On emerging dictatorships

In some cases authoritarian governments come suddenly, usually as the result of a coup or a legal loophole (Article 48 of Weimar Constitution is an example codified in ages), in other cases the power grab goes gradually like in the famous frog-in-the-boiling-water metaphor. It’s easy to act surprised, as the things are almost the same as they were yesterday or last year, but usually there are tell-tale signs of a country going into authoritarianism. Here I’d like to remind about them.

Probably the most important of them is the judicial branch reform that de facto cancels its independency as the government controls who gets appointed as a judge. After you get loyal judges who’s going to stop your unlawful reforms? We had such situation in Ukraine during 2010-2014 (even without any factual reform; but more about Ukraine later), Poland tries to get it (and that’s disturbing), Hungary has done it (of course), Israel is doing it right now (which may end too bad for the country) and so on. But usually at this stage the things are so bad that the actual dictatorship (or demokratur) is merely the next step, are there any earlier signs?

Again, one of the important but rather late signs is unwillingness to part with power. It may happen in any circumstances but usually it’s parliamentary republic with a dominating party and the same prime minister for decades. There may be a president but he or she is a nominal figure while the prime minister remains at power (see Georgia, Germany, Hungary or Israel). Of course it may still not work out like with Merkel, who had to retire after sixteen years, without leaving a good successor candidate in her own party; IMO she should’ve got a prison sentence for serving russian interests but she got awarded a Grand Cross for that instead. I feel the maximum term for any such post should be about twelve years and anybody, who like the current (since 2010) Hungarian prime minister say they want to remain for another twenty years, should be put to prison immediately. South Korea has a good idea with its presidents, a good deal of them were either shot or imprisoned after their term was over. In Fourecks they imprison politicians right after they’re elected (so save time)—but alas it’s a fictional continent.

But usually it’s not one single person but somebody with a support of major party. And, surprisingly enough, those parties usually have something in common: they rely on populism, promoting “traditional values” to the extent of being against anything new, and very often seeing USA and “the West” as their enemies. In other words, promising to return the country to the times of past glory (or at least when the situation was not so bleak) and blaming foreigners and their agents on everything bad that has happened since those times (I’m sorry if that does not reduce the list of possible candidates by much, that’s the state of modern politics). I should probably add another thing to cheap populism: creating show by solving issues nobody had like renaming a country. I can understand why Congo does not want its capital named after the Belgian king who is responsible for mass genocide in the country (and for the same reason Ukraine renames its towns and streets), I can understand why a country renames itself from Rhodesia, I can understand when a country introduces a preferred name while still recognizing the old one (like Czechia or Sakartvelo). But demanding that your country called abroad differently without any apparent reason for renaming sounds like a cheap gesture to show your own people that your country is proud and how others have to comply with it (while drawing attention from more important issues). In case it’s not obvious I’m talking about The Country Formerly Known As Turkey and The Country Most Likely To Be Known As Modi Raj.

The very minor signs would be the corruption potential: if a party serves interests of an oligarch or an oligarch group it is naïve to expect from it to have no attempts to seize power and hold it as long as possible to exercise it for profit and to avoid prosecution. And a thing related to it—friendship with russia (usually paid from the russian side).

In the end I’d like to talk about Ukraine to serve as an example. There were two and a half attempts to grab power in its recent history. First attempt was made by the second president, Leonid Kuchma: back in the day he even traded some presidential privileges for some additional executive functions he could perform. Over the years he increased his power, often with a help of shady people like Pavlo Lazarenko (famous for being a Ukrainian prime minister, a citizen of Panama and building so wide corruption network that he served a prison sentence in the USA for it) or Yuriy Kravchenko (who turned police into his personal mob). Kuchma often solved problems by firing the current prime minister and selecting a new candidate. Still that has not saved him from the consequences of murdering Gongadze and the Cassette Scandal. Another fun fact is that Ukrainian oligarch Pinchuk had a nickname “Kuchma’s-son-in-law” (because he really was one). It is also said that he tried to game the system by trying to organise 2004 elections in such a way that both candidates would lose and he would remain by default. Those elections and rigged counting though caused so much public outrage (called the first Maidan) that they had to repeat the vote.

The second attempt was when viktor yanukovich assumed the post of the president and the Party of Regions (from which he came) got the majority in the parliament. Those were dark times when he used kangaroo courts to deal with his opponents (because no judge could be appointed at that time without approval from the President’s Office) and cancel previous constitutional reform limiting presidential power; people affiliated with him (“the Family”) could raid and steal other businesses and it is said they managed to steal a sixth of the country budget every year in addition to that. As you know, it ended by him selling Ukraine to russia, fleeing the country and starting the war that goes to this day. It is less remembered that during his last days of presidency his party tried to pass the same laws as in russia to limit the freedoms and allow to prosecute the protesters easily. It did not work out.

The half-attempt is when Volodymyr Zelensky became a president and his party got majority in the parliament (mostly thanks to his image). He had not so great decisions in the beginning (and the parliament supported them) so it could end badly. But then a führer decided to take Kyiv in three days and the Ukrainian nation united against the enemy once again. Since then Zelensky (and somewhat his party) act decently because it’s the matter of survival. Who knows how it will go after the victory but for now I have nothing else to say about him.

I hope this brief review of Ukrainian political history served an example of how important it is to stop authoritarianism when you can still do it without human casualties. Revolutions often take a much higher price…

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