There is a certain impossible appeal in despotism suffered by countries in chaos: that of the enlightened strongman who can captain his ship of state forward through the uncertain and sometimes choppy waters of democracy. The despot offers stability at the helm. The despot provides long-term vision and possesses the authority to make that vision a reality, avoiding the storms and shoals that would cause a shipwreck of state. But that is an ideal world, and states are far more than mere ships. And despots, whether they hide under the guise of democratic legitimacy or not, will come upon a time when it is best that they set aside their own vision, and listen to the voices of the people.
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Since the beginning of 2019, developments in three countries have marked different ways to confront the problem of a despot that is no longer capable of leading his nation into the future. The countries—Venezuela, Algeria, and Kazakhstan—each sit amidst unique geopolitical circumstances, but each share the similarity of fostering, to varying degrees, the structure of kraterocracy: rule by the strong. Each of them is a case study in the long-term effects of “might makes right” politics and the responses of effective governance to situations increasingly beyond the control of the government. While the inclusion of these states might be controversial to some, they all share one key hallmark of modern despotic rule: a façade of democracy operating through unfair and un-free elections.
Of the three countries discussed here, Venezuela’s peril is likely the most well-known. The ongoing constitutional crisis between the government of Nicolás Maduro and that of Juan Guaidó has already drawn the attention of major world powers as Russia has sent military support to the Maduro government while the United States has sent food aid and recognised the Guaidó government. While casual observers might easily fall into the trap of thinking that Guaidó is a far-right authoritarian who will continue the pattern of U.S. involvement in Latin America, he is instead a member of the centre-left social democratic Popular Will (VP) party.
The tension has been building in Venezuela even since the rise of Hugo Chavez, but it came to a head when the nation fell into economic crisis and the socialist-authoritarian government proved unable to effectively meet the basic needs of its citizens. Maduro, according to his former chief of staff, had no interest in setting a vision for the successful governance of his country, but rather only in the further consolidation of power, to which the opposition-controlled National Assembly was the sole counterbalance. The way to circumvent the legislature, then, was to create a parallel one, and on 1 May 2017 Maduro announced the creation of the Constituent Assembly, in violation of the Constitution of Venezuela. The presidential election that followed on 20 May 2018 was called by the illegitimate legislature, and was therefore illegitimate as well.
This was the critical moment that sparked international condemnation of Maduro’s reelection and the decision by the legitimate National Assembly to invoke Article 233 of the Constitution of Venezuela and inaugurate Juan Guaidó as President on 10 January 2019. Guaidó is recognised as interim president by fifty-four countries, including the United States, most of Europe, and most of Latin America. Maduro, meanwhile, has the support of Venezuela’s ideological allies, including Russia, China, and Cuba. The saga shows no sign of ending soon as Maduro’s position becomes more and more entrenched, but it all could unravel quickly if significant defections occur from the military, which has thus far supported Maduro. At that point, a civil war is a highly likely possibility unless Maduro were to relinquish power.
The lesson: power is elusive, and the more you try to chase it, the harder it will be to capture.
In Algeria, the military has a powerful role in politics, frequently going so far as selecting their favoured candidate and ensuring their electoral victory. Abdelaziz Bouteflika was that candidate for the military in 1999, and his role in helping bring an end to the Algerian Civil War earned him the support of many war-weary Algerians. Despite this genuinely popular start, twenty years later his support has fallen dramatically as a new generation clamours for jobs, prospects and political change without the dampening memories of a brutal civil war to hold them back. Though Bouteflika weathered the storm of the Arab Spring, which took the form of a year of major protests that ultimately led to the end of the 19-year-long state of emergency, he ultimately succumbed to his own hubris.
The most recent bout of turbulence in Algeria began in December 2018 when protests broke out opposed to a possible fifth-term in office for the ageing President. He announced his reelection campaign on 10 February 2019, but two weeks later was admitted to University Hospital Geneva (GUH) for routine medical checks following his stroke in 2013. This, combined with the fact that Bouteflika has rarely been seen in public, led the demonstrations to grow exponentially in size, including in Algiers, where public demonstrations have been illegal since 2001. One of the slogans, reflecting the public absence of Bouteflika, declared “there is no president, there’s a poster.” On 10 March, Bouteflika returned to Algeria and announced the next day that he would not seek a fifth term, but this was not enough to satisfy the demonstrators, and on 2 April Bouteflika resigned. Even this was not sufficient; the demonstrators are now demanding further resignations in the government.
