Putinesque: Beware the strong man

We know that President Jacob Zuma has taken several trips to Russia since 2009, raising further suspicions that nuclear is a done deal. We are a way off from that but all of us, especially journalists, should continue connecting the dots.

Any writer of note seems to make his or her way to Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington DC at some point in their career. Currently owned by Bradley Graham and Lissa Muscatine, the bookstore itself is prolific. It hosts over 400 events a year. Its line-up is a veritable who’s who cast of writers, academics and thinkers: from Madeleine Albright, Lionel Shriver, Ed Luce, Paul Krugman and Joyce Carrol-Oates to Rachel Maddow, it lives up to the vision of the original owners Carla Cohen and Barbara Meade who saw the bookstore as not merely a place to sell books (and perhaps make a small profit?) but also a space to bring book-lovers together and where the bookstore itself becomes part of the community it is trying to reach.

It is curiously located approximately a mile from the DC metro stop and virtually en route to Maryland, yet it seems to have succeeded in creating an environment where book clubs meet and which is a melting pot of diverse interests. Cape Town’s very own Book Lounge, run by Mervyn Sloman with dogged determination and insight, is a worthy South African comparator. The Book Lounge has slowly and carefully established itself as the leading place for books and conversation in central Cape Town.

It was at Politics and Prose that I first heard New York Times contributor and writer, Masha Gessen speak about Russia. Then, her latest book was making headlines. The man without a face: the unlikely rise of Vladimir Putin caused waves across the world though possibly not in her native Russia.

Gessen belongs to the camp of brave journalists, those who risk their lives to write their conscience and speak truth to power even in the most difficult circumstances. The book details Putin’s rise from a dull and lowly KGB agent to president. Virtually hand-picked and a potential ‘saviour’ of Russia after the years of lacklustre governing by hard-drinking Boris Yeltsin, the Russian people saw in Putin someone who might provide change.

For the West, he was initially viewed as a reformer. Of course, that was not to be and Gessen describes at length how ‘vengeful’ Putin has been and she details his love of money and power. Inequality in Russia has increased and a tiny, connected elite run the country. Russia has scored consistently low on the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index and other indices tracking democratic development.

Gessen then described how she never walked into her Moscow apartment by herself. She knew this would be far too dangerous. Her partner would meet her in the street, with their large dog and together they would enter the building. Most journalists who have ‘disappeared’ have last been seen entering their apartments late at night. So, Gessen, like most Russian journalists – or any journalists who work in oppressive circumstances – know how to watch their backs. She has since moved to New York out of fear for her and her family’s life.

Russian politics operates in that shady space where the complex tie between money, vested business interests and political corruption and the ‘leader for life’ syndrome meet.

Recently when film producer Oliver Stone interviewed Putin in Russia – which interview took him from the Kremlin to Putin’s home in Sochi – Gessen did a masterful ‘put down’ of Stone in the New York Times. Her main critique of Stone was his near obsequious treatment of Putin in which Putin was allowed to slip in a few factual inaccuracies, to say the least.

She also exposes his idolisation of Stalin. After Putin’s re-election in 2012, protests broke out in Moscow and many were announcing an ‘Arab Spring’. At the time Gessen was far less sanguine. It turns out she was right. Putin remains in power despite it all. As Gessen pointed out at the time, the democratic ‘revolution’ or Russia’s version of the ‘Arab Spring’ is still a way off.

Many years ago, while corresponding with a journalist at the Financial Times, he mentioned that we should chat about ‘the comparisons between South Africa and Russia’. That seemed almost off-piste. South Africa, after all, was so different surely, with our Constitution and institutions which were still holding up robustly?

He was, of course, talking about ‘strong man’ leadership (think: Zuma 2017), the way in which tender processes have been used to enrich an elite and also how ‘empowerment’ has been abused in order to ensure that the president and his cronies were able to sink their teeth into the economy (think: state capture 2017).

Thanks to #Guptaleaks we now have an inside look into the ‘shadow state’ and no matter how much Jacob Zuma denies this, the evidence appears incontrovertible that the Guptas are running the country – from appointment processes to undermining the rule of law at virtually every turn. In the past week we learnt that they also appear to hold confidential information such as travel records of South Africa’s top CEOs. How did they manage to gain access to these records?

To add to the Putinesque behaviour, there seems to be no appetite amongst our law enforcement agencies to lay any criminal charges or at the very least investigate these emails. The Hawks, we are told, are seized with the matter. This week Deputy President Cyril Rampahosa said we needed to give them the benefit of the doubt and see what came out of the investigation.

Rampahosa may be more optimistic than the rest of us that the Hawks, the spineless Shaun Abrahams, our National Director of Public Prosecutions, and Parliament will get to the bottom of state capture. Zuma wants to appoint a commission of inquiry, no doubt on his own terms and headed by a compliant, executive-minded judge. He cannot be trusted since he and his associates are at the heart of the allegations of corruption.

Given what we know now, the Financial Times reporter’s comparison may not have been that far off. We are distinctly different from Russia, but let us beware the ‘strong man’, the capture of the state for the benefit of a small, politically connected elite and the cracking down on dissent.

There are plenty of examples – Putin included – of where that leads.

*This article was published in Daily Maverick. To view the article on their website click here.

Judith February is a consultant on governance matters and affiliated to the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Development Policy and Practice.  Prior to that she was Executive Director of the HSRC’s Democracy and Governance Unit and also Head of the Idasa’s South African Governance programme.  Judith has worked extensively on issues of good governance, transparency and accountability within the South African context.  She is a regular commentator in the media on politics in SA and in 2009 served on an ad hoc panel to evaluate the effectiveness of South Africa’s Parliament. She is a regular columnist for Media24 and also an occasional columnist for the Daily Maverick and other publications.  She is the co-editor of “Testing democracy: which way is South Africa going?” March 2010, Idasa. She was awarded a summer fellowship in 2009 at the Freeman Spogli Institute for Democracy Development and the rule of law at Stanford University, California and in 2012 was awarded a Spring Reagan-Fascell Fellowship at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington DC.

To see Judith February's extensive list of publications on our website please click here.

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