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Viewing Russia’s Future in Latin America’s Recent Past

BOOK REVIEW: “Fujimori’s Peru: Deception in the Public Sphere,” by Catherine M. Conaghan (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005) Some of the most interesting comparative politics studies I’ve read take a look at the similar experiences in transitions to democracy in both former Soviet states and Latin America nations. Although academics and others have been noting these similar trends for years, it seems that now, with the conclusion of the second Putin presidency (I dare not call it the end of the Putin era, per se), there is once again a rich field of experiences and methodologies to compare and contrast. I was particularly struck by this thought last December, as I followed the coverage of the long-awaited trial of the former dictator of Peru, Alberto Fujimori, who before sentencing angrily erupted with the following outburst: “I received a country … almost in collapse, exhausted by hyperinflation, international financial isolation and widespread terrorism. My government rescued the human rights of 25 million Peruvians with no exceptions!” Sound familiar? sechinmontesinos.jpg Russia’s Igor Sechin (left) and Peru’s Vladimiro Montesinos (right). How did these two government officials respectively use the Federal Security Service (FSB) and Servicio de Inteligencia Nacional (SIN) to seize control of the executive?

I was astonished by how often one could replace the word “Peru” with “Russia” when reading about the Fujimori years, which prompted me to begin this series of comparative explorations of the Putinist experience with other examples in Latin America’s recent history. Clearly this is not a simple nor clear-cut dynamic, but anything we can learn from another country’s experience to deepen our understanding of the current political environment in Russia, and shed light on her future, seems very worthwhile to me.For the first instalment, I wanted to begin a discussion about the book “Fujimori’s Peru,” written by Catherine Conghan of Queens University, which lays out a powerful depiction of the elite behaviour, opposition tactics, media manipulation, and constitutional gamesmanship under the system of Fujimorismo – including many features that regular Russia watchers will find startlingly familiar.As an alumnus of Queens, I was proud to see the faculty producing such high quality work such as this book, which aside from being a comprehensively informative guide to the public sphere aspects of Fujimorismo, also reads with the compelling urgency of a page-turner thriller.Conaghan opens her book with a dramatic account of how the president’s seemingly iron grip on Peruvian politics was shattered in just two months, following the release of compromising videotapes of his chief security adviser Vladimiro Montesinos (seemingly a Peruvian version of Igor Sechin). The once mighty dictator faxed in a resignation letter from a hotel in Japan, dodging extradition requests before attempting an ill-fated comeback to run in the 2006 elections. He has since been extradited from Chile back to Peru to stand trial beginning in December 2007 for organizing death squads, ordering the kidnapping of a journalist, and embezzling $15 million, among other crimes. This remarkable reversal of fortunes exposed some of the critical weaknesses of an early authoritarian capitalist regime, which can in hindsight be traced to the very roots of its creation.The emergence of neo-populist leaders (by which I refer to the combination of selective economic liberalism with political illiberalism) in the post-Cold War context share many common conditions whether in Latin America or the former Soviet Union, including but not limited to recovery from a recent period of economic chaos, a “moral panic” over public safety, a weak party system, and lack of rule of law. A more detailed comparison of Fujimori’s Peru with Putin’s Russia will be done in a subsequent post in this series.Chile%2BFujimori_Hern.JPGAlberto Ken’ya Fujimori, son of Japanese immigrants to Peru, rose to the presidency in 1990 out of near-total obscurity to defeat the famous novelist and economic liberal Mario Vargas Llosa. A mathematics professor and television show host, he engineered the stunning upset of his opponent by running on a strongly populist platform, playing on public fears and exhaustion of hyperinflation and economic disarray through a sophisticated media campaign.Fujimori’s victory was also widely attributed to the demoralisation of the populace in the wake of a long-term struggle against a mysterious and terrifying Maoist terrorist group known as Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path). This corrosive struggle served to weaken democratic institutions and lead to a belief that a strongman was needed to sort out the country.Into this vacuum walked not only Fujimori, but also Vladimiro Montesinos (whose communist parents oddly named him after Lenin) who began creating a much stronger role for Peru’s version of the FSB: the Servicio de Inteligencia Nacional (SIN) – a