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The problem with repressive regimes – brutality pays off


This is the first of three articles by Paul T Horgan leading up to the 30th anniversary of Tiananmen Square on June 4, suggesting that modern repressive regimes have to lose the will to govern before they can fall.

NINETEEN eighty-nine was an eventful year in Left-wing global politics. The man of the moment was Mikhail Gorbachev, who was trying to preserve communism in the USSR in the midst of a devastating economic crisis caused by his party’s corrupt ideology and ruinous policies. Soviet citizens had had enough of the system failing to deliver goods and services. Strikes were illegal in the USSR. Public protest could have lethal consequences. So a people beset by perennial shortages and unable to complain resorted to slacking off, except when they could be rewarded by a black market which had by then become the true Soviet economy.

One cause of the national malaise was the long war in Afghanistan. For all the vaunted strength of the armoured regiments and nuclear weapons annually paraded in Red Square, the USSR was being taught a very sharp lesson about the pitfalls of the kind of asymmetric warfare it had promoted in Vietnam and elsewhere. But by that year it was time to throw in the towel. The troops were removed. The misadventure in the Great Game Mark II had as profound an effect on the comrades as withdrawal from Vietnam had on the USA in the 1970s.

Gorbachev’s response to the problems was not to crack down, but to liberalise his regime. He was the first man to lead the USSR who had not had any position of power during the Stalin years and this informed his policies. For taking this step, he was seen as a hero throughout the world. That alone is an indicator of how the USSR was truly regarded globally. It was not as the beacon of Marxist-Leninist hope, ready to enlighten the world as a counterbalance to American capitalism. Instead it was a throwback to the totalitarian regimes of the first half of the 20th century and the greatest threat to world safety.

Wherever Gorbachev went out of his own country, he was feted like a superstar. This was especially so in China. His arrival in the spring of that year precipitated a sit-in by students in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. A Chinese version of the Statue of Liberty, the ‘Goddess of Democracy’, was erected. To the global media, it seemed that the communist liberalisation could be infectious and that China would be next.

It was not to be. China had already been steadily liberalising its economy since the death of Mao. It had not had the perceived challenge of capitalist powers on its borders and did not maintain a series of slave states or subsidise ‘armed struggles’ overseas. Its version of communism had not been dealt the mortal blow of a military defeat on its borders. Its military budget had apparently not bankrupted the economy. After Gorbachev departed, the Chinese security forces moved in, and, under the glare of the global media, massacred the demonstrators. It was disclosed in 2017 that a minimum of 10,000 people were murdered by the Chinese state during the crackdown. The whole event was written out of official Chinese history, and recast as a violent uprising of dissidents that was put down in the name of civic order.

But this was not the only popular protest against communist regimes that took place that year. Despite the slaughter in communist China, people in the USSR’s Warsaw Pact slave states started a series of demonstrations. The most notable took place in Leipzig every Monday evening. Knowing the brutal nature of the regimes that dominated them, with fatal crackdowns in 1953, 1962, 1956 and 1968, the people still went out on to the streets. Perhaps they had had enough, and simply dared the authorities to mow them down or get out of the way. It certainly seemed that way to me. The generals in charge of the East German security forces had a stark choice. Do they bring Tiananmen to Leipzig, yes or no?

The answer was no. After four decades of repression, the communists had lost their will to govern. Their bluff had been called. If they could not impose their rule by force, their time was over. A year later the Warsaw Pact had been dissolved and East Germany just became the easternmost States of the Federal Republic of Germany.

And that is an important fact. A repressive state, using modern communications, surveillance, interrogation, and bureaucratic technology can persist indefinitely. It will always outgun its opponents and can arbitrarily detain them by the tens of thousands, if need be. It is impossible for a dictatorship that employs modern technology to preserve itself to be toppled by internal opposition. This has been the case for over a century. The will to govern has to be lost by its leadership. The Arab Spring is an important reminder of this. The collapse of the Mubarak regime in Egypt represented a loss of will. The contested uprising in Syria demonstrates the persistence of the same will.

Which all brings me, after much preamble, to the situation in Venezuela. Here there is a tottering socialist regime as there was all over Eastern Europe thirty years ago. But Venezuela’s leaders have not yet lost the will to govern. Recently there was a failed coup led by the man regarded by the international community as the legitimate President. The coup failed because the generals in Venezuela, faced with the same dilemma as those in Berlin and Beijing, have taken the Beijing option. It seems clear, however, that the army are the kingmakers in Venezuela. Their officers appear to enjoy and profit from key positions in the civilian economy. The state oil company is being run into the ground by a Major-General from the country’s National Guard. There is also the issue of Venezuela’s position as a lucrative conduit for the export of illegal drugs from South America, which might explain why the collapse of the country’s oil industry is not seen by those in charge as such an emergency. Powdered white gold has clearly replaced the black viscous variety. The recreational abrading of septums worldwide might be seen as more profitable than filling fuel tanks.

It is reported that the US military is considering getting involved, but the shadow of Vietnam is long and while the war there prevented communism from spreading throughout South-East Asia, the experience is burned into America’s soul arguably to a greater degree than the more recent Iraq.

The Venezuelan regime has to lose the will to govern before any change can take place. Perhaps what is happening now is just a tidying of personal interests before the fall. It might start when local officials defect and the military refuses to re-impose the writ of regime. The government seemed unsteady a couple of weeks ago with talk of a plane waiting to take the beleaguered President into exile before he was talked down by Putin. But that is how it will happen. Against repressive regimes in our technological age, bangs from the inside will rarely work. The regimes themselves have to whimper.

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Paul T Horgan
Paul T Horgan
Paul T Horgan worked in the IT Sector. He lives in Berkshire.

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