The leaders of some of the biggest developing nations ― China, India, Turkey, South Africa ― are increasingly acting 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 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. 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.” Modi, who put pressure on human rights activists and opposition journalists while he ran the state of Gujarat, soon reinforced the comparison by having books containing an extreme nationalist version of history sent to the state’s schoolchildren ― a riff on 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. Like Putin, Erdogan distrusts social networks, believes his opponents are traitors and invokes external threats to reinforce his popularity at home.
At least one commentator has described South Africa’s Jacob Zuma and Putin as “soul brothers.” They are both dangerous to cross, and they have a common background: Putin is a former KGB intelligence officer and Zuma ran the African National Congress’ intelligence operation in exile.
Parallels abound elsewhere. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has been accused of backsliding to authoritarianism and curbing press freedom. Argentine President Cristina Kirchner has offered her support for the Crimea invasion and accused the West of applying double standards to Crimea and the disputed Falklands.
It’s not that 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:
1. The leader’s personal power either exceeds the legal allotment or allows the leader to change the law when needed;
2. Justice is selective and politically motivated (“For my friends, everything, for my enemies, the law”), often in the guise of anti-corruption campaigns;
3. Censorship of the media falls short of totalitarian repression but stifles dissenting opinions;
4. The regime associates itself with “traditional values,” revisionist history and strong nationalist rhetoric (and, sometimes, action);
5. Leaders express irritation with Western “double standards” and “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 U.S. ambassador to Russia, put more diplomatically in a New York Times article in March:
The United States 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. To win this new conflict, we must restore the United States as a model.
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.
By Leonid Bershidsky
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View contributor. He is a Berlin-based writer, author of three novels and two nonfiction books. ― Ed.