Are we at the return of Mao and Stalin?

El COMERCIO – On Sunday 18th, the international press reported that Vladimir Putin won the Russian elections by receiving 76.7% of the vote. “There is no doubt that Putin is extremely popular among Russians,” declared  The New York Times.

His reelection marks more than 18 years in which Putin has been in power. That includes the four years in which he left the presidency to a close ally, but in which Putin retained command. With the exception of Stalin, Putin is the Russian leader who has lasted most in power since the early twentieth century.

The previous Sunday, China abolished the limits to the presidential mandate. In that way, it replaced the “collective leadership” that characterized the governance of the Communist Party after the death of Mao, with that of an individual, Xi Jinping. The dictatorship of the party, in which the head of state alternated, has been transformed into a personal dictatorship.

Xi will be president for life and we can expect the same from Putin. Both have consolidated power by centralizing it in the State and their person. Xi heads the three most powerful positions in China: not only is head of State, but also of the Communist Party and the Armed forces. Similarly, Putin has created a cult of personality within a   Fascist state.

Both in Russia like in China, there was a period of greater liberties after the failure of communism. When the Soviet Union became Russia democratic and more open. But unlike Central Europe, which experienced numerous successful cases of transition towards market democracy, Russia mishandled the transition. The liberalization was not very far, there was a lot of corruption and there was an economic crisis. Within that context, Putin emerged, with a dedicated idea of ending the political freedom.

In China, the great market reforms, that for almost four decades produced the great economic growth, only happened after Mao’s death. Deng Xiaoping and other leaders acknowledged the economic and humanitarian catastrophes caused by Mao and that’s why they approached capitalism and amended the Constitution to avoid the indefinite mandate of a single person.

But different from Russia, China never liberalized its political system. In fact, China saw how the partial political liberalization of perestroika helped to end the Soviet empire.

At some point in the last 20 years, Russia and China lost interest in market reforms. The high growth that both experienced for several years probably played a role in discontinuing the reform agenda. But in both countries growth has slowed down. Xi has promised economic liberalization but seems to have no interest in fulfilling them. Like Putin, it has only restricted basic freedoms, incurring serious violations of human rights.

Given these circumstances, what can we expect from Russia and China? The two dictators face a dilemma. They know that the economic liberalization necessary to resume growth means losing some control over their subjects, something they do not want to risk. They will continue to restrict basic freedoms while promoting alternative models to the market democracy.

This includes sowing doubts about the legitimacy of Western democracies and becoming increasingly aggressive. Already Russia has shown to be so with his interventions in the US elections, the poisoning of former spies in the United Kingdom, its support for extremist European politicians, its military actions in Ukraine and other places.

It is clear that, in the face of this aggression, free societies must defend the institutions and values of freedom. If you can not count on the governments of the West, it would be good, for example, if at least the free press stops legitimizing these dictatorial farces.

Written by: Ian Vásquez
Director of the Center for Freedom and Global Prosperity of the Cato Institute.
Published in Spanish by El Comercio