Dictators can be loathed. But their abrupt departure from office can trigger turmoil because they have put themselves alone at the centre of power.

Its easy to despise despots But replacing them is tricky

U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva, Switzerland, 16 June 2021 (Saul Loeb/Pool via AP)

“The despot is dead. Long live … er, who?“

Unlike kings or queens, dictators and autocrats find it helpful not to have a clear successor or rival who might soften their hold on power.

Much as that iron-fisted ruler may be loathed, their abrupt departure from the throne can bring significant risk of subsequent turmoil. They have created a system that puts them alone at the centre of power.

The White House in March was very quick to deny that President Joe Biden was pressing for regime change when he said that his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, should not remain in power.

There is no shortage of countries in recent decades where fallen autocrats have left a power vacuum all too quickly filled by chancers, thugs and weird ideologues, or simply some drab toady of the old regime.

As a reporter, it was impossible for me not to get caught up in the excitement after popular unrest had driven out yet another long-serving despot in power so long that they had forgotten who was serving whom. It really is exhilarating.

During a long career as a journalist, I reported in a number of countries where autocratic, often staggeringly corrupt, leaders were forced unwillingly out of office. Sometimes, I’ve been there at the moment, more often to report on the aftermath.

Forcing a despot from power is only a first step.

The first time was just over 30 years ago in Bangladesh, whose military dictator Hussain Ershad had lost power in the face of mass protests. And in a rarity for the impoverished country, whose relatively short period of independence had been marked by violence and assassinations, the leader’s downfall had been almost bloodless.

By the time I arrived in Dhaka, crowds were cheerfully marching through the capital’s streets. The two people who would dominate Bangladeshi politics until today — the widow of one assassinated leader and the daughter of another — were happily giving interviews to visiting journalists, promising a new era for their country.

Since then, Bangladesh’s economy has indeed grown. But the country’s politics remain plagued by autocratic leadership, corruption and a drawn-out feud between those two women.

In the Philippines, a reporter colleague liked to tell stories about joining a crowd streaming through the Malacanang presidential palace, vacant after President Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda fled the country in the face of a People’s Power revolt in 1986 following more than 20 years of rule marked by excess and rampant graft.

This month, their son was elected president with little to offer by way of a platform beyond the promise of a return to those “halcyon days” when his parents were in charge some four decades earlier.

In neighbouring Indonesia, the family of President Suharto, who led another Southeast Asian kleptocracy into near financial ruin until he was forced to step down in 1998 after more than 32 years of iron rule, continues to try to get back into politics.

Suharto’s downfall came with mass protests, violence and fears the giant archipelago would split apart. The country has largely recovered, but some of the elites established during the Suharto years remain a powerful influence.

Dictators are adept at centralising power.

Later, I was involved in reporting on the “colour” revolutions of former Soviet states, including Georgia and Ukraine. In both cases, infectious enthusiasm for change and the end of the old regimes did not take all that long to sour.

The leader of the 2003 Georgian revolution, Mikheil Saakashvili, eventually fled into exile. He is now back in his country where he was jailed on charges of abuse of power.

Ukraine struggled to find a competent leader after casting aside the old guard from the Soviet era with its Orange Revolution, which began the following year.

Paradoxically, and very unexpectedly, it has taken this year’s Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to reveal a leader of commanding stature in President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a former comedian.

In many of these countries and others ruled by long-serving autocracies, the incentive is for leaders to crush any emerging threat to their hold on power. Rising political stars are sidelined, opponents are exiled, jailed or killed and domestic news coverage is limited to the official line.

‘Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.’

And Russia? Rumours abound that Putin, ever tightening his control during more than 20 years in power, is seriously ill or even faces a coup.

As with the likes of Suharto or Marcos, Putin took office when his country was lurching through economic crisis. He was a bit dull. Unlike his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, Putin didn’t make a habit of rolling up drunk.

He was smart, focused on the economy, not in thrall to Russia’s plundering oligarchs and able to bring stability to the lives of ordinary Russians exhausted and disoriented by the collapse of the Soviet Union. He became hugely popular.

But there was a sense that his inner circle didn’t quite trust that popularity. By most accounts, Putin would easily have won a second term in the 2004 presidential election. But the Kremlin could not resist making sure the deck was stacked in his favour. He won 71.9% of the vote.

Putin has run the country ever since, either as president or prime minister. Such is the state’s grip on Russian media that it is not really possible to be sure how popular Putin may be now. One recent poll suggested his star, which had started to look a bit faded, has brightened considerably since the invasion of Ukraine.

His government is clearly in no mood to put that popularity up for too much public scrutiny, throttling the remaining independent Russian media and introducing a law to hand long prison terms to those who openly oppose the war on Ukraine.

Prominent Russians who might credibly challenge Putin’s grip on the country live abroad, are in prison or dead. His most recent serious opponent, Alexei Navalny, is looking at years in a Russian prison. It isn’t all that clear, either, whether the bulk of Russians would prefer Navalny as their next leader.

If Putin is no longer in office for whatever reason, who would be in the running to replace him?

It seems very unlikely that the current political elite would readily allow a reformer to sweep them from power. Quite possibly, the average Russian — sympathetic to the view that the West has for years been treating their country with contempt — would prefer stability, a job and some international prestige.

When Russia faced revolution more than a century ago, an estimated 10 million people died after the autocrat Tsar Nicholas II was removed from power.

Perhaps that’s why Biden officials were so quick to rule out regime change. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.

Questions to consider:

  1. If you were working for local media in Moscow, do you think you would be able to give a reasonably impartial view of the war with Ukraine?
  2. Do you think your country’s mainstream media can be relied on to be factual in reporting? Should domestic media always rally behind the government in a war?
  3. If you look around the regions of the world you know best, how likely do you think there could be serious unrest or even war?

Jonathan Thatcher is former Reuters bureau chief for Indonesia and East Timor. He was also bureau chief in Korea, the Philippines and Russia. During more than 37 years in journalism, he was also based in Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia and Britain, and reported from Thailand, India, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

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Human RightsIt’s easy to despise despots. But replacing them is tricky.