The politics of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping: Autocrat presidents for life who may lead Russia and China down a similar road
Elections in Russia and China underlines the fact that an area spanning across 16 time zones is dominated for the forseeable future by virtual despots, both of whom are sworn to expand the positions of their countries
Former KGB officer Vladimir Putin, the longest serving leader of Russia since Joseph Stalin, has surpassed his own performance. He cruised to victory in Russia's presidential election on Sunday with his best ever showing, winning more than 76 percent of the vote, more than the 65, 71 and 52 percent polled in the last three elections since 2000, when he first came to power.
This could either mean an improvement in his electability, which in Russia really means very hard power indeed, or that Russians are pining for the days of yore, when the Soviet Union was a power to contend with, which is also the bedrock of Putin's public messaging. According to new constitutional limits that increased the presidential term from four years to six, Putin will stay in power until 2024, when he will turn 72.
But even as Putin celebrates his win, there is likely to be a twinge of envy at the performance of his counterpart in Beijing, Xi Jinping, who has been confirmed by the National People's Congress for continuance with no term limits, which means that he will be in office long after Putin presumably packs his bags. However, even more enviable is the fact that President Xi has been able to retain his core loyalists, which includes Wang Qishan as vice-president and Li Keqiang as prime minister. A battery of loyalists also man important posts in the military commission and the judiciary. In contrast, Putin is confronted with inter-factional fights within his own Kremlin elite.
The elections in Russia and China following so close to one another underlines the fact that an area spanning across 16 time zones, and including some 52,000 kilometres of coastline and 45,000 sq.km. of land borders is dominated for the forseeable future — given that Putin could stage a comeback despite the age barrier in 2024 — by virtual despots, both of whom are sworn to expand the global positions of their respective countries.
While China may be ahead of the game in terms of sheer economic power, Russia is sworn to get there. At his State of the Federation speech earlier this month, Putin had said, "The main threat, and in fact our main enemy, is that we are falling behind," and vowed to increase Russia's per capita GDP by at least 50 percent.
His emphasis, much like his Chinese counterpart's, was on improving connectivity, within Russia and outside. Improving the railway network, ports and roads were all tick-boxed, and the assistance from Chinese "friends" emphasised. Recent research from Aid Data indicates that the largest recipient of China's official finance, which includes minimal aid and maximum loans and export credits, is Russia.
An important part of China's 'Belt and Road' initiative (BRI) includes passage through Russia to Europe, including the UK. It's no accident therefore that Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov was urging India to join the initiative in late 2017. Moscow's own initial opposition to it in favour of its own Eurasian Economic Union seems to have been forgotten for the moment.
However as analysts point out, the actual benefits of the BRI on the ground have proved elusive, given Russia's difficulties in bankrolling its infrastructure and the political difficulties involved in reforming key industries. For China-Russia investment cooperation to improve, the latter has to grow much faster than it is doing currently, and become a more equal partner. Putin is aware of that, and that's why the stress on the economy.
Failing a huge economic surge — which doesn't seem likely for the immediate future — Putin rather predictably focused on the might of the Russian Armed Forces, particularly its nuclear forces. Apart from tabulating the 80 new inter-continental ballistic missiles said to have been handed over and 102 submarine launched missiles, the president also hinted at new top-of-the-class weapons that were aimed at defeating the United States anti-ballistic missile (ABM) effort. This included a new 'Sarmat' missile which is supposedly able to manoeuvre within such systems, a very long range stealth missile, and unmanned long-range submarines. The thrust of the speech was that despite the best efforts of its enemies, Russia was once again a world leader in weaponry. That's not the most stabilising thrust in the world.
China is also similarly steadily improving its nuclear weapons, and no, its modernisation is not aimed solely at the US. Chinese leaders' comments indicate, not unreasonably, that their missile systems will also take Russia into their calculus. Chinese emphasis is on mobility of its missiles and like Russia, on evasion capabilities against ABM systems. Unlike Russia, however, China expects US intervention, primarily from the sea and through sea-based interdiction. Chinese plans to counter that are camouflaged under the maritime 'Belt and Road' initiative.
A report from June 2017 indicates a threefold role for China in countries that stretch across this projected maritime Silk Road. Building infrastructure in designated ports along the Indian Ocean through Chinese firms, increase Chinese merchant shipping and deploying naval power outwards, cloaked in the language of disaster management and safe navigation. While Russian reassertion of power had taken it as far as Syria and Ukraine, China is going global in more ways than one.
Its curious that both countries have moved towards a more centralised and autocratic power structure, after a period a decade ago, when there seemed to be a promise of opening up to the world. Putin's passage to power was assisted by his tough approach to Chechen terrorism and his navigating his way through multiple threats to his country. Time magazine declared him 'Person of the Year' in 2007, and for a while he was seen as a positive factor in a dangerously unstable Russia.
All that changed with his policies in Ukraine and the Crimea, and later the Russian role in Syria. Moscow again got a warm water port debouching into Europe, and further consolidation through Tartus in Syria. Russians got a leader who showcased Russian power, and Putin retained his throne. Mission successful for the most part.
A thoughtful essay traces China's own slide back into conservatism, and the triumph of the CCP ( Chinese Communist Party) in its return to the centrefold of governance and public life. The rise of Xi Jinping has only emphasised that slide, and through the recent election, cemented an over-concentration of power. China is yet to "do a Crimea", but it moves along this path. As long as President Xi and his country, both of whom are now being virtually intertwined, are stable, that may not happen. If the pendulum swings in the other direction, however, it might — particularly in areas that Beijing claims for itself.
This is the way autocrats work. And there's rather an excess of autocracy around at the moment. And not just in Russia and China.
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