The Trouble With Despotism
I’ve already written about the battle for gay rights gearing up to happen at the Sochi Olympics, and it’s right this should be our primary focus. LGBT Russians are in trouble and need our support. Vladimir Putin, I argued, has inadvertently given the world a perfect opportunity to do so.
It now looks as though this isn’t the regime’s only spectacular own goal. Reporters have started arriving in Sochi in large numbers, and have been greeted by accommodation that only barely merits the term. On his blog, the photographer Jeff Cable paints us a picture:
We arrived at a cluster of 16 buildings that look like dormitories. There was no reception area for us to check in, there was just one building which had a large dirty room with people scrambling to get us situated. (…) The floors are so filthy that I don’t think they were ever vacuumed after the construction was done. There is almost no furniture in the room, and what is there is almost unusable. There are small TVs in the rooms, but they do not work. There are no phones in the rooms and worse yet, there is NO Internet at all. No hard wired and no wireless. I am writing this blog from a downstairs common room in a different building (with 15 other pissed off media), and I swear the Internet is running at dial-up speeds. (…) The good news is that I do have 4 walls around me, and I do have a bed.
The Washington Post has collected a huge crop of similar horror stories via Twitter, including photos.
The overall impression is that the Soviet Union never really went away. My mother visited the USSR in the mid-’80s and describes a country half-finished; apartment blocks with no roads leading to them, for example. That’s central planning for you, but if capitalism is good for anything, it’s getting things done according to demand. Yet somehow, this news has failed to reach the new Russia.
You might say that some shoddy building work is a fairly trivial thing, hardly an indictment of a whole society. You might even argue that Russia is a much poorer country than ours and we shouldn’t expect Western standards of comfort and competence. But think about it: these aren’t just any hotels, but hotels for journalists from all over the world. It’s one of the first things they’ll see on arriving and where they’ll spend much of their time in the country.
If you’re showcasing Russia to the world, this is one thing you take pains to get right – especially on a £30 billion budget. But with every incentive to succeed, they’ve still managed to fail, like asking someone you fancy over and forgetting to clean the toilet. It’s a good bet further tales of incompetence or worse will continue to emerge as time goes by. How did this happen?
A common lament of democratic politicians is that they never get anything done and wish they had dictatorial powers; most notoriously, George W. Bush made a joke along these lines shortly before becoming President. It makes intuitive sense: without having to appease popular opinion, opposition or the media, government must be much more straightforward, yes?
No, as it turns out. When you examine the actual inner workings of totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, current and historical, a pattern emerges. When important jobs are handed out not on merit but for ideological fidelity and blind loyalty, the result is not a well-oiled machine but a managerial class made up of the dull and mediocre.
An example: when the USSR invaded Finland at the start of the Second World War, the former’s initial humiliating defeats – against a country a tiny fraction the size – were largely a result of Stalin’s recent, ruthless purge of the armed forces. Officers with competence and initiative were banished for lacking sufficient obedience, leaving behind an army led by human sheepdogs. The results were predictable; the inevitable Soviet victory eventually came, but at a vastly higher cost than necessary.
Putin’s Russia may lack the USSR’s guiding ideology, but independent thinking is still a bad career move. Add to this the chronic level of corruption in every corner of Russian life, public and private – partly endemic to developing countries, but hugely abetted by Putin’s brand of authoritarian cronyism – and you end up with a country that can’t even help itself, let alone put on a grand propaganda effort for the foreign press.
I shan’t invite your derision by claiming Western democracies operate on pure meritocracy. Timeservers and political drones exist in every institution, under every known system of government. But the difference is still night and day, because while the reality often falls short, the principles of merit and accountability are very much alive. Officials and managers who fail spectacularly face pressure to resign (even if they often withstand it) and representative government only reinforces this, giving every politician an incentive to solve problems, not let them fester and multiply.
All this leads us to an irresistible conclusion: not only are dictatorships morally repugnant, they don’t even work. By their very nature, they are doomed ultimately to fail, even if it takes decades. Call this wishful thinking if you will, but I call it the free world’s last laugh.Tagged in: accountability, corruption, democracy, despotism, dictatorship, incompetence, meritocracy, olympics, Putin, russia, Sochi, Sochi olympics, Vladimir, Vladimir Putin
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