shadowy government agency which became the regime’s central command. Conaghan writes that political power was not the only purpose of the SIN, but also the accumulation of personal wealth: “For many insiders, especially Montesinos, unchecked political power equalled untold opportunities to amass vast personal fortunes through crime. In the Fujimori era, politics was a heady and lucrative endeavour.”I have little doubt that the siloviki within the Kremlin which illegally devoured the assets of Yukos would strongly agree with Conaghan’s view on the perks of executive privilege. As was lamented by anti-narcotics chief Viktor Cherkesov at the height of the spy wars in his famous open letter to Kommersant, “We must not allow warriors to turn into traders” – expressing his preoccupation that too many of his fellow former KGB officers were corrupted by their personal business ambitions. It is beyond my guess whether or not Montesinos and his the top agents of the SIN ever expressed regret for their newfound entrepreneurial activities, but they did indeed share a specific sense of entitlement of the nobility and duty as saviors of their once chaotic countries.Conaghan narrows her focus on the Fujimori era to the regime’s strategies and efforts to control debates and ideas within the Habermas-ian “public sphere” – including corruption, bribery, and intimidation of journalists, broadcasters, judges, and everyone and anyone who mattered to shift public opinion. Such developments were mirrored in Russia years later under Putin with the crackdown on civil society organizations, a campaign of terror against journalists, and Gazprom’s takeover of NTV, but truly this is an area in which the two countries are significantly different – Fujimori’s tactics within the public sphere bear important differences from the severity of the Russian experience.Both countries experienced a brief renaissance in print journalism after the fall of General Juan Velasco’s regime and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The euphoria of this brief period of politically diverse new coverage was short-lived, however, as audiences flocked to broadcast television, circulations plummeted, and both countries experienced their own respective waves of terrorist violence – posing a severe challenge to the practice of journalism.Conaghan writes that “While the end of the military government’s control over the media in 1980 offered hope for a new era in journalism, those prospects were quickly dashed by the country’s bloody war against guerrilla insurgents. The war profoundly shaped every aspect of state-society relations in the 1908s and well into the 1990s. Like so many other groups in Peruvian society, journalists and media outlets were caught up in the violence of both the guerrillas and government forces. … Whatever the editorial choices, however, one thing was clear: both civilian and military officials were hostile to any reporting which focused on human rights violations by government security forces.”Like Vladimir Putin would do more than a decade later, Fujimori sought to pass new legislation allowing his administration to arbitrarily crack down on “extremism” – creating an pseudo-legal mechanism of censorship to influence the discourse within the public sphere. Conaghan relates the important example of Fujimori’s modified defamation legislation, which forbade the publication of any names of security officials working in “emergency zones” and established 5-10 year jail sentences for any reporter who published information deemed vital to national security. Another presidential decree required all organizations (including media outlets) to provide any information requested by the SIN. In 1991, as part of an effort to eliminate any news coverage of his security services, Vladimiro Montesinos successfully filed and won a defamation suit against Enrique Zileri, the editor of the popular magazine Carretas.In describing Fujimori’s meticulous construction of a dictatorial regime through his infamous auto-golpe of 1992 (in which he dissolved congress, suspended the constitution, and purged the judiciary), we can see further interesting comparisons. In the wake of the tragic terrorist attack on a school in Beslan, Putin delivered a strong speech about Russia having been “too weak,” and then abolished local elections of governors and charged the executive with making these appointments. Years beforehand in Peru, Fujimori used the time following the auto-golpe before congress was reconvened to issue a decree abolishing the newly created regional assemblies, and allowing the president to appoint hand-picked prefects to represent the regions. Conaghan writes that this was a critical move to allow Fujimori to achieve subsequent electoral successes, as this network of installed supporters made up for the lack of any genuine political party structure.Of course Fujimori received abundant complaints both domestically and internationally, but proved himself fluent in the rhetoric of democratic reform. Conaghan notes how the government displayed an intimate understanding of what was