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Pure Onsense

Return of "strongman" era leadership

Scott Zuke

(4/2014) March was full of events appearing to signal the return of "strongman" era leadership on the international stage. By far the most visible was Russian President Vladimir Putin, who used the political crisis in Ukraine as an opportunity to invade the Crimean peninsula. The international community was caught off guard by the speed and gall of Russia's annexation, and soon realized that its demands to respect Ukraine's territorial integrity were futile. Crimea was already lost.

Right-wingers criticized President Obama's "weakness" on foreign policy for emboldening Putin's aggressive action, and some even seemed to admire his display of strength. Pundits jumped to discuss Russia's rise to power and the prospect of a new Cold War, exhuming Reagan-era bluster to try to counter Putin's renewed imperialistic intentions.

Perhaps it is beneficial to be too young to remember the Cold War.

What some are calling Putin's power play in Crimea is actually a stark sign of Russia's weakness, its lingering internal decay since the fall of the Soviet Union. Consider Putin's motivation for retaking the peninsula. It wasn't to display Russian military strength, since taking Crimea hardly requires any, nor was it intended to bolster Russia's international influence. On the contrary, the seizure predictably resulted in a broad rebuke from the United Nations, expulsion from the G-8, and even China, its ally against the West, has decided to steer clear of the whole mess.

Putin took Crimea for domestic political reasons: to appear strong to the Russian public by defying the West; to return to Russian hands a territory lost in the breakup of the Soviet Union with important ties to the country's history, religion, and culture; and to stir up some sense of nationalist pride to help distract from Russia's other serious problems, from corruption to rampant alcoholism. The annexation has accomplished little more than boosting Putin's popularity numbers at home, and it comes at a steep price to Russia's standing in the international community. Taking Crimea may have been the act of a 'strongman'-style ruler, but it was not an action by a strong man.

Putin is just one example of this confusion over what constitutes the strength of the state. For another, look south, across the Black Sea from Crimea at recent events in Turkey. In March, the neo-authoritarian Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, trying to prevent the public dissemination of audio and video recordings that implicate himself and other top government officials in corrupt behavior, ordered a ban on Twitter and YouTube. He boldly disregarded critics of the move, saying at a campaign rally, "We will wipe out Twitter. I don't care what the international community says," adding, "They will see the Turkish republic's strength."

Censorship of social media is a common tool in the neo-authoritarian toolbox--a reminder to the people of the state's control over what they can see and say--but Erdogan's move could hardly have backfired worse. Turkish citizens almost immediately figured out how to circumvent the block on Twitter, and usage of the social platform surged. Images protesting the ban went viral. One showed the Turkish flag with the star replaced by the Twitter bird logo and the crescent moon chasing it, like Pac-Man pursuing a ghost. Another depicted a bruised, disheveled blue bird posing for a mug shot. While amusing, these pictures got the truth of the matter backwards. A better political cartoon would show Erdogan boldly touting the "Turkish republic's strength" in one frame, and cowering at the sight of the Twitter bird logo in the next.

Adding insult to injury, a Turkish court overturned the Twitter ban after less than a week. Apparently it wasn't just the international community that Erdogan should have been worried about, and now the true weakness of his strongman regime has been laid bare.

Continuing south, Egypt may be between strongman leaders, but that hasn't prevented the interim government from exercising strongman tactics. In March an Egyptian judge sentenced 529 alleged supporters of deposed President Mohamed Morsi to death for killing an officer during an attack on a police station last August. It was reportedly the largest capital punishment case on record in Egypt, and there are already at least two more on the way.

The conviction was seen as the latest tool in the transitional government's crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters, following on the group's designation as a terrorist organization. The trial blatantly flaunted due process, attracting international condemnation. And once again, it was a move intended to project the strength of the state that instead exposes its weakness.

Since the July 3 coup, more than 16,000 people have been arrested and many hundreds have been killed in clashes with security forces. This new tactic of sloppy mass trials shows that the country lacks the institutional capacity to deal with its security crisis, and raises the question of how hard it's really trying. Terrorist attacks originating from the Sinai peninsula have risen dramatically in recent months, and it's not clear how incarcerating thousands of civilians because of their religious identity and political views will help improve that situation. Instead, the Muslim Brotherhood is being used as a scapegoat, as well as a distraction from Egypt's ominous economic vulnerability.

It's not only the mass trials, either. Egypt has also detained and charged three Al Jazeera English journalists with spreading false news and belonging to a terrorist group (i.e. the Brotherhood). Ironically, they are accused of tarnishing Egypt's international image, but there is hardly anything a news outlet can do to undermine a nation's reputation quicker than a single photograph of a foreign journalist being held for trial in a cage.

It's a photo we have seen before, such as of the glassed-in box that held the Russian rock group, Pussy Riot. The image of the caged defendant perhaps best illustrates the paradox of the supposedly omnipotent state that can completely contain a citizen--but also has to.

Read other article by Scott Zuke