It was not entirely the will of the people that pushed Bouteflika out of office, however. It was General Ahmed Gaid Salah, the Chief of Staff of the Algerian army, who made a public statement demanding Bouteflika’s immediate resignation which finally and immediately triggered exactly that. Though there is no doubt that his resignation would not have happened if there had not been massive street protests, there is also no doubt that the military still retains control over the Algerian government. If that had not been the case, then it is unlikely that the government or the people would have tolerated for long an absentee president who is ailing and paralysed. That he remained in power for seven years after his stroke strongly suggests that the presidency of Algeria is a figurehead for the real source of authority: the military. Nevertheless, the election originally scheduled for 18 April will go forward on an as-of-yet undetermined date.
The lesson: it’s hard to be a strongman while physically ailing.
Kazakhstan represents the one bright spot of the three states discussed here, though its brightness in democratic terms remains fairly dim. When the Soviet Union disintegrated, Nursultan Nazarbayev had been Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Kazakh SSR, a position that easily translated into President of the Republic of Kazakhstan. From then until 19 March 2019, when Nazarbayev abruptly announced his resignation in a move that shocked observers, Kazakhstan had known no other leader. Though the resignation was preceded by protests and demonstrations accusing the government ignoring the needs of ordinary Kazakh citizens, there appeared to be no genuine threat to Nazarbayev’s rule. Despite the shock-value of the move, the resignation itself seems to be less substantive that it would suggest at first glance. Rather than a full retreat from power, Nazarbayev has retained his services as an éminence grise in Kazakhstan, as leader of the ruling Nur Otan party and chairman-for-life of the Security Council, a body that advises the president.
The fact that Nazarbayev is still very much involved at the highest levels of the Kazakh government hides the fact that his resignation felt like an overreaction to what could have been no more than minor demonstrations. However, in the context of neighbouring Uzbekistan, Nazarbayev’s actions and intent may become clearer. Uzbekistan was shaken when its first and only president, Islam Karimov, died suddenly of a stroke in September 2016. Karimov rose to power in the same way as did Nazarbayev, but after his death his successor, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, began taking steps to purge Karimov’s legacy and carve his own place atop Uzbek politics. Witnessing these developments, Nazarbayev may have seen the wisdom of stepping aside in full health and still an active participant in the affairs of state, thereby tying his fate with that of his successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Immediately following Tokayev’s inauguration, the new president proposed renaming the capital Astana to Nur-Sultan in honor of Nazarbayev; a motion which was rapidly approved by the Kazakh legislature.
Nazarbayev, accordingly, is immunised from the ill-effects currently plaguing the leadership of Venezuela and Algeria. The effects on Kazakhstan remain to be seen; while Nazarbayev had begun his fifth term with promises of democratic reforms and a restructuring of government to fit the needs of Kazakhstan in the 21st century, Tokayev may decide on another course of action. But for Nazarbayev, resigning before being pushed out by a popular revolution or by forces from within the government protects him, his family, and his legacy as the man who was able to create a strong and viable Kazakh state following the tumult of the Soviet collapse.
The lesson: resigning on your own terms is far better than on someone else’s.
What Venezuela, Algeria, and Kazakhstan all share – like most nations – is a people who desire better lives than their current ones. At times, the despotic governments that lead their countries have brought about progress, and been able to provide the basic needs of the people. But in time, those accomplishments fade, and the people are left with no recourse to change the direction of their government should it increase their daily burdens. This is when the dilemma strikes, and different despots offer different examples. Maduro is trying to hold on to power at all costs, Bouteflika found himself forced out by the very powers that installed him, and Nazarbayev departed suddenly while remaining a significant presence in the political shadows. This balancing act of political gymnastics is one which all leaders must face, but especially undemocratic ones who have remained in power too long.
Unlike a ship, where a captain’s experience and skill can only increase in time, the ship of state often needs freshness at the helm, and the case studies of Venezuela, Algeria, and Kazakhstan show why.
Suggested books for in-depth reading on this topic:
- The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy (William J. Dobson)
- Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan (Joanna Lillis)
- Crude Nation: How Oil Riches Ruined Venezuela (Raúl Gallegos)
- Modern Algeria: A History from 1830 to the Present (Charles-Robert Ageron)
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Eamon Driscoll is a graduate of the University of Ilinois and postgraduate of Geopolitics, Territory and Security at King’s College, London. Eamon focuses on issues in Russia and the wider Commonwealth of Independent States, which has furnished him with extensive experience on the topic of breakaway states. His current academic focus is on the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and how its unique position has forced the region to develop differently from other Russian territories, especially in the shadow of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.
Photo credit: Office of the President of Kazakhstan