necessary to at least appear democratic without actually practicing it: “Bowing to pressures to restore electoral politics, Fujimori and his inner circle fashioned a political system designed to look democratic, but function otherwise. Allowing opponents to vent, but keeping them out of kilter and far removed from institutional sources of power, was central to how the new political system worked.”Fujimori also made a constitutional amendment to allow himself to run for a third term as president, which was largely seen as an effort to avoid future prosecution for crimes committed during his ten years in power. Conaghan writes: “Losing the presidency meant running the risk of being held accountable. And by 1996, there were simply too many crimes to hide. There were also too many opportunities for profiteering to call it quits. With the judiciary and police firmly under control, officials used their positions to cash in. As Peruvian investigators have documented, Peru was, by 1996, well on the way to becoming a kleptocracy, or a “Mafia state,” with at least three compartmentalized spheres of corruption.”In terms of legal corruption, the most instructive case from the Fujimori era for comparison to contemporary Russia is the experience of Baruch Ivcher, a majority shareholder of the private television station Canal 2, which in 1996 broadcasted several news reports exposing the corruption of Vladimiro Montesinos. After attempting to bribe Ivcher and the Canal 2 staffers with extraordinary sums of money, the Fujimori government stripped him of his citizenship, seized his television station, and invented trumped up tax evasion charges to de-legitimize him as a white collar criminal.It didn’t work. As Conaghan writes, in the end the state’s trumped up charges and campaign of persecution against Ivcher had the opposite effect: “The convoluted campaign to silence Ivcher had backfired. It drew more international attention to the press situation in Peru and intensified the discussion about media manipulation in anticipation of the 2000 election. Because the scandal involved a highly rated television station, it was an event unlike previous controversies because it played out in front of a mass audience. … Montesinos joked that he had “buried” Ivcher and that the [U.S.] congressional resolutions were meaningless. In his myopia, he did see how much the Ivcher case was undermining the regime’s claims to democratic normalcy.”But if Fujimorismo was so terrible, then why did the Peruvian public stand by it for so many years, and how did this authoritarian leader secure such sky-high approval ratings in the polls? Answering this question is the most difficult challenge of Conaghan’s thesis in this book, as she points to the relations among the elites and their regard for the “instrumentality” of democracy. The pillars of Peruvian establishment – the military, business community, professionals, and technocrats – all tacitly approved and were complicit with the constitutional perversions carried out by Fujimori, she writes.“Whatever the particular motives of individuals, the aggregate result was an astounding collapse in public ethics, morals, and common sense that enabled the regime. Legislators, with their beepers in hand, became the errand boys of Montesinos. Journalists concocted the news. Prosecutors and judges roamed the halls at SIN headquarters, working on their latest cover up. Cabinet ministers dutifully trotted in front of the cameras so they could deny what they knew to be true. As Montesinos later observed, the administration’s descent into illegality was an obvious, undeniable fact. Montesinos acknowledged that pursuing the reelection was to ‘leap across the porous border of legality, enter illegality and then break the rules.’ It’s no wonder that Montesinos reserves a special disdain for his former colleagues who now claim that they didn’t know that laws were being broken.”Naturally there are limits to any comparison between Fujimori’s Peru and Putin’s Russia – for one, Conaghan’s book is for the most part a media studies argument, focusing on rhetoric and communications methodology as a component of political power – whereas in Russia the rise of Putin has been infinitely more complex. There can be no easy transposition of Peruvian reality to that of Russia, but the comparisons in the iterative opportunistic authoritarianism we have seen in both countries is worth real and lengthy analysis. The authoritarianism of this century is somewhat accidental, and often the product of external economic conditions which facilitate one group or another to locate an advantage.It would be unfair and overly simplistic to Russia and her brave people to accept just one historical narrative of the conditions accounting for the emergence of authoritarian capitalism, but any discussion using outside examples which can deepen understanding of where the nation is heading is, in my humble opinion, very worthwhile.Next up in this series, we’ll take a closer look at some of these individual cases mentioned briefly above, as well as consider other examples from across Latin America.