah. Since 2019, US citizens and companies have been forbidden to do any business there. Canada, the EU, and many of Venezuela’s South American neighbours maintain sanctions on the country. 

But Nicolas Maduro’s regime does not care much about these sanctions. He has international strong friends like Russia, China, Turkey and Iran and his government receives loans as well as oil investments from Russia and China. Turkey facilitates the illicit Venezuelan gold trade. Cuba has provided security advisers, as well as security technology, to the country’s rulers. The international narcotics trade keeps individual members of the regime well supplied with designer shoes and handbags.

HARDLINERS OF AFGHANISTAN

Taliban have barred girls from getting an education.  Girls’ schools are closed across Afghanistan. Since taking power in August 2021, Taliban officials have reiterated their commitment to protecting women’s rights “within the framework of Sharia.  Sharia law in its fiercest forms is in operation everywhere, with public executions, stonings and whippings commonplace. Gangs of vigilantes hung out on street corners, attacking men who showed their ankles or wore any form of Western clothing.

Taliban have barred girls from getting an education.  Girls’ schools are closed across Afghanistan

Women only ventured out if they had written permission from men, and of course, had to wear the all-encompassing burka.  The new restrictions require women to either wear a full niqab, which covers the face but not the eyes or a burqa, covering the body and full face with a mesh over the eyes. It’s their mahram or male guardian, who is usually a close male relative, who will have to police their dress, otherwise, they could face punishment. The men could be summoned to see ministry officials, and potentially even be sent to court or jailed for three days. Women with jobs could be fired.

“The new Taliban, same as the old Taliban,” tweeted Bill Roggio, managing editor of the US-based Long War Journal, summing up global worries about the Taliban and the diplomatic fallout of its return. The Taliban’s return to power comes almost 20 years after a US-led military campaign deposed the group in response to its harbouring of the international Islamist terrorist group Al Qaeda, which carried out the September 11, 2001, attacks. Taliban regrouped and began an insurgency that by 2005 was challenging the US and international military forces, along with the new Afghan government and its nascent security forces, in different parts of Afghanistan. Prior governments of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani were democratically elected but never strong, and corruption was the system which worked best to oust them.

ERDOGAN’S REGIME

The modern political system that governs the Republic of Türkiye or Turkey has gradually evolved into an “elected dictatorship” and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself is an absolute ruler. Neo-Ottoman threats, even for war, are ground reality. Erdogan came to power in 2003, when he was the Prime Minister. In the last 19 years, Erdogan has been chasing a dream to become the Caliph, or in other words, the ruler of the Muslim world. Although he maintains that joining the EU is Turkey’s strategic goal. But in practice, Erdogan is looking east, towards the Arab world. Turkey could have been the bridge between the Muslim and the secular world. But Erdogan chose to be the wedge. His priority was to convert Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia museum into a mosque. Turkey’s army is one of the most powerful in NATO, and he’s using it to fuel the fight between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Erdogan refused to recognise the Republic of Cyprus. In 2013, Turkish police cracked down on protesters. In 2014, and 2016, the government launched a purge, and with his intervention in Syria and Iraq, Erdogan became unapologetically authoritarian.

NORTH KOREA’S CULT PERSONALITY

North Korea’s frantic dictator Kim Jong Un is known worldwide for his eccentricities and strange habits. In January this year when graffiti abusing Kim Jong Un appeared, authorities checked the handwriting of thousands of residents to hunt down the unknown writer in Pyongyang City.

While travelling the idiosyncratic dictator avoids using public restrooms so he carries his personal portable toilet that follows him around the world to prevent his precious bodily excretions from falling into the wrong hands. His former staff at North Korean Guard Command, Lee Yun-keol, who worked until 2005, told this secret to the Washington Post. He said, “the leader’s excretions contain information about his health status, so they can’t be left behind.” In Fact Kim Jong-un brought his portable toilet to Singapore also when he came there to meet with US President Donald Trump. He also deployed decoy planes and packed his own food to try to prevent poisoning.

Less than two years after taking power in 2011, Kim Jong Un ordered the execution of his uncle, Jang Song Thaek. It is also widely assumed Kim Jong Un set up the assassination of his half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, in Kuala Lumpur airport in February 2017.

