Staunton, March 27 – One of the characteristics of extreme personalist dictatorships like those of Joseph Stalin or Vladimir Putin is that the leader must personally take charge and be seen to take charge in response to every crisis lest his non-appearance spark fear and anger and even confusion about who is in charge.
When Stalin did not speak to the Soviet people immediately after the German invasion, many within his regime and among the population were left at loose ends. He recovered his standing quickly when he did appear and especially when he adopted a new language in speaking with the people.
Something similar appears to have happened between the onset of the coronavirus and Putin’s appearance at the hospital and his speech to the nation, a period when, as Rosbalt commentator Sergey Shelin, Russian officials and the Russian people were left unsure of “who is ruling Russia” (rosbalt.ru/blogs/2020/03/27/1835097.html).
Now that the Kremlin leader has spoken, the immediate problem has passed. But it raises a larger issue for the future: As Putin ages or as he seeks to withdraw from day-to-day management, he and his regime and countrymen may find themselves trapped in a situation in which if he doesn’t appear as leader, that alone will become a problem.
Even the aging Stalin had to continue to appear; but because his regime was based far less on a saturated media environment, he was not under the same pressure to do so as Putin whose regime is based on his control of the media and was able to withdraw like some pre-modern monarch into the mysteries of the Kremlin.
In an autocracy with an irreplaceable leader, Shelin suggests, it is now critically important that the supreme leader appear and appear quickly. But in the case of the coronavirus, Putin didn’t. Instead, for some weeks, the leader was silent and “his brief appeal to the nation was strange not only in content but also in form.”
Instead of projecting the image of a leader who was going to take things to hand, he acted “like a tired teacher reluctantly speaking to bored pupils.” His proposals seemed second hand rather than his own, and his approach seemed at odds with a crisis that will hit several million Russians directly and the whole country as a result.
Others like Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin have been taking the lead, and some may ask what difference does it make who does. But they do not understand the nature of the Russian system, Shelin argues. Given the power vertical, the first person must take the lead or his executors will become confused and even angry.
Some of its members, like the patriarch, will be uncertain what is expected of them unless the number one speaks. And they will flail about. Any appearance of liberalism will occur in Russia only when the supreme leader doesn’t indicate exactly what he expects and is prepared to use his power to insist on.
But in this case and perhaps others in the future, Putin isn’t playing that role. “Why? Undoubtedly because he as usual doesn’t want to connect with name with difficulties, failures and misfortunes,” but also in this case because he is focusing on something else – the plebiscite on the amendments that will allow him to stay in power and the opposition he now faces.
That may explain this case, Putin’s slowness to respond and the strange way in which he finally did so, the Rosbalt commentator says. But it raises the question of how Putin will respond in the future to crises as he gets older and whether the system he has created can remain stable if he reacts in a similar way.