Nearing the end of tyranny?

by Hugh Cortazzi

President Vladimir Putin in Russia, President Bashar Assad in Syria and President Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe are detested by many of their fellow countrymen who would like to see them overthrown and tried for human rights abuses. They depend on a close coterie of guards and aides who have to be kept happy. If they ride roughshod over their entourage there is the possibility of assassination by the “Praetorian Guard.”

Commentators suggest that all three are doomed to fall in the end and that we are seeing the beginning of the end of their power. But the end could still be quite a long way off and we should beware of wishful thinking.

Putin’s majority in the recent election was boosted by some dubious electoral practices including multiple voting and strong arm tactics against opponents and critics. Corruption in modern Russia is so extensive and violence against critics so endemic that the correspondent in Moscow of The Guardian, an English newspaper known for its independent views, titled his book about his terrifying years in Moscow as “The Mafia State.”

Russia’ inclusion in the quartet of major emerging powers (Brazil, Russia, China and India) is questioned by some observers. But Russia is a nuclear weapons state and has significant armed forces, although these still depend on conscription and the treatment of the rank and file is brutal. The economy remains too dependent on oil and gas. Expectation of life is significantly lower than in Western Europe and the population is aging and declining. But all pervading corruption and the absence of an independent judicial system threaten long-term political and economic stability.

The Russian middle class has grown significantly in recent years and recent demonstrations in Moscow show that many are thoroughly disgruntled with the present state of their country. But Putin has cleverly ensured that the opposition is weak and divided. The media generally does his bidding. There is unfortunately at present no credible alternative. Gorbachev is too old and weak. Medvedev has been shown up as a puppet and leading oligarchs are either in jail, abroad or see it as being in their best interests to be subservient to Putin.

Putin is still relatively young and boasts of his physique. He is well guarded. He could remain president of Russia and continue to wield power for many years. It would be unwise to predict that his end is nigh.

Assad’s position in Syria looks shakier, but he still seems able to rely on Putin’s support and that of the Chinese and of Iran. The Arab Spring led the Arab League into strong criticism of his rule. The European Union, the United States and human rights organizations throughout the world have condemned the massacres in Homs and other places in Syria, and the use of torture and violence against civilians. There are calls for Assad and his henchmen to be tried for human rights abuses before the International Criminal Court.

Unfortunately the Syrian opposition is divided and there is no major unifying figure to represent them. The Assad regime sill seems to be able to rely on support from sections of the Muslim and Christian communities in the county, who fear that the civil war that is breaking out will lead to a general destruction of law and order, and bankrupt the economy.

The British ambassador to Syria, who has been withdrawn from Damascus with all his staff, has predicted that Assad could fall before the end of the year, but intervention by outside powers seems unlikely. The revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen did not need outside help. In Libya the threat that civilians would be massacred by the Gadhafi tyranny justified international intervention in the form of a “no-fly zone” authorized by the U.N. Security Council. The situation in Syria is different. The Security Council have been prevented from acting by Russian and Chinese vetoes. Even if a no-fly zone were authorized it would hardly help. The Syrian Army using artillery and tanks (not the Syrian air force) are responsible for widespread attacks on civilians.

There have been reports of defections by members of the Syrian armed forces but there is no sign yet that the trickle will lead to a flood. Assad and his entourage pay no attention to world opinion and are not deterred by threats from using all means open to them to suppress the opposition. Economic sanctions may cause greater injury to ordinary people than to the leaders, who can ensure that their lives are affected as little as possible.

Assad’s position is not secure in the long run, but what is the long run? It could be many years. Assad no doubt hopes that in the end his sins will be forgotten or overlooked by a world preoccupied with even more terrible events.

Mugabe is now 88 and in the nature of things must be approaching his end, but modern medicine manages to keep even nasty tyrants alive, especially when they have the wherewithal to fund the most expensive treatments.

Mugabe has succeeded in turning what was one of the richer African economies into a shambles where the currency became so worthless that the dollar has had to be adopted for most purposes. Despite its rich agricultural land, Zimbabwe is unable to feed its population, which is forced to rely on foreign assistance. Large numbers of Zimbabweans have fled to South Africa and other adjoining countries. The coalition government, set up under pressure from South Africa, is unable to enact the necessary reforms. The legal system is ineffective. White farmers have been forced out without compensation and their land made unproductive by incompetent ex-soldiers. The economy only survives because of Chinese investment in the country’s rich natural resources.

Zimbabwe tends to get overlooked. But Mugabe should not be forgotten. His place in history as one of Africa’s nastiest products is not in dispute.

Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.