Venezuelan Parallels

Vladimir Putin and Hugo Chavez. Source: Militaryphotos.netThat Russia has become a strategic ally of Venezuela in recent years is not news: from arms trading and nuclear power ventures to recognizing the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia when no one else would do it, the Bolivarian Republic has repeatedly reached out to its distant Slavic partner to make deals in an effort that its leaders insist “makes the world more democratic, balanced and multipolar.”

Critics of both governments have often pointed out that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez share a number of similarities, including their strong cults of personality and suppression of opposition movements. As noted Russian journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza writes in this column for Yezhednevny Zhurnal, those similarities have recently become too numerous and too apparent to ignore – and, given last week’s opposition victories in Venezuela, could be a sign of things to come for the Russian opposition itself.

Venezuelan Parallels
By Vladimir Kara-Murza, jr.
Yezhednevny Zhurnal
October 6, 2010

Analogies, as you know, are weak. But the similarities between Russia and Venezuela these past few years is so striking that the only thing to do is compile a primer of comparative politics.

Chavez, a retired lieutenant colonel who came to power at the end of the ’90s with slogans about the war against “predatory oligarchs,” was not distinguished by his talents either in economics or in governmental administration, but high oil prices arrived right at the very best possible time to help him out. The stream of oil dollars that flowed down onto the lieutenant colonel neutralized the mood of protest and secured the silent consent of the majority for his regime, setting it free to usurp power.

The presidential term was extended to 6 years, the Supreme Court was filled with the president’s followers, and electoral legislation was redrawn by the ruling party. The change in management of the company Petróleos de Venezuela, initiated by the government authorities, put its oil branch (Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the Western hemisphere) under the reliable control of the presidential administration. The popular independent television company RCTV was stripped of its airwave frequencies, and then later of its right to broadcast across cable and satellite networks. Chavez’s political opponents wound up in prison (former Minister Raúl Baduel) or in forced emigration (ex-candidate for president Manuel Rosales).

A boycott of the 2005 parliamentary elections, announced by the opposition as a sign of protest against the lack of fair competition, allowed Chavez’s supporters to take 100% of the seats in the National Assembly and dismantle the remaining constitutional supports. Proclaiming the victory of the “Bolivarian model,” the lieutenant colonel expressed his intentions to remain in power for a minimum of ten more years.

This past Sunday, the “Bolivarian model” had its first malfunction. Parliamentary elections, which the opposition did not boycott this time, took place in Venezuela on September 26. The Coalition for Democratic Unity, created by the opposition parties, won 65 seats in the new National Assembly. Chavez’s supporters won 98 mandates – a formal majority, but not enough to put through constitutional laws or confirm judges with only the power of their own party (for that, the “Chavistas” would need two-thirds, which is 110 mandates). The lieutenant colonel is stripped of the qualifying majority in parliament, and together with that, of the possibility of one-man governance. His prospects for the 2012 presidential elections unexpectedly look a great deal more clouded.

The untenability of the authoritarian model is going to become obvious sooner or later. In the conditions of an economic recession and the natural fatigue of the population from a kinglet who has overstayed his welcome, the opposition wasn’t stopped by censored television, controlled courts, or ill-disposed electoral commissions. Luck is beginning to change for the Venezuelan lieutenant colonel.

Analogies, of course, are often weak. But it’s entirely possible that it’s time for the Russian opposition to prepare for good news.

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