Xi Jinping

Xi Jinping has become the most powerful after the founder of the Communist Party, Mao Zedong

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea remains one of the most repressive countries in the world. Ruled by the authoritarian leader Kim Jong Un, the government responded to international challenges and the Covid-19 pandemic in 2021 with deepened isolation and repression and maintained fearful obedience in the population through threats of execution, imprisonment, and enforced disappearances, and forced hard labour in detention and prison camps. Recently Kim Jong Un’s dictatorship was intensifying its crackdown on “decadent” Western fashion trends in North Korea, like coloured hair, tight trousers and piercings. Country’s Socialist Patriot Youth League is currently targeting women in their 20s and 30s.

North Korea uses songbun, a socio-political classification system that groups people into “loyal,” “wavering,” or “hostile” classes, and is used to justify politically determining discrimination in employment, residence, and schooling. Pervasive corruption allows some manoeuvring around the strictures of the songbun system, with government officials accepting bribes to grant permissions, permitting certain market activities, or avoiding possible punishments. Leif-Eric Easley, an associate professor of international studies at Seoul’s Ewha Women’s University says, “the Kim regime has managed to stay in power for so long by ”belittling Seoul, demonising the United States, and touting national self-reliance.”

Last year, Amnesty International, an organisation working on human rights, took satellite images of the labour camps here. The report associated with it narrates how gruesome acts like rape, abortion, murder and hard labour are common in those jails. It is believed that more than 2 lakh prisoners are living in very bad conditions in these jails in North Korea. The Mirror reports there is an army around these prisons carrying rifles, hand grenades and dreaded dogs, who kill those prisoners who try to escape.

VOICES AGAINST JINPING’S DICTATORSHIP

Xi Jinping, the leader of the world’s most populated country and second-largest economy (GDP) holds a firm grasp on China’s only political party. Xi has been holding three posts —General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and Chairman of the Central Military Commission since 2012, and President of the People’s Republic of China since 2013. He is the most powerful and prominent political leader in the People’s Republic of China, since 2012.  Xi believes Mao Zedong invented a superior form of organisation, which he is carrying on: a totalitarian closed society in which the individual is subordinated to the one-party state.  On March 11, 2018, China amended its constitution for the first time in 14 years, broadening Xi’s power and scrapping term limits. 

President Xi’s bid for unchecked power got a critical boost with the enactment of a constitutional amendment that repeals the term ‘limits’ and other important safeguards adopted in 1982, in the wake of the Cultural Revolution. Suzuki Ken, an expert in Chinese with Nippon.com, analyzes this historic shift from the “Deng Xiaoping Constitution” of 1982 to the “Xi Jinping Constitution” of 2018.

 By repealing the presidential term limit, which was limited to two terms since 1982, the latest constitutional amendment has made it possible for Xi Jinping to remain China’s supreme leader as long as he so desires. The person who controls the Communist Party of China has control over all the powers there. Xi Jinping is said to have completely ousted his opponents in the Communist Party.  The revival of lifetime presidential tenure opens the door for the kind of personalistic authoritarianism that prevailed under Mao Zedong. With this, Xi Jinping has become the most powerful after the founder of the Communist Party, Mao Zedong.  

Last year, a man named Wang Jiangfeng had to serve two years in prison just because he made fun of Xi Jinping. This is just one example, there will be countless such cases in China, which show the growing dictatorship of Xi.  The Chinese authorities have arbitrarily detained as many as one million Uighurs and other minorities in 300 to 400 facilities in Xinjiang, the largest internment of an ethno-religious minority since World War II. Xinjiang is a province in the northwest corner of China where Uyghur Muslims of Turkish origin live.

The Chinese government does not give them religious freedom. Not just Uyghurs, the repression of other minority communities in China also continues. The Xi government is now targeting 70 million Christian residing in China. In Hong Kong, more than ten thousand young students have been detained because they protested against the communist dictatorship of China. Since 2017, the Chinese government has cracked down on the popular movement for democracy and freedom in Hong Kong with the help of boots, batons and jails.  

Geeta Singh

Geeta Singh has spent 20 years covering cinema, music, and society giving new dimensions to feature writing. She has to her credit the editorship of a film magazine. She is also engaged in exploring the socio-economic diversity of Indian politics. She is the co-founder of Parliamentarian.

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