Friday, August 31, 2007

Putin gone wild!

And now, because of overwhelming demand by Dictators of the World readers, here's a photo of Russia's authoritarian president Vladimir Putin on vacation in Siberia stripped down to the waist. Here, dear readers, is the dictator beefcake you've all been craving.

Wait, nobody wanted to see that? Goddamnit, you readers can be so mercurial, sometimes.

Anyway, there is still actual news about Vladimir Putin, most notably because of a bizarre paid advertising supplement seeking stronger "national branding" for Russia in the Washington Post (viewable here). In addition to the predictable blurbs about borscht and Sputnik, are bizarre pro-Putin articles like "When a little paranoia is good for you" and an article about Putin's political opponents titled "The opposition's disarray is lucky for some". The overall message of the supplement? Toss away your old tired preconceptionss of a gray, totalitarian Soviet Russia and instead, acquaint yourself with fresh new realities about a dynamic and exciting post-Soviet authoritarian Russia!

Jack Shafer at Slate astutely notes that Putin's Kremlin has the same ham handed touch with political propaganda as his Soviet predecessors did, laying it on so thick that American readers come away from it suspecting that the terrified authors probably wrote the piece from a gulag. This is an unfortunate byproduct of authoritarian regimes, and some dictators have learned how to bypass awkward obvious propaganda by hiring American public relations firms to do their dirty work, but apparently, Vladimir Putin insisted on letting a hometown team write this mess. One wonders if his recent shirtless photo ops are part two of his ridiculous attempts at a charm offensive? I don't know, but I will say this: if Robert Mugabe starts baring some skin to get attention, I'm hanging up this blog for good.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Will Musharraf step down as army chief?

Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf still can't seem to catch a break. Indeed, since the creation of Dictators of the World, I haven't found a single thing that's managed to go his way. The trend doesn't change this week, because once again, Musharraf's grasp on power has managed to slip even further through his fingers.

After he seized power in a military coup d'etat in 1999, Musharraf has managed to hold onto power by his constitutionally disallowed, but strategically important, position as both president and leader of Pakistan's armed forces. Now it appears that Musharraf has promised that he will be stepping down as army chief before national elections in 2008 as part of a byzantine power sharing arrangement with former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. Now, I wouldn't bet the farm that Musharraf will actually step down as army chief, but the fact that he's been put into a political position where he's had to promise to do so speaks volumes about the precipitous political implosion of the man once popularly hailed as Pakistan's political savior.

If he were to remove himself as leader of the armed forces, Musharraf is doubtlessly aware that his dual career as president would be finished. His popularity with the public is at an all time low, and as a mere civilian leader, he'd be a juicy target for removal by yet another military coup. If Musharraf is serious about stepping down as leader of the army, it's a mere prelude for leaving office - and likely Pakistan itself - altogether.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Meanwhile, in Zimbabwe ...

Zimbabwe's octogenarian dictator Robert Mugabe has, apparently , decided that the current smoldering ruins of his nation's economy aren't, er, smoldering or ruined enough. Therefore, in a fit of inspired brilliance, Mugabe has decreed that the small handful of foreign owned companies remaining in Zimbabwe should hand over 51% ownership to "native Zimbabweans", thereby destroying whatever slim chances remained that foreign companies will be bringing any investment whatsoever to the world's most damaged economy. A bill to nationalize the assets in questions has been produced, and there's no doubt whatsoever that Mugabe's rubber stamp parliament will give it the green light as soon as possible. Nationalization is a controversial process anywhere it's practiced, but in Zimbabwe, "nationalization" has simply become a shorthand term for punishing your political enemies with the confiscation of their property, and handing it over to your political cronies as a reward for their continued loyalty. And in Zimbabwe's tough times, buying loyalty is proving harder than ever.

