The Wall Street Journal writes that Vladimir Putin is being kept in a warm bathtub: only positive information reaches him, while negative information is concealed or played down to maintain the illusion of success. Nothing new, only reiterations, and Putin believes the deceivers.
The final curtain is falling on the year 2022, which has proven once again that authoritarian regimes are inherently ineffective. They always lose to democracies in the long run, and their seemingly strong form of governance turns out to be weak.
This year, we have observed two major autocracies, China and Russia, proving this simple truth. Of course, there are smaller ones in the world, but their stories, however instructive, are not so conspicuously graphic.
An authoritarian regime is essentially based on maximally centralized decision-making, which leads to a single person’s physical domination. The leader’s wish becomes law and everyone goes out of their way to guess and fulfill that wish in order to please him and earn his favor. Who needs all those procedures, institutions and other structural elements of a democracy when everything depends on the leader’s will? Everything is simple. Everything is decided and implemented so quickly that democracies, being too bulky and red-tape-bound, seem doomed to lose.
Putin wagered on it and lost. The West united and he found himself cornered, though regularly recharged with optimism by positive reports.
But why are autocracies weak? Because they are unable to develop. They are unable and unwilling to acknowledge mistakes as that would undermine the system; and because every mistake is the leader’s mistake. The vertical system of governance is built on the principle of servile loyalty instead of professionalism. When the leader’s entourage is composed of loyal people, then the same principle is applied at each level of authority all the way down the chain of command. Then corruption is not a problem anymore: you are free to steal as long as you remain loyal.
Over time, the entire system of governance turns out to be filled with loyal thieves and embezzlers whose only concern and care is the higher boss’s favors. Can truthful information reach the top through all the tiers of this system, which looks so solid but is rotten inside?
We see “the world’s second strongest army” become a laughing stock – abominably barbaric, but still a ridiculous scarecrow. Putin really ought to admit today that Feb. 24 was the biggest mistake of his life. But he cannot admit it. The mistake was based on false information conveyed by the loyal people who wanted to retain their status and access to financial flows. It was based on the poor state of the army, which was the result of an authoritarian system in which higher positions allow for stealing more. It is impossible to correct this mistake, and no elections can help change the leadership and its policies.
Ultimately, the ponderous authoritarian regime, rather than the democracy, is the loser. Hostage to itself, it resembles a rhino running at a train, unable to make a U-turn on the one-way track.
It is the nature of authoritarian regimes that leads to such mistakes. A democracy would never have taken such a suicidal step, because it does not depend on the mental state of one person and the conspiracy theories to which he is hostage. It is the nature of the Russian authoritarian regime that has led to its army’s deplorable state and keeps driving it on the one-way track toward the dead end.
China did not make a military mistake, refraining from an invasion of Taiwan, but the weakness of its autocracy was exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2020 and 2021, thousands of propaganda news reports and scores of talking heads put across the hopeless weakness of democracies in fighting the virus. At the end of the day, the Western democracies survived and overcame the pandemic while the world’s most populated country had to go into a total lockdown.
As a result of subsequent economic problems, China is seeing mass protests for the first time in decades. Nevertheless, its autocratic leadership sticks to its erroneous “Zero Covid” policy, because abandoning it would mean owning up to the mistake – the mistake made personally by Xi Jinping who never errs.
The severe economic impacts of the lockdown forced the Chinese leadership to open the sluices, and now the nation is plagued by an even worse pandemic, because the people simply have no immunity after two years in enforced isolation without effective vaccines. What happens next is hard to predict. Confronted by the virus, the authoritarian machine has proven to be inflexible and impotent – unlike the democratic machine, which may work with a lot of noise, confusion and debate, but in the end finds optimal solutions and makes the right moves.
Both China and Russia are hostage to their authoritarian models, which make them weaker no matter how strong Beijing and Moscow paint them.
The cherry on the cake is the marginalization of Donald Trump, the man who tried to turn the world’s strongest democracy into an autocracy. After he lost the election to Joe Biden, he even ventured a comeback. Fortunately, he is failing.
2022 has been a hard year, but a year of historic triumph for democracies.