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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Successions in Moscow, Pyongyang and Caracas

It has been a remarkable three days. In Moscow, Russia’s third most important political figure, Yury Luzhokv, the long-serving mayor of Moscow, was unceremoniously sacked. In Pyong-Yang, the son of Kim Jong-Il was named a major general. In Caracas, the opposition to Hugo Chavez won some fifty percent of the popular vote and almost 40 percent of the seats in parliament. All three events tell us something about the most important political successions that lie before us.

Although Luzhkov was fired by President Dmitry Medvedev (who has the official power to remove regional officials), he was really fired by Vladimir Putin to rid the country of the one politician who could contest him for the presidency in 2012. Luzhkov was fired for corruption and incompetence. The corruption charge is true. Luzhov’s control over Moscow was so complete that he was rarely challenged on his wife’s wealth, who became a billionaire through Moscow city contracts. His standard response to questions: “I have nothing to do with my wife’s business.” Luzhkov took kickbacks from companies doing lucrative business in Moscow, some of which he turned back to the city. Incompetent he was not. Compared to other Russian cities, Moscow is one of the best run. It is notable that Luzhkov had to be fired, rather than accepting a face-saving position elsewhere. He chose to stand and fight. As a price for this defiance, he may be dragged through the courts and suffer the same fate as Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who will spend most of his adult life in jail. Luzhkov’s is a cautionary tale to any other regional official, most of whom have enriched themselves through their offices: “Moscow (Putin) is your boss. You can only keep your office and your riches if you are unhesitatingly loyal.” It is important for Putin that they all know this lesson as the 2012 election campaign begins.

North Korea is run by a military council headed by the “beloved leader” Kim Jong-Il. Although the North Korean Communist Party is a key element in the power structure, it is trumped by the military. In this sense, North Korea is unlike the Soviet Union, where the party kept the military on a short leash. It was Kim Jong-Il’s father who invented the family succession in a communist state. In 1980, the last party congress named Kim Jong-Il the successor to his father. Prior to that, in other communist states, the sitting leader could not allow even the mention of a successor for fear it would become reality. Accordingly, the deaths of communist leaders were usually followed by disruptive power struggles. The family succession ensures that the leader-father can continue without the threat of overthrow, expulsion or scapegoating. In North Korean, party congresses are called only when important decisions need to be rubber stamped. The upcoming party congress, which will be the first in three decades, is clearly being called to approve the first steps of the eventual transition of power. Family succession has now become standard fare in dictatorships (Raol and Fidel Castro, Assad father and son, the Aliev father and son and so on). At least the North Koreans added something to the repretoire of dictators.

The parliamentary elections in Caracas are either the last gasp of democracyor a rebound. Despite long odds, Venezuelan voters cast as many or more votes for anti-Chavez candidates as for his supporters, despite the bullying, machinations, and corruption of the Chavez machine. The election left Chavez short of the supermajority required to allow him legally to rule by decree. The most likely outcome is that democracy’s days are numbered. Chavez can spin the election to his advantage (“I still have the most seats in parliament”). Despite an economy in shambles, sporadic electricity, and food lines, Chavez had avoided what would have been a disastrous defeat in the case of a fair election. If I were to guess, I would venture that yesterday’s election was democracy’s last gasp.

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