The West can play a part defeating dictatorship

Published by The i paper (1st February, 2021)

For the second weekend running, protests against the festering regime of Vladimir Putin flared up across Russia. His security forces flooded cities, barricaded streets, restricted internet access and made thousands of arrests. Yet still bold people braved the batons and the biting cold, even in Siberia where temperatures plunged below -50°C. One woman in Moscow said she joined the rallies in support of opposition leader Alexei Navalny despite panic attacks. “I understand that I live in a totally lawless state,” she said. “In a police state, with no independent courts. In a country ruled by corruption. I would like to live differently.”

Her desire for a better future is understandable. Putin runs the country like a cocky gangster, the botoxed boss of a clique fleecing the Russian state, reliant on skilled propaganda and savage repression. After he took control at the start of this century, his fatalistic citizens – tired of past turmoil – accepted his activities in return for stability, restored national prestige and rising living standards. I reported from Moscow on the last major protests a decade ago, when tens of thousands of people poured on to frozen streets after fraudulent elections. Yet for all the fervour, few participants expected real change or felt ready to risk everything in fighting the brutal regime.

Now Putin faces a fierce challenge led by the astonishingly brave Navalny, an anti-corruption crusader who has repeatedly exposed the gang’s larceny. The president is in a pickle: turning his jailed and poisoned foe into a martyr enhances his moral authority and stature both at home and abroad. Already polls show most young Russians have no faith in their leader. This is not surprising. While Putin is alleged to have built a billion-pound mansion by the Black Sea and his cronies flaunt their stolen wealth, almost one in seven citizens live beneath the poverty line.

The former KGB chief is said to be tired of running the country, yet manipulated the law to stay in power until 2036. As Winston Churchill said, dictatorship is like riding a tiger – you dare not dismount for fear of being devoured. Putin is said to have repeatedly watched footage of Muammar Gaddafi’s killing and does not want to end his life cowering in a drainpipe, hiding from rebels. Libya reminds us that revolution, fuelled by hope, is usually an unruly force.

Looking at that nation’s mess today, it saddens me to remember the joy I saw in Tripoli on the day Gaddafi was ousted and to recall determined efforts to build democracy amid the ruins of his corrosive 42-year regime. Yet it is always inspiring to witness the epic moments when people lose their fear and rise up against autocracy. I admire those risking lives and liberty in Russia, despite Navalny’s disturbing past nationalism, just as I applaud the continuing, courageous protests against Europe’s last dictator in next-door Belarus that I observed last autumn.

I have seen also how easy it is to misread the politics of another land. Yet whether from national self-interest or a shared sense of humanity, we should support those seeking the sort of freedoms that we take for granted. This is crucial amid the rapid rise of China under a sinister leader whose ambitions, strategy and chilling systems of control make Putin’s global meddling seem a sideshow. 

The West has seen – and hopefully learned – that it cannot bomb its way to a better world. Partly as a consequence of misadventures in the Middle East, leading democracies turned in on themselves and became dangerously self-absorbed. But now we are in a post-Trump and post-Brexit era. So how can we assist the fight against dictatorship?

The first thing is to remember to distinguish between leaders and nations. Putin is not Russia, Xi Jinping is not China, just as Gaddafi was not Libya. They are cancers that formed and grew on their respective body politics. We should do anything possible to support forces of decency and modernity in their countries, whether they are found in arts, business or civil society. We must embrace dissident artists, encourage disruptive technologies and listen to subversive voices. Why, for instance, have we not acted on Navalny’s repeated call for tough sanctions on Roman Abramovich, the Chelsea football club owner who is Putin’s close chum?

Then we need to tackle our own deficiencies that assist those defiling their nations. Often they damage and divide our societies too, as seen with the toxic tide of fake news on social media, some of which is pumped out like sewage from troll factories in Russia and China. Britain is one of the worst offenders in letting dodgy oligarchs hide dirty cash in our tax havens and property markets, aided by an army of pin-striped enablers with expertise in the darker arts of finance and law. Next we need to stop falling for the anachronistic delusion that it enhances stability to prop up strongmen with our aid and weapons. Instead, it brutalises nations, betrays people fighting for democracy and fuels explosive pressures that bubble away beneath the surface of repressive societies.

Ultimately, however, the key to unlocking a better world is to ensure our own house is in better order so that it stands stronger as an alternative to despotism. Instead Western political systems are riddled with corruption, our financial systems foster inequality and our societies are riven with division under leaders who are largely self-serving, short-sighted and weak.

Churchill’s other adage – that democracy is the worst form of government except for all other forms ever tried – remains true, even if there are growing doubts about its wisdom among many citizens. Yet Putin, Xi and their tyrannical acolytes around the planet present a growing threat. We need to strive far harder to offer real hope to those trapped in the darkness of their dictatorships.

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