Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 19 February 2024


The loy­alty of Putin’s global fan club

It would be com­fort­ing to believe that the death of Alexei Navalny will finally make Vladi­mir Putin an inter­na­tional pariah. But recent his­tory and cur­rent polit­ics sug­gest oth­er­wise. It is sadly likely that Rus­sia’s leader will con­tinue to be treated with respect — and even admir­a­tion — in large parts of the world.

No one should expect that Xi Jin­ping will jet­tison Putin simply because another sud­den death has taken place in Rus­sia. China’s leader shares Putin’s hatred of pro-demo­cracy act­iv­ists. What is more sur­pris­ing is that Putin also con­tin­ues to have friendly rela­tions with the lead­ers of some of the world’s most power­ful demo­cra­cies.

Indeed, it is entirely pos­sible that the world’s three largest demo­cra­cies — India, the US and Indone­sia — will all elect admirers of Putin as their lead­ers this year. Prabowo Subi­anto of Indone­sia, Nar­en­dra Modi in India and Don­ald Trump in the US are all not­able for stand­ing aside from the inter­na­tional con­dem­na­tion of Putin — for reas­ons that go bey­ond real­politik.

Prabowo won a decis­ive vic­tory in Indone­sia’s pres­id­en­tial elec­tion last week. His ascent to the top job makes many sup­port­ers of Indone­sian demo­cracy very nervous. They fear Prabowo may aspire to rule as a Putin-style strong­man and point to accus­a­tions that he was respons­ible for human rights abuses while in the Indone­sian mil­it­ary.

Last year, Prabowo pro­posed a peace set­tle­ment for Ukraine that was so accom­mod­at­ing to Putin’s ambi­tions it was dis­missed by Ukraine as a “Rus­sian plan”. Kor­nelius Purba, man­aging editor of The Jakarta Post, recently noted Prabowo’s “admir­a­tion” for Putin and sug­ges­ted that, among the Indone­sian elect­or­ate, there are “many [who] are sup­port­ive of the retired army gen­eral because they are fan­at­ical fans of Pres­id­ent Putin”.

At the begin­ning of the year, Modi had a friendly phone call with Putin in which the Indian and Rus­sian lead­ers wished each other luck in their upcom­ing elec­tions. Modi, unlike Putin, will be run­ning in a genu­ine elec­tion, which he is likely to win eas­ily.

Indian dip­lo­mats argue that Modi’s work­ing rela­tion­ship with Putin is a mat­ter of simple prag­mat­ism and the national interest. India has bought a lot of its mil­it­ary equip­ment from Rus­sia and can­not sever that rela­tion­ship overnight. The Indian eco­nomy has also benefited from cheap Rus­sian oil.

To be fair to Modi, he did issue a mild pub­lic rebuke of Putin in 2022, telling the Rus­sian leader that “today’s era is not the era of war”. But since then rela­tions between the two lead­ers have warmed up again, with Putin recently hail­ing Modi as “a very wise man”. Jaiveer Sher­gill, national spokes­man for Modi’s Bhar­atiya Janata party, reacted to a ques­tion about the death of Navalny by blandly stat­ing: “Rus­sia was, is and will remain India’s strong friend and ally.”

Putin’s anti-west­ern and anti-colo­nial rhet­oric finds a large and appre­ci­at­ive audi­ence in India, where Modi has chosen to stress his iden­tity as a nation­al­ist strong­man who is finally free­ing his coun­try from the leg­acy of colo­ni­al­ism. Modi’s crit­ics argue that his gov­ern­ment has eroded India’s demo­cracy and used state insti­tu­tions to launch pro­sec­u­tions of his oppon­ents. Last week, the Con­gress party, the coun­try’s largest oppos­i­tion group­ing, com­plained that its bank accounts had been sud­denly frozen.

Con­gress lead­ers have accused Modi of a Putin-like desire to sup­press all real oppos­i­tion.

And then there is Trump. While US Pres­id­ent Joe Biden accused Putin of respons­ib­il­ity for the death of Navalny, Trump remained silent. This could be partly because he was pre­oc­cu­pied by denoun­cing the massive fines imposed on him by a New York court. But Trump — nor­mally so free with i nsult­ing l anguage and nick­names — has fam­ously never uttered any cri­ti­cism of the Rus­sian leader. Instead, he has praised Putin as strong and smart.

Some Demo­crats have driven them­selves to dis­trac­tion try­ing to dis­cover if Putin has something on Trump. But there may be a sim­pler explan­a­tion. Trump genu­inely admires Putin.

The wider world of Trump advisers and hangers-on has long con­tained some unabashed Putin fans. Shortly after Rus­sia’s annex­a­tion of Crimea in 2014, Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s close adviser, said of Putin: “That’s what you call a leader.” Just before Navalny’s death, Tucker Car­son, the pro-Trump com­ment­ator, was still pub­lish­ing admir­ing videos about the beauty of the Moscow metro.

Carlson may have been so bedazzled by the won­ders of Rus­sia that he failed to notice that another strong­man leader he has fawned upon — Hun­gary’s Viktor Orbán — has run into trouble. Mass demon­stra­tions have taken place in Bud­apest against his gov­ern­ment’s mis­hand­ling of a child sex abuse scan­dal.

The unex­pec­ted back­lash against Orban is instruct­ive. Strong­man lead­ers are good at impress­ing cred­u­lous for­eign­ers with their nation­al­ism and their spot­less trains. But loc­als usu­ally under­stand the real­ity behind the facade.

Navalny spe­cial­ised in high­light­ing and ridicul­ing the cor­rup­tion and viol­ence of Putin and his inner circle. He has paid for his bravery with his life. It is long past time for Putin’s for­eign fan club to finally pay atten­tion to the sor­did real­it­ies Navalny exposed.

No comments:

Post a Comment