Letter From the Editors
Last week, commentators observed the absence of key world leaders at Davos as evidence that the turn-of-the-century global benevolent plutocracy is in decline. Read further for a view of what is replacing it: the age of populism.
Russian Communist leader and perennial presidential candidate Gennady Zyuganov has detailed this convoluted path from liberal triumphalism to the new popular consensus ahead of the 30th anniversary of his party’s post-Soviet legalization. While it may be easy to dismiss his aggrieved invective against the young reformers as sour grapes, it is hard to miss the general trend of which he has been part – from triangulation by a narrow group of cabinet technocrats to consensus among broad “patriotic” coalitions – and which is hardly limited to Russia.
Turkish President Erdogan, for one, has made populism the cornerstone of his 20-year stint in office, and he will depend on it again as he leads the aptly named People’s Alliance into the May general elections. But with the economy on the fritz, how can he capture the public’s imagination? Perhaps there is a scapegoat he can blame?
“The Swedes played into Erdogan’s hands,” Tikhon Sysoyev explains in Ekspert. “First, on Jan. 11, activists from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which Turkey considers terrorist, held rallies near Stockholm’s city hall. . . . [Erdogan] was publicly hanged in effigy.” Ten days later, “a rally of local right-wing radicals opposed to an overly soft policy toward migrants took place near the Turkish Embassy in the Swedish capital. During the rally, the Koran was publicly burned.”
Erdogan and his allies immediately condemned the sacrilege, bolstering the president’s image as a prominent defender of Islam. Sweden’s application to join NATO, which over 90% of Turks oppose, has now been publicly nixed. Some of Erdogan’s coalition partners have gone even further, promoting “Let’s Leave NATO” as an election slogan.
The irony is that the Koran-burning demonstration was itself partly an anti-NATO protest. And Erdogan may now have more than his domestic opposition to worry about. As Sysoyev concludes, “The only way left for the North Atlantic bloc is to continue its stubborn bargaining with Turkey, hoping to reach a compromise acceptable to all. And at the same time, supporting Erdogan’s rival in the presidential race – he may be more compliant.”
Balancing domestic and allied considerations is also a concern for Ukrainian President Zelensky, another well-known “Servant of the People” (the name of both his hit sitcom and his political party). Aleksandr Smirnov speculates that “Washington could support the idea of replacing the Ukrainian leader. Naturally, under these conditions, no one will risk playing around with legitimacy and democracy – for example, by starting an impeachment process. Zelensky could very well be accidentally hit by an enemy bullet or a saboteur’s grenade.”
The matter at issue is the misappropriation of funds intended to feed the Ukrainian Army through inside dealing and price inflation schemes, which resulted in a flurry of resignations and a handful of arrests after an investigative report by Zerkalo nedeli.
With loose accounting already on the radar of the new Republican majority in the US House, the latest news has compelled the State Department to speak out as well. “State resources should serve the people,” chided Bridget Brink, the US Ambassador to Ukraine.
As Ukrainian pollster Vladimir Fesenko reminds us, Zelensky had already built a reputation as a combative populist reformer before he became a wartime president. Distrusting career officials, he turned to personal contacts to fill appointed positions, not unlike on his TV show – with mixed results. He pushed for anti-oligarch laws and, when they didn’t pass, he prosecuted the oligarchs under existing ones – starting with his opponents, Poroshenko and Medvedchuk. And with the war, Fesenko tells us, “Zelensky has no rivals today. He has eclipsed all the other politicians.” The people, it seems, believe they are well served.