Strongmen? Us?
Bloomberg Businessweek|November 22 - 29, 2021
Don’t let their confidence fool you: Xi, Putin, and other authoritarians are increasingly vulnerable at home
By Marc Champion. Photography by Mikhail Svetlov, Getty

China’s President Xi Jinping is cracking down on Big Tech, rattling sabers over Taiwan, and testing hypersonic missiles in space. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has taken on global financial markets and briefly threatened to throw out ambassadors from 10 countries. And in Moscow, President Vladimir Putin moved enough troops toward Ukraine to convince the U.S. that invasion could be imminent. Almost two years into a pandemic that left many democracies reeling, authoritarians around the globe are getting feisty.

But scratch through the rhetoric—sometimes triumphant, other times belligerent—and much of what these strongmen do also reveals their domestic vulnerability, because the pandemic has been tough on them, too. Many failed the Covid-19 response test at least as dismally as their counterparts in democratic countries. The resulting mix of insecurity at home and confidence abroad is a recipe for instability and risk.

At the start of the Covid crisis, authoritarian leaders as a group seemed better able to avoid the public and economic backlash suffered by many governments in developed democracies. That was true regardless of whether they, like Xi, imposed tough lockdowns and restrictions, or they, like Putin, downplayed the disease’s threat. (Remember the advice of Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko to fight Covid with vodka and tractor riding?)

Now, as the pandemic grinds on, that advantage is in doubt.

Russia is struggling to reduce record Covid fatalities; its households have been getting poorer, and Putin’s approval ratings have fallen. China’s strict Covid policies paid big dividends when its economy bounced back, with growth from a year earlier hitting 18.3% in the first quarter of 2021. But Xi’s zero-case approach to battling Covid forced the continued lockdown of borders and cities that, together with his crackdown on capitalist excess, has sapped growth. Erdogan, above all, has floundered in his attempt to contain what you might call economic long Covid.

Many democratic governments are in deep trouble, too, including that of the U.S. But one advantage of democracies is coming into its own at this stage of the pandemic, says Ivan Krastev, chairman of the Bulgaria-based Centre for Liberal Strategies, a think tank: They can afford failure. When elected governments are perceived to have bungled so fundamental a task as protecting the lives of their citizens, they can pay the price at the ballot box, leaving the state bruised but intact.

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