Seasoned Putin-watchers—you know, all of us—appreciate that he hates nothing more than submitting to someone else’s will. Maybe he hadn’t planned to disappear for very long but then he noticed that we all wanted him to come out and tell us in front of the cameras where he’d been. So he chose not to reappear. “Am I obligated to put myself on display to satisfy someone else’s whim? Am I always supposed to disclose where I am or what I’ve been doing? Don’t bet on it!” That’s what Vladimir Putin might have been thinking when he decided to leverage his unplanned disappearance into a deliberate effort to tame public opinion and show off his unbendable will. After all, the ethical framework under which the current Russian regime operates forbids any displays of weakness. Otherwise, they won’t obey and respect you anymore and will start pressuring and influencing you instead. Therefore, Putin comes and goes as he pleases, defying everyone’s expectations and demands. He put Khodorkovsky behind bars and then let him go, but only when it was clear that no one was really hoping for and asking for it. He punished the Dozhd TV channel and then kind of forgave it, also when no one expected it. The same behavioral model is applied to foreign policy, which causes quite a bit of confusion overseas. But even inside the country, not everything comes off without a hitch—take his decision to surprise us all with the sudden return to presidency.

Alexander Baunov
Baunov is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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Other regimes that are based around the leader’s personality play similar games with the public. Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov has disappeared several times, plunging his country into the whirlwind and unleashing all kinds of rumors, speculation and succession scenarios, only to reappear at some local wedding demonstrating his strength and stamina, which, of course, fail to eliminate his actual health and power succession woes.

We have gotten used to having an old sick president replaced by a young energetic one and still can’t shake the habit. But it’s been 16 years since the last presidential transition! We have forgotten how stock markets, the news cycle, and even peace at our country’s external borders can fluctuate in sync with a single individual’s blood pressure. If the Russian president intends to remain in office until 2024, our politics will become increasingly dependent on his vital signs.

The Landscape of Tyranny

So, what, exactly, might happen if Putin suddenly departs from his earthly office for good? A sudden change of the head of state is a test even for democracies, where, as we were taught, institutions are more important than individuals. After the Kennedy assassination, the U.S. stock market had to be closed for a few days to avoid panic.

In 2009, Nigeria, a relatively democratic country by African standards, lost its president. A Muslim, Umaru Yar’Adua, was replaced by his vice president, a Christian, Goodluck Jonathan, and the country reached the abyss of civil war. It is customary for Nigerian Christians and Muslims to alternate presidential terms, leading many Muslims to believe that since the president hadn’t completed his term, the Christians had usurped power before their time.

But a leader’s sudden departure is especially trying for authoritarian regimes, which are often on the brink of collapse when it happens. Personalized, one-man regimes, which Russia is increasingly turning into, especially after Putin’s return in 2012, sometimes try to hush up a leader’s death. They say he is ailing when he is already dead. He feels worse, then better, then worse again… then, it’s the end. That’s how it worked with Stalin and Kims in North Korea. North Korea scholars can tell you that Kim Jong-il died on the morning of December 17, 2011. Yet his death was only announced on December 19 at noon—that is, more than two days later. Kim Il-Sung passed away at two in the morning on July 8, 1994; his death was made public on July 9 at noon—34 hours later. This actually demonstrates that even in absolutely totalitarian systems with a classical personality cult, the leader’s passing can’t be concealed for weeks. Neither science nor politics will stand for it. The ruling bureaucracy demands certainty sooner rather than later.

The fate of such regimes will depend on the bureaucratic faction that seizes the initiative first. We have new examples of how this works in practice, supplemented with a few recent crash tests.

The upper echelon of any authoritarian regime is usually comprised of both conservatives and relative reformers. There are those who believe that everything should be left the way it is, and those who believe that, regardless of the achievements of Bolivarian, Islamic, or socialist revolution, we should give younger generation a chance to march in step with progress. They seem to say, “You think of us as dyed-in-the-wool Stalinists or wacky religious fanatics, but we are not.”

As a rule, if hard-liners seize power after the leader departs, the situation in the country deteriorates, the remnants of human dignity and the regime’s level of control over society disappear, and so do the products in stores. Moreover, it becomes more dangerous to even talk about all of this.

And it can’t be any different. Personalized one-man dictatorships rarely rely on strong and independent individuals who can stand alongside the leader. The landscape in democratic societies, by contrast, resembles the New York skyline, where skyscrapers of competing businesses are constantly trying to outdo each other. But the landscape of a dictatorship is dominated by a lonely ziggurat, the temple of the divine king, in the middle of the Babylonian steppe. Or perhaps, it looks like the desert landscape of Egyptian Giza, where only the pyramids of the departed rulers can be taller than the abodes of the living.

Stalin, Mao, and Kim Il-Sung quickly eliminated their rivals in the wake of revolutionary victories. Che Guevara left Castro alone as soon as the latter switched from being a guerilla fighter to a political leader. Ayatollah Khomeini’s favorite prime minister, Mehdi Bazargan, became a persecuted opposition figure in a matter of a few years. With each passing year, Putin’s circle increasingly resembles that Babylonian steppe.

