In Zimbabwe as in Russia, rule by the Indispensable Man

Oct 4, 2011

Russia's prime minister Vladimir Putin is set to get back his previous position of president in 2012, entrenching his long dominance over that country's affairs. An article about the awkward mechanics of this move was striking in how it echoes Zimbabwe's own medieval power politics.

The article by Ellen Barry in the New York Times, Return of the Indispensable Man, begins with what she says is a joke in Russia about Putin's already long and lengthening reign, previously as president, now as prime minister (but seen as the real power behind the throne) and next year as president again, no doubt for many years to come.

Barry writes, ''The send-up imagined Mr. Putin, who is now 58, still in charge in his 70s, with deep hollows around his piercing blue eyes; in his 80s, a last few hairs straggling from his mottled scalp; and in his 90s, skeletal, his cheeks caved in around false teeth.''

While amongst some Russians this may be a joke about power lust, something uncomfortably similar is an actual reality in Zimbabwe.

Mugabe came into power at the age of 56 in 1980. At 87 he outwardly appears in very good shape, there rumors abound of all not being quite right with the internal workings of his body. But he says he is eager to run in an election likely to be called in 2012, when he will be 88 years old! A mottled scalp while in office, being skeletal and with cheeks caved in around false teeth may be unavoidable while he is in office, if he wins and serves another full term.

What is a jokey theory in Russia is pretty much the present reality in Zimbabwe.

Continues Barry's NYTimes article, ''Russians, of course, are accustomed to being ruled by very old men. Anyone who lived through the 1980s can remember the Communist Party’s long battle with mortality, as the general secretary’s seat was passed from one frail, tottering character to the next. Political prognostication revolved around signs of imminent death — Brezhnev’s shuffling gait, Andropov’s pallor, Chernenko’s shortness of breath — since death was the only thing that could open the door to the reforms that mattered.''

Ditto for Zimbabwe, except that we have not had a series of ruling old men to keep a death watch over, but just one. And with Mugabe's recent (last week) seventh-this-year and poorly, unconvincingly explained trip to the Far East (''medical checkup''), it is not far-fetched to say that Zimbabwe is on a macabre death watch, fairly or unfairly to Mugabe.

''Mr. Putin’s decision to return next year to the presidency, a post he can occupy for two successive terms until 2024, presents us with a similarly open-ended rule.''

In Zimbabwe Mugabe's rule is already 'open-ended.'

Apart from Putin's desire to rule Russia under one guise or another for a long as possible, it is suggested that he is also the most popular politician there. Despite his autocratic tendencies, he apparently does really enjoy popular support, for being seen as a man of action who has presided over cohesiveness and prosperity in Russia.

While Mugabe shares Putin's desire for open-ended rule, he does not any more come close to enjoy a preponderance of opinion that his rule has bettered prospects for Zimbabweans. The open-ended rule project in Zimbabwe is much more forced than that in Russia. Mugabe was once idolized by Zimbabweans though, so it is not impossible that how that went to his head may yet also afflict Putin, or perhaps has already done so. Many years from now Russians may be scratching their heads wondering how to get rid of a Putin who might have then overstayed his welcome.

''Though most Russians understood that Mr. Putin still ran the country after he stepped down from the presidency in 2008, the years that followed brought murkiness and confusion about the actual plan for succession. Now there is no confusion: there is no plan for succession.''

No succession plan in Zimbabwe either!

It was obviously part of Mugabe's gambit all along to prevent anybody from appearing as a possible successor. Cynically, that tactic is now used to justify why he must continue to stay on for just a little bit longer: ''I can't leave now, my party would fall apart without me!''

We are supposed to be too dumb to see that the over-concentration of power in one man was quite deliberate and planned, and designed to ensure that the fortunes of that party and of its leader were supposed to be thought of as one and the same, and inseparable. ''If I go now, the party/country will crumble, I am the Indispensable Man!''

Back to the fascinating New York Times article: ''In Russia, we learned last weekend, the choice is in the hands of one person, who woke up one morning and decided he could not trust anyone else to do the job. If there is a blueprint for this form of government, it is the dictatorships of Central Asia, whose aging leaders are now attempting to impose dynastic succession.''

Here Barry clearly gets it wrong. The blueprint for this form Zimbabwe!

While Mugabe's offspring are too young for talk of dynastic succession, he clearly has woke up many mornings to convince himself he could ''not trust anyone else to do the job,'' even if many, including within his inner circle (see the Wikileaks U.S. Harare embassy cables!) don't think he has particularly distinguished himself in the job.

Years from now, when the Putin-struck Russians can't get rid of their Indispensable Man, perhaps a then hopefully recovered Zimbabwe will be able to tell them, ''we tried to warn you about letting you leaders get too comfortable with power.''

The Zimbabwe Review


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