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Rolling back authoritarianism — a bad weekend for Putin’s little helpers

A mutiny by some of the worst of Russia’s headbangers should not come as a surprise. The question is, what next for Putin and Prigozhin? Has the former’s grip on power been damaged, or is this some sort of complex Potemkin Russian theatre cooked up for Putin by his chef?

Last week ended badly for stooges. 

As his grip on reality loosens to a fingertip touch, ANC Secretary-General Fikile Mbalula spent time at the party’s Western Cape conference attacking Zimbabwe’s opposition leader, Nelson Chamisa, and blaming the US and the UK for the mass exodus of Zimbabweans from their home country to South Africa. In the liberation-movement playbook, your own bad policy decision, bad governance and corruption are never to blame.


President Cyril Ramaphosa struck a similar note in his remarks to the Paris financing conference, also last week, noting that Africa did not need the “generosity” of donors, and wanted to be treated as an equal. He then complained that commitments made by donors had not been lived up to and there “were times that we felt like we were beggars” receiving “droppings from the table”, which “generated a lot of resentment”. He then went on to fantasise about the Congo’s Inga dam while apparently ignoring how his own government had turned the sow’s purse of Eskom into a pig’s ear.

Then, over the weekend, as the drama of Wagner founder (and former caterer to Vladimir Putin) Yevgeny Prigozhin’s “mutiny” came to light, the world asked: Is Putin’s hold on Russia’s slacking? Then, on cue, the son of Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni (and reputed presidential heir) Lieutenant-General Muhoozi Kainerugaba tweeted that Uganda should send soldiers to defend Putin if need be. If nothing else, both events should encourage democrats that they are not spectators in a scripted drama, but authors themselves of their own destinies.


A meeting in Gdańsk

Gate No 2 of the Gdańsk Shipyard is a national monument. During the 1970 Polish protests, striking shipyard workers were shot when leaving the Lenin Shipyard. During the August 1980 strikes, the entrance became a main point of protest, not least given its proximity to the management buildings. On 31 August 1980, Solidarity leader (and future Polish president) Lech Wałęsa stood at the gate to announce the signature of the Gdańsk Agreement recognising the trade union and declaring the end of the strike. So was set in motion a chain of events which led to the end of Soviet rule in Eastern Europe, the break-up of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, all of which continue to resonate.

Today the gate allows access to the European Solidarity Centre, devoted to honouring the role of the Polish trade union and other opposition movements in Communist Eastern Europe.

Adjacent to the gate stands a remarkable building. The rust-coloured, slab-sided walls of the museum were intended to evoke the hulls of ships built at the shipyard. But it’s a living museum.

The centre was the scene of a meeting last week of more than 50 leaders committed to democracy and freedom. African opposition leaders from across the continent met leaders from Poland, the Baltic States and opposition leaders from Latin America at an event titled Rolling Back Authoritarianism organised by The Brenthurst Foundation.

The meeting was addressed by the man who led the Gdańsk shipyard uprising, Lech Walesa, and the former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

The gathering adopted the Gdańsk Declaration which committed the leaders to building open, democratic and transparent societies where freedom of speech and association would be protected. 

At the entrance to the museum is a photographic exhibition of Belarus activists detained, harassed, imprisoned and murdered by the regime of Putin ally Alexander Lukashenko. An estimated 300 political activists have disappeared since Lukashenko came to power in 1994, a tally which includes political opponents such as Yuri Zakharenko, former minister of the interior (disappeared on 7 May 1999); Viktor Gonchar, former vice-president of the Parliament of Belarus (disappeared on 16 September 1999); and Anatoly Krasovski, a businessman (disappeared with Gonchar).

There are at least 1,497 political prisoners in Belarus, a country led by a man who has led the way in the art of the authoritarian democrat, one subsequently followed by Venezuela, Nicaragua and a host of African governments.

The elections that keep Lukashenko — the longest-sitting European president — in power are not considered free and fair. Allegations of vote-rigging in his “victory” in the 2020 presidential contest led to widespread protests against the results. With his travel restricted by Western sanctions, he is a close ally of Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa, making a visit to the southern African country in January 2023 where they probably did not discuss how to deepen democracy.

Lukashenko is at the centre of the deal that got Prigozhin to turn around his convoy en route to Moscow. The Wagner group head will now gain sanctuary in Belarus. But this is probably only another act in a longer-running drama.

Prigozhin has a recent history of rudely and very publicly berating Russia’s leadership on social media, particularly Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and the chief of the general staff, Valery Gerasimov. Until now he has got away with this, because of his close relationship with Vladimir Putin and Wagner’s centrality to Putin’s set up as a sort of Praetorian Guard, means of power projection in Africa and the Middle East, and source of income. 

Until now this has been useful for Putin, who has been able to put some distance between himself and the serial military failures in Ukraine. But Prigozhin’s defiant mutiny and show of arms on Russian soil have sent a challenge to the Kremlin that even Putin cannot ignore. Hence the Russian president called Wagner’s mutiny a “stab in the back” and warned of civil war. In his televised address Putin even invoked the violent collapse of the Russian Empire at the tail end of the First World War.

The question now is: What is the price that Putin will pay for this, and Prigozhin? Putin has made enemies in the military, and these are unlikely to go away. Normally someone like Prigozhin would quickly meet his end — in a different era, with a bullet in the back of the head in a dark room in the Lubyanka; more recently, “falling” out of a window or from a balcony, or perhaps after sipping his tea in a London hotel.

What is the deal that has been cut for him to go to Belarus? Is this really an exile until they decide what to do with him, or is this a pretext in a complicated Putin-Prigozhin power feint, perhaps for him to launch operations from Belarus, perhaps the nuclear missiles which have been shipped to Lukashenko? The Russians have a term for such a deception in military doctrine — maskirovka (“disguise”). Putin also can’t do without Prigozhin or, more exactly, Wagner, in Africa, Ukraine and Syria, given its source of influence, power and money.

If this was really a direct, armed challenge to Putin’s authority, it is doubtful any foreign adventure is more important to the Russian president than completely maintaining a grip on domestic power.

For those punting peace talks, these turn of events would not encourage the Ukrainians down this path right now.

While providing a brief sugar rush, Ukraine had hardly settled down to the popcorn when it all seems to be over. Or maybe not. If nothing else, Prigozhin has given slip exactly the cost of the Ukrainian misadventure, speaking of 1,000 Russian casualties per day — yes, per day — and shortages of everything.

His outbursts speak volumes about the systemic problems of graft and incompetence in the Russian military, as well as the treatment of its own soldiers. It would be unusual if such anger did not extend beyond Prigozhin into the ranks of the Russian military itself. At the very least, that Prigozhin’s army was able to travel hundreds of kilometres unhindered and with Twitter footage of backhoes digging trenches to stop the convoy’s progress, shows that the Kremlin lacks the wherewithal to put down a domestic rebellion, especially when its best troops are fighting in Ukraine.

Thus, a mutiny by some of the worst of Russia’s headbangers should not come as a surprise. The question is, what next for Putin and Prigozhin? Has the former’s grip on power been damaged, or is this some sort of complex Potemkin Russian theatre cooked up for Putin by his chef?

And for those Africans betting on the twin triumph of Putin over Ukraine and the BRICS over the West in the battles of the windmills in the Global South, they would do well to stop the grandstanding and knuckle down on behalf of their people.