In a country where ordinary citizens no longer drive because of the scarcity of fuel, Mugabe has rewarded the bigwigs in the state security services with brand new Mazda 3's. In the old days, he was fond of rewarding his friends with Mercedes-Benzes, but even dictators have to tighten their belts when the going gets really tough. Mugabe had better hope that a shiny new Japanese economy car satisfies the police and military brass, because the rank and file army - the only institution capable of propping up the tottering regime, are defecting over their low wages - which come to less than $10 month. Mugabe has offered to step down from power if he wins the 2008 presidential elections (curiously, he made no such promise to do so if he lost), but frankly, it's difficult to imagine that he can hold onto power for even that long. It's difficult to see how Zimbabwe can even afford the cost of staging yet another round of nakedly crooked elections when the nation's political and economic institutions have practically ceased to function.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Kim's eldest son "back in favor"

The eldest son of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il, Kim Jong-nam, is rumored to have returned to North Korea from exile in China - a sign that the scion of the Kim dynasty has officially returned to favor. Details are sketchy, but it seems that the elder Kim has put his newly returned son to work in a "high position" in the ruling North Korean Workers' Party. The return of Kim Jong-nam, if official, might just settle North Korea's thorny succession question in the world's only communist monarchy, which has become much more important after Kim Jong-Il's recent brush with death.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Castro death watch - part 35

Rumors swirled this week that the Cuban government would finally announce the death of longtime caudillo Fidel Castro. Frantic phone calls to Cuban exiles in Miami signaled that, perhaps this time, the dictator was pushing up daisies, and the announcement was going to come at "any hour". The deadlines came and went without any such announcement, and finally, Castro's Venezuelan lapdog Hugo Chávez cryptically announced that Fidel would "never die". Perhaps in response to the rumors, an article purportedly written by Castro with an August 25th byline was published in a Cuban communist youth newspaper.

Conspiracy theorists continue to spread the rumor that Fidel has, in fact, died already, shortly after he disappeared from public view last year for intestinal surgery. I'm not one to buy into such theories, but Fidel's continued public absence and the secretive nature of communist dictatorships makes these sorts of rumors inevitable. When will the next batch of rumors swirl? Probably next month, but until then, Cuba remains in a grim holding pattern waiting to rejoin the free world.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Vacation, all I've ever wanted

Dictators of the World will be on hiatus until August 27th while I vacation in lovely, crime free Rhode Island. In the meantime, please visit some of the sites we link to for your daily fix of news on the world's most notorious despots, won't you?

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Bainimarama promises elections in 2009

The military dictator of Fiji, Commodore Voreqe "Frank" Bainimarama, today announced his intention to hold free elections in March of 2009. The date coincides with a deadline set by the European Union as a cutoff date for foreign aid if elections were not held.

Since seizing power in a coup d'etat last December, Bainimarama has been fairly cavalier in his dismissing the "outrage" and "concerns" about his dictatorship from western democracies, but apparently, Fiji really needs the money. Will the promised elections be free and fair? That's highly doubtful. The man ousted in December's coup, Laisenia Qarase, has been fighting an unsuccessful battle in the Fijian courts to declare the coup illegal. The Commodore, for his part, has invoked immunity granted by Fiji's executive figurehead, Ratu Josefa Iloilo. What's more, there seems little doubt that Qarase will not be permitted to run again in 2009, as Bainiamara's shake up of the government continues.

UPDATE: This site appears to be new, but is well worth a look for anyone interested in Bainimarama's hostile takeover of paradise:

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Castro turns 81

Cuban caudillo Fidel Castro celebrated his 81st birthday yesterday, to the apparent yawning indifference of most of the world. Granted, we used to care about how old Fidel Castro was, because each birthday Fidel celebrated roughly coincided with Cuba spending another year under his thumb.

However, Fidel ceded power to his only slightly less elderly brother Raúl over a year ago, before disappearing from the public eye completely. Fidel's golden years haven't exactly been kind to him. Since undergoing extensive intestinal surgery for reasons that are still classified as a Cuban state secret, the frail dictator has been seen only by a select group of cronies (like Venezuelan autocrat Hugo Chávez) and foreign leaders (like Vietnam's Nguyễn Minh Triết). The Cuban people, the alleged beneficiaries of Castro's dictatorship, haven't seen hide nor hair of Comrade #1 in over year, making do instead with Raúl's Fidelismo sans Fidel.

