Sunday, March 25, 2012

Seizing power in Mali and Russia

Control is no longer as simple as pointing a gun at an uncooperative journalist. Power itself has changed phase and become fluid, leaking around the sites where force is applied:  you can no more take over a country by occupying a handful of buildings than you can compress water by squeezing it with your hands. Recent events in two entirely separate countries beautifully illustrate this point.

Last week, a faction of the army in Mali overthrew one of the oldest democratic governments in West Africa a month before their scheduled elections. Around the same time, Russia's private NTV broadcast a takedown of recent demonstrations in Moscow called "Anatomy of a Protest," for which they've come under widespread criticism.

In Mali, the military coup has for the last week or so been something of a lazy affair: outside of the presidential palace and state TV station, it's not clear that the army controls anything of substance - though the President hasn't been seen since the uprising began and it's not clear who else is in charge. But what has struck me in reading reports out of Mali this week has been the tone - it's no longer simply assumed that taking power in a country is as simple as taking over the presidential headquarters and state broadcaster.

It almost seems as though the coup plotters didn't really have a plan beyond "send a couple guys to the TV station and a couple guys to the palace, put out a press release, and … profit?" The Underpants Gnomes theory of military revolution, perhaps.

What's interesting to me is that this probably would have worked a few years ago. It's not like the army in a West African country has never taken power before, so the playbook may be dusty but it's certainly seen some use. What changed?

Well, probably the same thing that changed in Russia. The demonstrations leading up to Vladimir Putin's re-coronating re-election appeared to have been a bit of a surprise (although Putin is far too sophisticated to have been caught off guard, and the deftness with which the Kremlin has handled the last several weeks is notable). The Russians have a playbook, too, however, and so a week ago, the private national television station NTV (whose director hilariously doesn't even attempt to conceal his collaboration with top officials: "we have very tight personal relations with the power holders, with the president and prime minister, because we have known each other for years") put out a hit job on the protest movement. An ominous voiceover introduced shady surveillance video and accusations of treachery and Western influence.

The tactic was predictable, and in another context, so was the response. But this is a Russia still run from Red Square, and the general hostility NTV engendered, from Twitter hashtags to prominent pro-democracy scolds severing their ties to the station, to threats of resignations and angry talk-radio callers, feels like a new development.

Of course, sardonic comments on Twitter and irate calls to talk radio hardly herald the imminent downfall of one of the craftiest world leaders in power today. The Kremlin has probably decided that allowing people to vent their frustrations publicly, for the moment, is a handy escape valve to prevent the buildup of more dangerous pro-democracy resentments. And even NTV is claiming that, for all the bluster from the commentariat and even their own employees, nobody has resigned since the program aired.

Which is why the Mali example is so interesting: there, too, the levers of power are being manipulated by familiar forces, while commentators bemoan the lack of democratic legitimacy; and yet, the bemoaners seem at least as significant as the lever-operators. Just because the latter group is nominally in charge today certainly doesn't mean they will be tomorrow.

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