“History proves that all dictatorships, all authoritarian forms of government are transient. Only democratic systems are not transient. Whatever the shortcomings, mankind has not devised anything superior.” —Vladimir Putin
The above quote is probably from the distant past in Russian president Vladimir Putin’s life.
But it’s not a one-off. Here are other eye-openers: “Nobody and nothing will stop Russia on the road to strengthening democracy and ensuring human rights and freedoms.”
“There are both things in international law: The principle of territorial integrity and the right to self-determination.”
Having said all that, he is now embroiled in an all-out invasion of an independent neighboring country which was formerly part of the now extinct Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) under Russian hegemony.
There are varying opinions on who or what is ultimately responsible for this unprovoked attack on Ukraine which is costing many lives, crippling its economy, destroying its infrastructure and causing an overnight refugee exodus numbering in the millions.
Many lay the blame squarely and solely on Putin, while others point to the United States and its Western allies, particularly the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which today counts former USSR countries among its members.
I will not dwell on this complicated issue, which is a subject for political experts, but the fact remains that the situation is a potential powder keg, which this early is already impacting the rest of the world, at the very least economically.
Rise to power
The main point of this piece is on a more personal level—how an originally democratically elected head of state evolved into an authoritarian “strongman” with practically no term limits and political constraints to his rule. In this case, as the leader of a military superpower, he has the capacity to wreak widespread havoc in the international community.
Putin’s rise to power began when President Boris Yeltsin appointed him acting prime minister of the Russian Federation in 1999. He became acting president when Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned, and subsequently won the presidential election in 2000. Since then, he has deftly held on to power by alternating between the presidency and the premiership and is now on his fourth presidential term (2018-2024).
In 2024, he will again be eligible for two additional six-year terms based on an executive order inserted into the Russian Constitution, which became an official amendment in July 2020. With Putin virtually assured of a lifetime presidency, political experts no longer regard Russia as a democracy but an authoritarian state, citing the jailing and repression of political opponents, the intimidation and suppression of the free press, and the lack of free and fair elections. (Wikipedia)
With his personal decision to mobilize Russia’s military might to invade Ukraine, Putin has put an exclamation point to his transformation from a democratically elected leader to an autocrat with absolute political power.
As expected, the dire consequences of the ongoing invasion have not been limited to Ukraine, but now are being felt in its neighboring countries and globally, including here in our country—and most especially in Russia itself. Consider these:
Ukraine is being destroyed as a country—physically, economically, politically, socially and most fundamentally in terms of the daily lives of its citizens who are being killed, displaced, deprived of their livelihood and their heretofore normal existence; the situation will get worse if they become an occupied people without the freedoms they have known.
Ukraine’s neighbors (Poland, Hungary, Romania and others) will be overwhelmed by the influx of refugees growing into the millions as the war drags on. Fortunately, these countries have so far welcomed their displaced Ukrainian neighbors, but an unabated refugee influx can lead to another humanitarian crisis.
The Russian people themselves are already feeling the pinch of the widespread and varied sanctions increasingly imposed by the United States and its allies, including traditionally neutral countries such as Switzerland—the banning of Russian flights, the cancellation of existing business agreements, the termination of partnerships, the cutting of access to certain banks and financial services, the cancellation of sports and cultural events, the exclusion of Russia in international organizations (the list goes on). Most telling is the drastic loss of value of the Russian ruble, and its inevitable effect on the prices of goods for ordinary Russians. The growing international isolation and discrimination against Russians in various fields has prompted many of them to call on their government to cease its hostilities against Ukraine.
Globally, the continuous spikes in the prices of petroleum products are significantly affecting economies which are heavily dependent on oil imports (our country is among them). In addition to pump prices at record highs, consumers everywhere will have to deal with rising inflation.
The ongoing war also affects the international community’s sustained ability to address the critical issues facing humanity as a whole. According to respected historian Yuval Noah Harari in a recent TedTalk interview, the threat and insecurity being fostered by the Russia-Ukraine conflict have led governments to significantly increase their allocations for military preparedness (e.g., Germany has doubled its military budget overnight).
In doing this, countries have to cut down on their projected allocations to address urgent worldwide problems such as global warming and climate change, pandemic response, international health and social services, environmental degradation, income inequality and the needed advancements in technology to address these challenges. In short, the prospect of wider military conflict and another possible Cold War is forcing governments to put more emphasis on national security.
What is the world learning from all this? Aside from underscoring yet again that we now live in a global village where the fortunes of all countries are intertwined, a corollary important lesson is that the actions of individual leaders, especially authoritarians, can significantly impact this worldwide village we all live in. With little or no consultation, their decisions often don’t reflect the will or the best interests of their constituents, and since no one can oppose effectively, some actions can lead to disastrous consequences on a big scale.
The bottom line: Authoritarian rule is not a viable system of governance and is transient, as Putin himself said in an apparently enlightened moment.
Here in our country, we have been able to restore our lost liberties and the institutions of a working democracy after 14 years under a dictatorship. But recently, we have again elected a leader with a strong authoritarian bent.
Today, we have another opportunity to elect a new leader totally free from the inclinations of a closet authoritarian or one who brings with him the vestiges and baggage of a former dictatorship.
As I emphasized in a previous piece, a nation’s leader has the biggest role in determining the path and fortunes of his/her country, and can bring it to new heights or unprecedented depths. Let us not choose the latter.