Castro's disappearance from public view naturally sparked rumors that he died, but frankly, I don't buy it. No conspiracy theory is required for the dull, ugly truth that while the dictator himself is holed up in a palatial compound, wearing his colostomy bag and receiving foreign dignitaries, Cuba itself continues to decay at a slightly slower pace than the man himself. The "revolution" has, as all revolutions centered on a single authoritarian personality eventually do, stagnated from lack of fresh political energy. The next Cuban revolution will only take place after Cuban finally dumps the rotting corpse of Fidel's dictatorship alongside his skeletal remains.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Venezuela to women: "You gonna get RAPED!"

Just when you think Hugo Chávez's "Bolivarian Revolution" in Venezuela can't get any weirder, it does. Courtesy of The Devil's Excrement comes this public health billboard issued by the Chavista governor of Carabobo province. It breathlessly declares:

Inciting sex ... causes rape. Security is everyone's responsibility

Venezuela is not exactly famous for having a culture of sexual repression or modesty, so the sudden inference that wearing a bikini thong at the beach is an incitement to rape may come as a startling shock to Venezuelans. Then again, considering all the quality time Chávez has been spending with Iran's Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, one supposes it was only a matter of time before Venezuela starting exhorting their beach bunnies to start covering it all up.

UPDATE: The Chavistas continue to astound. The Caracas Chronicles shows the Venezuelan government of Carabobo's latest offering, which declares that political scandals cause terrorism. This is not so much a "public service advisory" as it is a veiled threat to journalists who might be inclined to print unfriendly news about corruption inside the Chávez regime.

So remember, if you notice ostentatious political corruption in Venezuela, do NOT make a big deal out of it. Or else.

Putin gives Stalin some love

Just how many millions of his countrymen does a dictator have to murder these days before he's reviled by his subjects? The late Soviet strongman Josef Stalin would doubtlessly be tickled to know that the Russian government is putting a new shine on Uncle Joe's reign of terror by giving him an image makeover in high school history textbooks. According to the latest textbooks, Stalin's rule was "strong" if a bit "cruel", but it's OK! After all, Stalin was merely using his indomitable will to strengthen the Soviet state. Why, that's just like Peter the Great, right? Or even Vladimir Putin! So really, what's all the fuss about, anyway?

Stalin's image makeover coincides with Putin's saber rattling with Georgia, land of Stalin's birth. Doubtlessly, Stalin would heartily approve of a strong, if cruel, leader looking to hold Russia together ... even if it just happens to mean swallowing up independent countries entirely. That's just what "strong" leaders do, right?

Friday, August 10, 2007

Stick a fork in Pervez Musharraf

Pakistani strongman General Pervez Musharraf, has reportedly backed away from his threat to declare a state of emergency after a 17 minute telephone conversation with US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice. Musharraf was mulling the emergency declaration as a response to an increase in domestic terrorist attacks by Muslim extremists, but conveniently, the state of emergency would also have the (purely coincidental, I'm sure!) side effect of postponing elections.

Of all the world's dictators, only Pervez Musharraf and Kim Jong-Il have a nuclear arsenal. Unlike his North Korean counterpart, however, Musharraf's country is politically devolving into anarchy, and his own political position is now almost totally untenable. Musharraf, who seized power in a military coup, has long found himself at odds with Pakistan's politically powerful state security services, but for a while, he enjoyed some measure of popular support from a populace that had lost confidence in his predecessor, Nawaz Sharif. Musharraf repeatedly cited a plan to remove himself from power, as dictators are wont to do, after single handedly fixing Pakistan's innumerable political and social problems. Well, obviously, Musharraf couldn't fix Pakistan, but now, his popular support has nearly vanished, and he's lost the confidence of nearly every politically important sector outside the high command of Pakistan's armed forces, which he still (unconstitutionally) leads.

Where his alliance with the United States once provided critical aid in his struggle with domestic Islamic militancy, Pakistan's population now views him as nothing more than Washington's puppet. Recent comments by Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama about the possibility of America violating Pakistani sovereignty to attack Al Qaeda targets in Waziristan. This blunder, however naive or foolish on Obama's part, hit Musharraf like a ton of bricks. His innumerable critics immediately jumped on the gaffe, saying that no matter who the next president in, Pakistan is at risk because Musharraf is an American puppet.

