Opinionista Judith February 29 June 2017

Putinesque: Beware the strong man

We know that President Jacob Zuma has taken several trips to Russia since 2009, raising further suspicions that nuclear is a done deal. We are a way off from that but all of us, especially journalists, should continue connecting the dots.

Any writer of note seems to make his or her way to Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington DC at some point in their career. Currently owned by Bradley Graham and Lissa Muscatine, the bookstore itself is prolific. It hosts over 400 events a year. Its line-up is a veritable who’s who cast of writers, academics and thinkers, from Madeleine Albright, Lionel Shriver, Edward Luce, Paul Krugman and Joyce Carrol-Oates to Rachel Maddow, it lives up to the vision of the original owners, Carla Cohen and Barbara Meade, who saw the bookstore as not merely a place to sell books (and perhaps make a small profit) but also a space to bring book lovers together and where the bookstore itself becomes part of the community it is trying to reach.

It is curiously located approximately a mile from the DC metro stop and virtually en route to Maryland, yet it seems to have succeeded in creating an environment where book clubs meet and which is a melting pot of diverse interests.

Cape Town’s very own Book Lounge, run by Mervyn Sloman with dogged determination and insight, is a worthy South African equivalent. The Book Lounge has slowly and carefully established itself as the leading democratic space for books and conversation in central Cape Town.

It was at Politics and Prose that I first heard New York Times contributor and writer, Masha Gessen, speak about Russia. Then, her latest book was making headlines, The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin caused waves across the world, though possibly not in her native Russia.

Gessen belongs to the camp of brave journalists who risk their lives to write their conscience and speak truth to power even in the most difficult circumstances. The book details Putin’s rise from a dull and lowly KGB agent to president. Virtually hand-picked and a potential “saviour” of Russia after the years of lacklustre governing by hard-drinking Boris Yeltsin, the Russian people saw in Putin someone who might provide change. For the West, he was initially viewed as a reformer. Of course, that was not to be, and Gessen describes at length how vengeful Putin has been and details his love of money and power. Inequality in Russia has increased and a tiny, connected elite runs the country. Russia has scored consistently low on the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index and other indices tracking democratic development.

Gessen then described how she never walked into her Moscow apartment by herself. She knew this would be far too dangerous. Her partner would meet her in the street with their large dog and together they would enter the building. Most journalists who have “disappeared” were last seen entering their apartments late at night. So, Gessen, like most Russian journalists – or any journalists who work in oppressive circumstances – know how to watch their backs. She has since moved to New York for fear of her and her family’s lives.

Russian politics operates in that shady space where the complex tie between money, vested business interests and political corruption and the propaganda of the “great leader” syndrome meet.

Recently, when film producer Oliver Stone interviewed Vladimir Putin in Russia – which interview took him from the Kremlin to Putin’s home in Sochi – Gessen did a masterful putdown of Stone in the New York Times. Her main critique of Stone was his near obsequious treatment of Putin in which Putin was allowed to slip in a few factual inaccuracies, to say the least. She exposes Putin’s love of grandeur and his strange idolisation of Stalin. Putin is quoted as saying, “… the excessive demonisation of Stalin is just one way to attack the Soviet Union and Russia, to suggest that today’s Russia carries the birthmarks of Stalinism. Everyone has one kind of birthmark or another. So what?”

After Putin’s re-election as President in 2012, protests broke out in Moscow and many were heralding an “Arab Spring”. At the time Gessen was far less sanguine. It turns out she was right. Putin remains in power despite his annexation of Crimea, to name but a few transgressions. As Gessen pointed out at the time, the democratic “revolution” or Russia’s version of the Arab Spring is still a way off.

Many years ago, perhaps around 2007, while corresponding with a journalist at the Financial Times, he mentioned that we should chat about the comparisons between South Africa and Russia. That seemed almost off-piste. South Africa, after all, was so different, surely, with our Constitution and institutions that were still holding up robustly? He was of course talking about “strong man” leadership (think: Zuma 2017), the way in which tender processes have been used to enrich an elite and also how empowerment has been abused in order to ensure that the President and his cronies were able to sink their teeth into the economy (think: State Capture 2017).

In a strange coincidence, it is the Russians are the “preferred partners” in South Africa’s proposed nuclear deal. And we know that President Zuma has taken several trips to Russia since 2009, raising further suspicions that nuclear is a done deal. We are a way off from that but connecting the dots is important, as Pravin Gordhan has repeatedly said since he was unceremoniously axed.

This week has seen some extraordinary attacks on the media and specific journalists writing critically about Zuma’s associates, the Guptas. That intimidation might be right out of the Putin Beginner’s Playbook, as Gessen’s story attests to.

Thanks to the #GuptaLeaks we now have an inside look into the “shadow state” and no matter how much Zuma denies this, the evidence appears incontrovertible that the Guptas are running the country – from appointment processes to undermining the rule of law at virtually every turn. In the past week we learnt that they also appear to hold confidential information such as the travel records of South Africa’s top CEOs. Certain journalists have been illegally surveilled and intimidated by Gupta associates. How did they manage to gain access to CEOs’ travel records and how is the illegal surveillance of journalists’ private lives not cause for grave concern from those in power? Perhaps they are simply not defenders of a free press and prefer the move to a securitisation of the state?

To add to the near-Putinesque behaviour, there seems to be no appetite among our law enforcement agencies to lay any criminal charges or at the very least investigate these emails. The Hawks, we are told, are seized with the matter. This week Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa said we needed to give them the benefit of the doubt and see what came out of the investigation. Ramaphosa may be more optimistic than the rest of us that the Hawks, the spineless Shaun Abrahams, our National Director of Public Prosecutions, and Parliament will get to the bottom of State Capture. Zuma wants to appoint a Commission of Inquiry, no doubt on his own terms and headed by a compliant, executive-minded judge. He cannot be trusted since he and his associates are at the heart of the allegations of corruption.

Given what we know now, the Financial Times reporter’s comparison may not have been that far off. To be sure, our objective circumstances are distinctly different from Russia’s, but let us beware the “strong man”, the capture of the state for the benefit of a small, politically connected elite and the cracking down on dissent.

There are plenty of examples – Putin included – of where that leads. DM

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