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Strongmen may be on a roll, but they are rarely secure

Leaders who can foster a national sense of grievance, maintain a stable economy and stitch a few fig leaves over their worst excesses have built a surprisingly stable model of governing. One big problem remains for them: the exit strategy.

Alexander Lukashenko, Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, embracing his Belarussian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko during a meeting in Moscow, Russia, on December 29, 2018.
Kirill Kudryavtsev/Pool via REUTERS

Worldwide, authoritarian leaders are on a roll. The U.S. in the age of Trump seems weakened and vulnerable; Britain intent on political suicide. But leaders who can foster a national sense of grievance, maintain a stable economy and stitch a few fig leaves over their worst excesses have built a surprisingly stable model of governing.

One big problem remains for them: the exit strategy. Or, rather, how to ensure that you won’t need one. The last thing you want after decades in power is to be questioned about the opponents you jailed, the wars you may have started, or the size of your bank accounts. Since you can never be totally sure that even the most loyal successor will protect you, you can never really let go. Even then, you can’t rest easy.

President for life

China’s Xi Jinping is trying to solve the problem the old-fashioned way. The Chinese Communist Party doesn’t permit political competition. So once on top of the party and government apparatus, he prosecuted a number of rivals for corruption, and then had himself declared president for life.

Vladimir Putin already has manipulated the Russian political system once, getting around presidential term limits by taking a four-year break to serve as prime minister (even though he still was largely in charge). Last year, he was elected to a final six-year term as president. He faces being termed out again in 2024. Recent news reports suggest he’s calculating another end run – this time, following a path blazed by former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic. It’s brilliantly simple: If you can’t legally keep serving as leader of your country, just make sure there is a slightly different version of the country you can run.

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Milosevic served as Serbian president from 1989 to 1997, a period that included the breakup of the old Yugoslav federation and wars in Croatia and Bosnia. When the original federation collapsed, two of the original six republics, Serbia and tiny Montenegro, created a new, smaller Yugoslavia – which Milosevic dominated. And when Milosevic was termed out as Serbian president, he engineered his election as president of this new Yugoslavia. It was pretty much seamless.

That brings us to the news out of Belarus, a former Soviet republic of 10 million people that borders Russia and Ukraine. Under President Alexander Lukashenko, a throwback to Soviet days, Belarus has been called the last dictatorship in Europe. Lukashenko for the most part has been a loyal ally of Russia, which has rewarded him with abundant and cheap oil and natural gas. The two sides also committed themselves 20 years ago to a confederation that would share a currency, judiciary, legislature and a head of state (you see where this might be heading, right?)

Russia’s moves

Lukashenko has served for years as head of the confederation, but no one cared because it didn’t do anything. Last month, though, Russia suddenly declared it was time to start getting serious. Moscow also decided that it was being too generous with its oil and gas – which may be a way to squeeze Belarus, a reflection of the bad state of Russia’s own economy – or both. Russia named a former KGB spy as ambassador to Belarus last year, and established a working group on integration with Belarus.

Lukashenko wasn’t happy to see Russia foment a separatist rebellion in Ukraine five years ago, aware that it could do the same thing in his backyard. He is angry about Russia’s latest maneuvers. Unfortunately for Lukashenko, he has had lousy relations with the West for many years. Belarus expelled the U.S. ambassador and most American diplomats in 2008 to protest U.S. sanctions imposed because of its human rights abuse, and Washington has been able to maintain only a skeleton staff since then. But Belarus lifted a cap on the number of U.S. diplomats this past week. One U.S. official was quoted as saying this amounted to the “beginning of a thaw.”

Lukashenko has accused Russia of trying to break his country into regions that would formally join Russia. But that’s probably more trouble for Putin than it’s worth. Better that Belarus remains formally separate, but also weak and compliant – backing Russia on the world stage, paying more for Russian oil and gas, and giving Putin the option of pushing the Belarus president out as chief of the confederation sometime in the future.

For the moment, it’s working pretty well for Xi, Putin and the like. But such leaders often succumb to hubris or simply run out of tricks. Milosevic lost his next election, was arrested and sent to an international tribunal to face war crimes charges. He died in custody.

Risks for Xi

Xi is taking a big risk. The cautious, collective leadership that preceded him was far less dynamic, but at least provided more targets for finger-pointing. With the economy slowing, China clamping down on any hint of dissident and more aggressively pursuing its interests in the world, the blame falls squarely on Xi if something goes seriously wrong. Putin, as he approaches two decades in power, has made no progress on modernizing his economy, and faces international pushback, a shrinking population and declining popularity of his Ukraine adventure.

Strongmen often seem invincible. But they are rarely secure. Societies and the broader world change in unexpected ways. Suddenly, they are vulnerable.