Putin the Perónist

MOSCOW – Russian President Vladimir Putin has been compared to many strongmen of the past – Joseph Stalin, Leonid Brezhnev, and Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, to name a few. But, after nearly 14 years in power, perhaps the best comparison now may be a transgender cross between the former Argentine leader Juan Perón and his legendary wife, Eva (“Evita”).

In the early 1940’s, Colonel Perón, as Minister of Labor and Secretary of War, was a “gray cardinal” to Argentina’s rulers. Before communism collapsed in 1989, Colonel Putin, also memorably gray, was a devoted KGB operative, entrusted with spreading disinformation and recruiting Soviet and foreign agents in East Germany.

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At the labor ministry, Perón initiated social reforms, including welfare benefits for the poor. Although his motivation, at least in part, may have been a desire for social justice, Perón was, in effect, bribing the beneficiaries to support his own rise to power and wealth. With his beautiful and outspoken wife – a “woman of the people” – at his side, Perón was able to persuade voters in 1946 that, as President, he would fundamentally change the country.

He was as good as his word. Perón’s government nationalized banks and railroads, increased the minimum wage and improved living standards, reduced the national debt (for a while at least), and revived the economy. Argentina became less reliant on foreign trade, though the move toward autarky eventually undermined growth, causing the country to lose its position among the world’s richest.

During this period, Perón also undermined freedom of speech, fair elections, and other essential aspects of democracy. He and his emotional wife spoke publicly against bourgeois injustices and luxury, while secretly amassing a private fortune. Finally, Perón was ousted in 1955, three years after the death of Evita, his greatest propagandist.

Like Perón a half-century before, Putin promised in 2000 to tame the unbridled capitalism that had run wild under his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. He pledged to restore a sense of dignity to a country that had just lost its empire and suffered a severe economic contraction during the early years of the post-communist transition.

Putin renationalized, or rather brought under Kremlin control, the oil, gas, and other industries that had been privatized in the 1990’s. Buoyed by high world energy prices, he was able to pay the back wages and pensions that Yeltsin’s cash-strapped government still owed to miners, railroad workers, and teachers. As with Perón, citizens were bribed into backing the regime.

But, with oil and gas revenues flowing into state coffers, Putin started to fill his own pockets. His personal wealth – including palaces, yachts, watches, and cars – has been estimated at $40-70 billion. Although he insists that his riches consist not of money and assets, but of the trust of his people, few Russians doubt that he is one of the world’s wealthiest men.

As with Perón’s presidency, Putin’s began well. The public adored the new strongman as he flexed Russia’s political muscle abroad, punished the “dishonest” Yeltsin-era oligarchs, restricted the “irresponsible” media, and re-centralized power.

Until recently, Putin’s resemblance to Evita was not so obvious (though his regular Botox treatments have given him the look that she took on after she was embalmed). But the similarities are becoming increasingly evident. Her passionate “messages for the suffering” resonated with Argentina’s poor in the way that Putin’s macho swagger appeals to a majority of Russians, mostly from the country’s hinterland and provincial cities.

Evita and Putin also share a streak of pettiness. Evita ruined the life of anyone who appeared to doubt her image as Argentina’s “godmother.” Putin takes revenge on anyone – whether the oligarch-cum-political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky, members of the rock band Pussy Riot, or ordinary citizens joining anti-Kremlin protests – who challenges his status as “father of the nation.” Perhaps not coincidentally, capital flight is on the rise, and around 300,000 Russians – including many of the best educated – leave the country every year.

Now Ukraine, where President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision not to sign an association agreement with the European Union has mobilized millions of protesters, represents Russia’s moment of truth. While many cheer the “Euromaidan,” many others insist that Ukraine must maintain close ties with Russia. Putin, who played the role of puppeteer in Yanukovych’s decision to keep his country within the Russian orbit, hypocritically blames external forces for Ukraine’s political crisis.

Yet the more the world mocks Putin’s exhibitionism, the more support he gains from Russians yearning for a return to superpower status. Likewise, when Evita was dying of cancer, graffiti appeared all over Buenos Aires, declaring, “Long Live Cancer!” But many continued to idolize her for helping the poor, regardless of how self-serving she had become. The same strange brew of mockery and adoration characterizes Russia’s Putin era as well.

Perón’s final years may offer a worrying parallel. He returned to power in 1973, 18 years after his ouster, bringing back Evita’s embalmed body for Argentines to adore once more. He died the following year, leaving the government in the hands of his third wife, Isabel, whose mismanagement of the economy incited guerrilla violence and a military coup within two years.

Yet today, according to the Latin America scholar Michael Cohen, “most of Argentine society is Perónist….Perón delivered a welfare state from which the current middle class benefits.” Similarly, the majority of Russians approve of Putin’s version of state capitalism, and many appreciate his largesse.

I once believed that Putin’s demise might resemble the sudden and bloody fall of Lavrenti Beria, Stalin’s all-powerful security chief, who was finished off by the arbitrary system of justice that he helped to create. What now seems more likely, due to the dependence of a majority of Russians on state handouts, is that when Russia’s leader finally leaves the stage, Putinism, like Perónism, will survive, with a bizarre half-life lasting decades.

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