Justin du Coeur (jducoeur) wrote,
Justin du Coeur

Be careful what you wish for...

I was reading Newsweek this week, with yet another article about how the fall in oil prices is weakening the reigns of the Oil Tyrants -- particularly in Venezuela, Iran and Russia. Just under the surface was the common smugness, that bad leaders like Putin are now facing civil unrest, even riots, as their petro-states are exposed as having been built on sand.

Which leads me to think this through. The results are disquieting. I mean, what exactly do we expect will happen here? Yes, it's lovely to contemplate Putin being gone: he's a demogogue, effectively a dictator, and by no means an benign one. I think many Americans expect that, if he's weakened, that means a lovely, real, democratic government will kick him out and take over, and all will be friendly. And that's a pretty silly thing to expect.

Assuming the oil price stays low for at least another year, we're looking at *serious* civil unrest in Russia: major declines in GDP, ever more people out of work, general unhappiness with the government's perceived incompetence, leading to more protests and riots. There is no chance that the authorities will sit back and simply take that -- they've already begun putting out draconian laws to stamp down on it. As always, that won't actually stop the unrest, just push it under the surface to simmer.

And *that* leads all kinds of bad places. I see two likeliest options. One is that Putin keeps a lid on things, probably by making society ever more totalitarian again. The best way to do that is kick over a lot of anthills, even starting wars that keep the populace focused on outside threats and provide some economic focus. In other words, stoke the fires of nationalism ever-higher, a classic dictator's trick.

The disconcerting part is that that is probably the *less* dangerous option. The scarier one is revolution of some sort: the populace gets angry enough, the government blinks at the wrong moment, and it gets overthrown. From there, things can go almost anywhere. It would be possible that a genuinely smart and benign government would take over -- but honestly, I don't think the pieces are in place to make that likely. Rather, I suspect it's likelier that, as with so many revolutions, they would wind up simply replacing one dictator with another, more aggressive and somewhat less sane. (Or possibly with some band of revolutionary zealots: madmen in groups are often even more dangerous than individually.)

Hence, I recommend a bit of care with the schadenfreude. Putin may be a vicious piece of work, but there are significantly worse options out there, and considerably scarier people who could be holding Russia's nuclear button...
Tags: politics

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