And so it goes. Musharraf has been down for so long that it's starting to look like up to him. With the state of emergency canceled, the path is clear to free (if not necessarily fair) elections that could pave the way for his removal from office. Musharraf, at this point, would probably like nothing more to get the hell out of Pakistan before he's knocked off in yet another coup. If Musharraf survives through 2008, he'll be lucky. If he survives in office? That would be nothing short of a miracle.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Omar who?

Most people draw a blank when asked which African leader has ruled for the longest period of time. Was it Mobutu Sese Seko? No. Colonel Muammar Qaddafi? No. Could it be Robert Mugabe? Not even close.

Give up?

The answer is Omar Bongo, who has ruled the oil rich, former West African French colony of Gabon since 1967. The 71 year old ruler made the news recently by sending a journalist to jail and fining him 250,000 Central African francs for "offending the dignity of the presidency". The offense in question, as you've probably guessed, was writing an editorial which criticized Omar Bongo for monopolizing political power in Gabon.

The unlucky reporter had better get used to a whole lot more of Omar Bongo. Since 2003, the Gabonese constitution has "officially" discarded presidential term limits, the existence of which seemed to be purely theoretical considering Bongo's lengthy tenure at that point. Since winning a thoroughly crooked election in 2006, Bongo was sworn in for yet another 7 year term in office. 2012 is five years off, but already, people are asking: will he run again in 2012? What would life in Gabon be like without Omar Bongo? With a half-dead Fidel Castro officially out of power, Bongo could be poised to make a run at the coveted title of the longest actively reigning leader on earth, having a two year head start on his next closest competitor, the aforementioned Colonel Qaddafi of Libya.

Will he pull it off? Dictators of the World thinks so. Bongo keeps a low profile, but frankly, so did Enver Hoxha, who managed to sneak onto our top 10 list. The sky's the limit, even in relative obscurity, for Omar Bongo.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Don't call it a comeback: Lil' Kim is out and about

He's back! North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il has made five, count them, five, consecutive public appearances for the first time since he reportedly underwent emergency heart bypass surgery in June.

The post-operative, mangier looking Kim had made a select number of private appearances since the alleged operation, but none in public. Lil' Kim's most recent appearance was a machinery parts factory in North Korea, where he took time to praise the Marxist struggle of the factory's "heroic labor class" against ... well, that's where it gets tricky. The only class there is left to struggle against in North Korea is Kim Jong-Il's ruling Stalinist plutocrats, and God knows, he can't very well have that, now can he?

Political contradictions aside, global political analysts are scrambling to grasp what the "true meaning" of Kim's sudden outburst of public appearances may mean. Does this mean Kim is attempting to renegotiate with the west on his atomic weapons program? Is this the precursor to political liberalization? A round of purges? Or he is just on the prowl for some more hot young girls to kidnap as sex slaves?

Monday, August 06, 2007


The Danish collective known as Surrend have made an art form out of an interesting idea. How do you criticize dictators right under their noses without getting caught by the censors? I have to admit that I might be their newest fan after reading about Surrend's latest escapade, which targeted Myanmar, the country still known as Burma to the rest of the world, and the leader of the ruling totalitarian military junta Than Shwe.

Surrend bought advertising space in the English language Myanmar Times to print what looked like a nondescript ad for Burmese tourism. Touting Burma's tropical sun, friendly people, and so on. At the bottom of the ad was written: "The Board of Islandic Travel Agencies Ewhsnahtrellik and the Danish Industry Besoeg Danmark". And what the hell is Ewhsnahtrellik? Why, that would be Killer Than Shwe when read backwards.

OK, so the idea of printing an insult backwards isn't particularly clever. Considering how tightly the Burmese press is monitored and censored for just these sorts of things, however, Surrend's accomplishment becomes a bit more impressive. I think it goes without saying that someone in the paper's advertising department is having a very long, uncomfortable talk with the police.

