Some time ago, The Oilfield Expat posted an anecdote followed by an observation:
At one point in my career I was working in a Middle Eastern desert where there were giant posters of the rulers everywhere. A grizzled American who was on my team made a comment on them:
“See, when you are in a country with pictures of the rulers everywhere, it means the place could go to rat-shit at any minute. I was in Iran during the Revolution in 1979. Before the Revolution there were posters of the Shah everywhere…everyone loved the Shah. Then one morning we woke to find the Shah’s picture replaced by the Ayatollah’s, and now everyone loved the Ayatollah. Guys were in the office, telling us we needed to leave, who a couple of days before were saying how much they loved the Shah.”
He wasn’t wrong. If a ruler feels the need to plaster his mug over every building and his goons insist his portrait adorns every office wall, then his grip on power is weak (with one or two exceptions: Thailand’s king is genuinely popular, but then he doesn’t meddle in politics).
Vyacheslav Volodin, Putin’s former deputy chief of staff and current chairman of the state Duma, would support a law that protects the honor and dignity of the Russian president.
Like the giant posters displayed on buildings and ubiquitous portraits in offices, laws banning the mocking of the political leadership is a sign that the regime is brittle. It might be strong in one sense, as brittle things often are; but brittle regimes cannot survive shocks, and what follows a shock is usually absolute chaos.
Some people will look at Putin’s consolidation of power and proposals like the one above and conclude that he is becoming ever-more immovable and Russia’s stature growing. Personally, I think it shows the opposite. As Alex notes:
Back to May 1990:
The Soviet Parliament has given its approval to an ambiguous law making it a crime to “insult” President Mikhail S. Gorbachev. The measure recalls the infamous Stalin-era penal code, with its stiff prison terms for anyone convicted of “slandering” the state…
Supporters of the plan to silence critics offer the standard justifications. Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, one of Gorbachev’s top military advisers, argues that insulting the president “weakens our society,” and so cannot go unpunished.
The Soviet Union would last for about 19 more months, until late December 1991. Marshal Akhromeyev killed himself after the failed coup in August 1991. Not that history repeats itself – it seldom does – but occasionally, improbably, it just might. Aren’t these people in high places superstitious?
If a country needs laws like this then it has deeper problems that probably aren’t going away any time soon.