Staunton, November 17 – There is a dramatic moment in the 1986 British film, Defense of the Realm, in which an editor tells a journalist played by Gabriel Byrne who is seeking to expose the way in which the official secrets act is misused that “there is a lot wrong with this country, but it isn’t Bulgaria.”
That remark comes to mind after reading Sergey Shelin’s commentary suggesting that “the excessive interest” Russian intellectuals have shown to “the replacement of the irreplaceable [Zimbabwean leader Robert] Mugabe is based on some mistaken ideas about their own country” (rosbalt.ru/blogs/2017/11/17/1661662.html).
Most Russians couldn’t find Zimbabwe on a map much less discuss its political system with any intelligence, the Rosbalt commentator says; and consequently, one is compelled to conclude that all the talk in some circles in Moscow about what is going on in that country is in fact not about Zimbabwe but about Russia.
Unfortunately, for those pushing an analogy between Zimbabwe and Mugabe’s exist and Russia and Putin’s future, there is little evidence. The length of the former’s rule, his authoritarianism, and his irreplaceability are far from the most important factors explaining what is happening to Mugabe.
Four others are far more relevant: his role as “founding father” of his country, the decay of the economy under his rule, the presence of organized opposition groups and parties, and Mugabe’s obvious deterioration with age. Only the first of these works in his favor; the other three don’t. But the real reason Putin isn’t threatened with a Mugabe-like exit.
Over the past half century, Shelin continues, the supreme leader of the country has been pushed out of office only twice: Khrushchev in 1964 and Gorbachev in 1991. “In the first case, he was sent off into retirement by the then-powerful party machine … In the second, by the machine of the power of the Russian Federation which destroyed the demoralized union state.”
In both cases, there were powerful organizations in a position to oppose the ruler, but now “there is almost nothing.” Institutions are largely meaningless, and they lack the capacity to form “any serious coalitions” against Putin. The population is “more politicized than it was several years ago, but these are only the first steps up from absolute zero.”
Expecting a Zimbabwe-like outcome in Russia today is thus absurd, however many people in Moscow want to talk about it. The country is in stagnation but not collapse and so people aren’t having to reflect deeply about what kind a change of course they would really like to see.