Lukashenko wants to bleach internet "sewer"

Dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus says that he will be cracking down on unregulated internet usage in Belarus, in a move pro-democracy advocates say may be a precursor to a wider crackdown on anti-government speech. At present, the internet is the only source for independent news in Belarus, with all newspapers, radio and television produced and edited by government officials. Lukashenko called the state of online news about Belarus "anarchy", and vowed to clean it up, saying, "we cannot allow this great technical success by humankind to become a news sewer."

It is difficult to imagine how Belarus could add even more restrictions on domestic internet users. At present, internet cafe owners are required to report visits of anti-government websites to the police, and people caught publishing any material deemed insulting to the state or Lukashenko himself are targeted for arrest. Belarus does not, however, appear to have a centralized system of internet censorship akin to the infamous Great Firewall of China.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Karimov builds a prison for purged officials

With the death of Turkmenistan's dictator Saparmurat Niazov, Uzbekistan has moved up to the head of the class to become the most repressive and totalitarian state in Central Asia. Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov may not have the late Turkmenbashi's sexy eccentricity, but he makes up for his lack of headline appeal with his dreary Soviet style authoritarianism.

And what better way for a strongman to flex his post-Soviet muscle than cracking down on his political enemies? Karimov has never been shy about using force to maintain the status quo, but he appears to be going the extra mile by building a special prison for Uzbek government officials who have fallen from his good graces. The new detention facility has ostensibly been built as part of a government response to punish corruption, but nobody seriously expects the vengeful dictator to stop there. Conservative estimates place the number of political prisoners in Uzbekistan at around 7,500, while the end tops out at over 15,000. According to human rights organizations, torture is endemic in Uzbekistan, and political prisoners are often completely denied communications with friends or family - a punishment not extended to ordinary criminals.

Karimov's cavalier attitude regarding violence and political activity briefly made the news in 2005 after the infamous Andijan massacre, when Uzbek security forces started shooting fully automatic weapons into a crowd of unarmed people. The death toll has been estimated as being between 178 people (the Karimov government's estimate), to around 500 (most survivors of the attack), to over a thousand people. Karimov's new gulag for his disgraced lackeys lacks the flash and glamor of simply shooting them all en masse, but the message will doubtlessly still get through: messing with Islam Karimov is just too dangerous to think about.

I know what you're thinking, "two consecutive days of Central Asian dictators"? It's just coincidence, I swear. I might getting around to doing an entire week devoted to Central Asia, but frankly, I may just leave that to the experts.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The cult of the bling daddy

It wasn't supposed to be this way, was it?

Since the death of Saparmurat Niazov, Turkmenistan's new president Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov seemed poised first to cling to the status quo established by Turkmenbashi, and then, to erase it. Berdimuhammedov was quick to publicly criticize the need for a personality cult, and quickly moved to purge revanchist elements within his ruling party. L'État c'est moi was out, après moi le déluge was in. Could the new guy be an actual reformer?

The illustrious Berdimuhammedov appeared to change direction last month during his 50th birthday. After initially promising to downplay the event, he reversed course and turned it into a public celebration. He also decided celebrate the occasion, by awarding himself Turkmenistan's highest national honor, complete with serious bling.

Apparently, he must have enjoyed his first public flirtation with self-aggrandizement, because signs now point to the creation of a new personality cult centered around Berdimuhammedov. The personality cult of his predecessor, one of the world's most pervasive, will be a hard act to follow, and it seems that Berdimuhammedov's image and public praise isn't nearly as lavish as Turkmenbashi's, Yet still, for the man who appeared poised to completely do away with the wild Stalinist excesses of his predecessor, the emergence of any personality cult has people worrying about a return to the bad-old-days under Niazov.

Berdimuhammedov's first trip into public self-glorification appeared during his 50th birthday. Could be suffering a mid-life crisis? Does he need self-validation? A cookie? A hug? Or are the persistent rumors that Berdimuhammedov is Niazov's illegitimate son actually true, and that a personality cult is simply a way of honoring the daddy he never knew that well? Construct your own Freudian postulate here, people, but I'll definitely be keeping a close on eye on Berdimuhammedov to see if his casual flirtation with a personality cult blossoms into a torrid love affair with Niazov-style self-deification.