Analysis

‘Leader for Life’: Putin Shows Israelis What They Should Fear

Xi, Erdogan and Netanyahu all took example from the Russian autocrat. Their popularity is waning, but it's not enough to guarantee democracy

Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with his Serbian counterpart in Sochi on December 4, 2019.
SHAMIL ZHUMATOV / POOL / AFP

The Russian government’s resignation, which was announced on Wednesday, took many around the world by surprise – but the move did not seem all that surprising to anyone who knows President Vladimir Putin.

Putin also announced that day that he would conduct a reform that would take powers from the next president and hand them to the Russian parliament and prime minister, subjecting the president to the prime minister’s decision regarding ministers’ appointments.

Hijacking the Holocaust for Putin, politics and powerHaaretz Weekly Ep. 57

Putin’s proposed changes suggest appointing himself as Chairman of the State Council, whose status will be bolstered in the constitution. By doing so, Putin is paving his way to the status of “leader for life.”

Putin has been bolstering his violent rule in Russia for 20 years. During this time he has taken steps to stifle any illusion that after the fall of the Soviet Union Russia might become a free democracy. He changed the constitution to extend his grip on power, intervened in foreign states’ affairs, eliminated enemies in Russia and outside it, established strongholds in the third world and built a domestic and global leadership brand that he uses as a powerful weapon. Putin has become a model many other world leaders aspire to imitate, and for good reason: most of his country’s citizens support him, even after his popularity faded with the deterioration of the Russian economy.

Leaders like Viktor Orban in Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines – are all familiar with the Putin label and its power. These leaders are a living demonstration of how the 20th century’s liberal pendulum has swung back in the 21st century, bringing to power authoritarian autocrats. Prominent among them is China’s president, Xi Jinping, who amended the constitution in 2018 to enable him to extend his term in office indefinitely. He did so after years in which a leadership rotation ensured there would be no single ruler in the rising economic power.

Putin’s rule in Russia had been limited by law. By 2024 he was supposed to retire from the presidency and not to contend again. He had already served two terms as president – as long as the law permitted - between 2000 and 2008. But then he appointed himself prime minister, and his confidant Dmitri Medvedev as “acting” president until he completed legislation that enabled him to run for president again, in 2012, with an expiry date in 2024.

Prime Minister Medvedev, Putin’s perennial sidekick, wasn’t ashamed to admit the cabinet’s resignation was intended to strengthen Putin. “The president made a few fundamental constitutional changes…and in this context clearly we as the government will provide our country’s president the opportunity to make all the necessary decisions,” he said.

Xi, Putin and Erdogan’s appropriation of powers is taking place in countries with hardly any or no democratic tradition. But it should teach us an important lesson. The hope that bad, bullying leaders “will go home sometime” needs action and support, otherwise it dies. In the past decade, and especially in the last two years, we’ve seen how greed for power has also driven the Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu has waged a war against the justice system, the police have no permanent commissioner, ministers are appointed on a whim to sow chaos and serve as the prime minister’s lackeys, and wacky bills are frequently proposed. One of the biggest black stains is the State Comptroller’s Office, which has become something between a not-funny Ephraim Kishon parody and a Netanyahu-style ministry of truth.

Support for Netanyahu is waning, as the latest two haywire election campaigns have shown. In Russia, too, support for Putin has dropped in the last two years, not only due to the weak economy, but because of pension reforms that drove people to the streets in protest. In Turkey, Erdogan’s party lost the municipal elections in the two major cities. In China, Xi faces a courageous uprising in Hong Kong and a protest vote of Taiwan’s citizens, who elected President Tsai Ing-wen to another term because of her stand for independence from China.

All of this is encouraging, but it’s not enough. It should encourage us to do more, not less, to protect democracy and reject the perverted idea of “leader for life,” advanced by the junta of Netanyahu’s toadies in Israel.

When Alexei Navalny, the opposition leader in Russia, tweets that Putin’s only goal is to “make himself the sole leader for life, take ownership of an entire state and appropriate wealth for himself and his cronies” – he is also talking to us Israelis.