Thursday, February 08, 2007

This Year in the Free World

It’s been an odd new year to date for dictatorial government. Turkmenistan’s Saparmurat Niazov (a.k.a. Turkmenbashi) suddenly died, leaving a bizarrely glaring power vacuum. Fidel Castro, the world’s longest serving state leader, appears to be on his deathbed. And the government of Zimbabwe, led by Robert Mugabe, wobbles above a state in near total collapse.

Niazov, a post-Soviet strongman, built an endemically corrupt mafia state around a North Korea-sized personality cult. He was perhaps the only post-Soviet head of state to actively lead his new nation-state away from democratic reform. The consequences have included relative international isolation (‘neutrality’, in his terms), a collapsed healthcare system, and agricultural policy so wrongheaded as to risk widespread malnutrition. All this in a state with some of the largest natural gas reserves on the planet. Recent elections were (in the interest, absurdly, of the sitting health minister), but it’s anyone’s guess what will happen in the long term. Neighbouring Afghanistan, Iran, and an unaddressed powder keg in Uzbekistan hardly helps matters.

What happens after Niazov might be an interesting test case for Cuba. Castro at least has an anointed successor in his brother Raul, but the younger Castro has none of his brother’s charisma, and in any event is only a few years younger and is an unreformed alcoholic. After Raul, it’s anyone’s guess.

Robert Mugabe is in his eighties, but if nothing else he’s in the best health of the three. That said, it would be hard to find many people given to celebrating this. His disastrous land reform programme (which involves neither positive reform nor programmatic policy) has turned the breadbasket of Southern Africa into a net importer of food, with a significant risk of famine. Meantime, the opposition is disorganised and repressed. Mugabe will go some day—in a coffin or at the hands of his own increasingly restive party—but no one really knows what will replace him.

The lesson, perhaps, is not that any of these leaders are anything less than appalling, but that its genuinely hard to imagine their respective states without them. No one seems to know what to do about them—or what to do without them. Indeed, pitching out a dictator at the wrong moment can lead to more of the same. Mugabe is himself the revolutionary replacement for the pariah regime of Ian Smith, Castro’s government replaced the Batista dictatorship, and Niazov arose only in the contact of the Soviet collapse.

These are big problems, and there are no easy fixes.

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