Age of usurpers|Lau Sai-leung

Published (HKT): 2021.04.09 09:45

Putin became the President of Russia in May 2000. To make a detour to avoid the term limit of two terms, he handed over the presidency to his crony Medvedev in 2008, and took on the post of Prime Minister. During that period of time, he made an amendment to the constitution, turning a term from four years to six. In 2012, he took up the post of President again. His two terms amount to twelve years, which expires in 2024, instead of eight years. In 2020, Putin set about making another amendment to the constitution again, which has actually been confirmed by the Federal Assembly and Constitutional Court in tandem. In terms of procedure, the amendment has been completed. Since Putin promised that any substantial amendment to the constitution has to be supported by Russians, he held a referendum on the issue. As a result, more than 70% of the population voted in favor of the amendment. Recently the act has been passed in the lower house, and signed by Putin. In principle, it allows him to continue to renew his term of office until 2036, which makes him the person in power who will have been at the helm of the country for the longest period of time, 36 years in total from 2000 to 2036, since Peter the Great.

Greek philosopher Aristotle opined that following democracy or oligarchy, usurpers would come into being. Concept-wise, a usurper is different from a tyrant. A usurper gains his power illegitimately, but puts it in practice legally pursuant to a norm. On the contrary, a tyrant may gain his power legitimately, but puts it in practice illegally pursuant to no norm at all. Ostensibly, Putin is supported by the masses to go on with his perennial ruling that is ratified by the Constitutional Court, deliberated in the Federal Assembly, and authorized by a referendum. From whichever perspective, being legitimate and constitutional, it is where the popular will inclines. How can Putin be a usurper?

What Putin has been doing is to materialize his perennial ruling by transforming a free society. In the ’90s, the Russia’s society was already liberalized and diversified. In 1993, financial mogul Gusinsky founded an independent TV channel named NTV, which drew in a large number of journalists of high calibre to join the establishment. Being extraordinarily influential with almost 100 million viewers, its news programs were outstandingly critical of the government without mercy. In 2000, Gusinsky was arrested for corruption three months after Putin had been elected as the President. The former was remanded on bail on the condition that he sold all his shares of NTV. The media outlet was then run by Gazprom Media Holdings, a subsidiary of Gazprom, a Russian state enterprise carrying on business of natural gas. Since then, NTV has become an institution likened to RTHK in Hong Kong, with its freedom of speech considerably shrunk, its influential programs critical of the government forced to close down, and its quality journalists resigning in droves.

Managed democracy extending

Gazprom Media Holdings is a go-between employed by Putin to manipulate the media. The media group allows of a smidgen of independent media outlets such as Echo of Moscow criticizing the government, which is only an ornament for the liberal style of President Putin. In 2005, Putin founded Russia Today, a digital TV channel, for propaganda campaigns aimed at the entire world. Its coverage of the war waged to annex Crimea tied in with the media warfare successfully. As for tackling the opposition factions in Russia, tactics such as poisoning, assassination, and disqualification of a large number of rivals from running for office emerge in an endless stream. Taking to the streets to voice one’s protests is tantamount to putting one’s neck into the noose. Anyone dares to do so is bound to be arrested by the government. This is the managed democracy Putin feels so smug about. Having taken the perennial helm of the country in which there is no rule of law, fair competition and freedom, but only hollow systems of referendum, parliament and election, Putin is a usurper beyond any doubt.

The usurper -style has spread to Central Asia, South East Asia and Africa where country leaders play a game of populism in a democratic establishment. Despite going counter to core values such as diversity, tolerance and freedom, all of them that hide under a protective umbrella named “sovereign democracy” innovated by Putin constitutes an international political group of usurper s. If Putin is really to finish his 36-year-long tenure, all US presidents of his generation he has dealt with will have been dead by 2036. Will he feel lonesome? I don’t think so, for there is at least one usurper, who is in power till 2035, and will still be an exemplary student of teacher Putin by then.

(Lau Sai-leung, political commentator)

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