The Signs of Brittle Regimes

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).

I was reminded of this when I read this over at The Dilettante’s place:

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.

4 thoughts on “The Signs of Brittle Regimes

  1. Years ago someone said that postage stamps were an indication of how dodgy a country was. Not the head of state, but whether the turd-world nation put other nation’s achievements on its stamps, such as the man on the moon or the invention of television and so on. Not their territory but great to see on a stamp from Bigdoggistan.

    Then with dismay, I saw that the UK had started doing the same thing a good few years back.

  2. I once read a university newsletter that contained more than a dozen photos of the Vice-Chancellor. He was probably slowly going mad at the time. Life’s tough at that level, Barry. It certainly is, Clive.

  3. For a good sniff test of maturity, apply similar rules to religions.

    If I were to ridicule a varied bunch of prophets, gurus and messiahs from every major religion, which one is most likely to resort to something worse than simply ignoring me?

    That’s right; those fundamentalist Jains are a dangerous bunch, especially the digambaras.

  4. Thanks for the link! At the risk of boring your readers, I’m going to add that the historical contexts of the two bills (one enacted, the other proposed) couldn’t be more different. Gorbachev had liberalized the regime at an unbelievable pace and people in the Soviet block responded by demanding more. In November 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. By the end of the year, the Velvet Revolution had ended Communist rule in Czechoslovakia. In February 1990, there were two protest rallies in Moscow with more than half a million people taking part in each. The mention of the Communist party’s leading role got removed from the Soviet constitution in March 1990. The same month, the Kremlin-backed candidates lost in the republican and local elections (which enabled Yeltsin to be elected chairman of the Russian Federation’s supreme council in May 1990). At the May 1 demonstration in Red Square, people started shouting “resign!” at Gorbachev. This would have been unthinkable three years earlier: it was only possible thanks to his reforms and the general spirit of openness he had encouraged, at least until he had to face its fruits.

    The protests in Russia and the Baltics were the easy part, though: they were mostly peaceful. In the Caucasus and Central Asia, ethnic tensions had turned violent. The war in Karabakh had gone on since 1988; there was a pogrom in Baku in January 1990; there was mass rioting in Tajikistan in February. Transnistria was rebelling against Chisinau. Ethnic Abkhazians were already fighting with ethnic Georgians. Gorbachev was criticized from all sides, for using force to stop the fighting and for not using it enough. Already in March 1990, Trump sensed Gorbachev’s weakness on that front – his inability to stop the violence – although, as usual, Trump got some details wrong.

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