When the departed leader leaves behind a faceless successor who cannot rival him in influence and popularity, the regime softens or decays. It happens when his successors try to maintain the status quo. They are generally less capable of running the country than the departed founder of the regime. After all, the privilege of standing alongside the leader in personalized dictatorships is the product of a form of a negative selection of sorts.

Besides, the people who threw their more or less enthusiastic support behind a popular leader are not at all prepared to do the same with respect to a colorless successor. They feared their leader and agreed to deprivation for his sake. But won’t do it for someone who shows up one day as his replacement. The same goes for the state bureaucracy.

Venezuelan Collapse

We can see this now in Venezuela, where President Nicolas Maduro is trying to preserve the Hugo Chavez regime while lacking the comandante’s charisma and popularity. As a result, the country is losing all semblance of normalcy. All revolutionary activities aside, the country actually used to have a functioning market economy with some fragments of political freedoms under Chavez. Under Maduro, all of this is disappearing.

Under Chavez, red-shirt-clad state employees could be forced to attend a pro-government rally, but opposition supporters could invariably be found marching nearby. Revolutionary graffiti and subsidized ration food stores coexisted with more or less regular capitalist production and consumption. Chavez disliked journalists and gradually took over all the large TV channels during his lengthy tenure. Still, most major newspapers and a large number of radio stations continued to constantly criticize him. Chavez safeguarded basic democratic procedures and regularly stood for re-election, winning by comfortable 10-percent margins. Between elections, Chavez conducted several referenda, winning most of them but losing a crucial referendum on constitutional changes in 2007. Opposition mayoral and gubernatorial candidates were also able to win local elections, including in Caracas and the oil-rich states.

Under Nicolas Maduro, who came to power in 2013 after Chavez’s premature death, the largely nominal socialism of the Chavez era turned into real socialism of the Soviet variety. Now Venezuela takes pride in controlling prices and weeding out speculators and saboteurs. Its citizens rush to stand in long lines to buy simple necessities at “fair” government-imposed prices. Sometimes they get tired of waiting and start looting the stores. The local currency is in a state of chaos. The official rate is around six bolivars for one dollar, but the unofficial market rate has plunged 200 percent, making the bolivar  а currency that has devalued more than the ruble or hryvnia.

On top of this, the Maduro regime has been escalating its attacks on political enemies and destroying the remnants of political freedoms that existed under Chavez. 2014 was marked by violent government crackdowns on mass protests, something that rarely happened under Chavez. The president called the protest organizers fascists and American puppets. On February 17, Caracas’s opposition Mayor Antonio Ledezma, who was first elected back in 2008, was arrested on charge of plotting a coup. Soon after that, the Venezuelan government demanded that the U.S. embassy reduce its staff by 80 percent. Two years of Maduro rule have resulted in the collapse of practically all institutions of modern civilization in Venezuela. These problems aren’t simply the result of the decline of the oil prices (oil prices fell only in the second half of 2014). Rather, it is the regime’s desperate attempt to preserve itself without making any changes that triggered the collapse that followed Chavez’s death.

Nestor Kirshner’s unexpected death in 2010—the former president had intended to replace his wife and successor Cristina Kirshner in 2011—has brought left-wing populism and attempts to run the economy by decree to Argentina. Today foreign currency operations are prohibited, which has naturally created a black market. Online shopping is restricted. Protectionist import restrictions are also in effect. In the last few weeks, everyone has been mystified by the killing of top prosecutor Alberto Nisman, who apparently was planning to present accusations against Cristina Kirshner to the parliament if he hadn’t been murdered the day before.

Change or Wither

Nowadays, only absolute monarchies, like the oil-rich Persian Gulf emirates, are able to preserve their regimes free of either reform or decay. In these states, the ruler’s legitimacy is not derived from his personal merits but rather is passed down within the ruling family. The same applies to other dynastic regimes—the Alievs in Azerbaijan, the Lees in Singapore, the Assads in Syria, and the Kims in North Korea. But even here, Bashar al-Assad and Kim Jung-un have started reforming and adjusting their countries to modernity. And while Bashar al-Assad’s efforts were interrupted by civil war, North Korea’s economic reforms are just getting underway.

That’s exactly what the leader’s heirs do in most cases. They understand that they can’t compete with the late founding father of the regime. Therefore, they compromise and occasionally allow serious changes. That’s what happened to the 20th century’s two main one-man dictatorships—the Soviet Union after Stalin and China after Mao. But less well-known dictatorial regimes have moved along the same trajectory: the heirs of dictators have liberalized and reformed Spain, Portugal, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Iran.

This track record suggests that upon losing their leaders, one-man regimes shift toward reform and liberalization—sometimes both economic and political, and sometimes only economic. Sometimes the changes amount to mere window-dressing. But they bring about an important change of atmosphere, nonetheless —the terror and propaganda assaults weaken, and the marching songs give way to lyrical guitar ballads. In fact, the deeper the reforms go, the firmer the subsequent structure becomes. However, when successors try to preserve the status quo, the regime and all the remaining institutions of modern civilization start falling apart.

That’s the choice that is awaiting Russia’s one-man regime sooner or later. Most probably, after trying to keep things unchanged, it will be forced to choose the path of reform.

  • Alexander Baunov