đź”’ FT’s Gideon Rachman: The strange loyalty of Putin’s global fan club

Despite hopes that the death of Alexei Navalny would isolate Vladimir Putin, recent events suggest otherwise. Admirers of the Russian leader, including potential leaders of the world’s three largest democracies—India, the US, and Indonesia—may continue to treat him with respect. Prabowo Subianto’s victory in Indonesia raises concerns of a Putin-style strongman, while Modi’s pragmatic ties to Putin persist. Even Trump, a vocal Putin admirer, remains silent on Navalny’s death. As global elections approach, it’s crucial for Putin’s foreign fan club to acknowledge the realities exposed by Navalny.

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By Gideon Rachman

Admirers of the Russian leader may soon lead the world’s three largest democracies

It would be comforting to believe that the death of Alexei Navalny will finally make Vladimir Putin an international pariah. But recent history and current politics suggest otherwise. It is sadly likely that Russia’s leader will continue to be treated with respect — and even admiration — in large parts of the world. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

No one should expect that Xi Jinping will jettison Putin simply because another sudden death has taken place in Russia. China’s leader shares Putin’s hatred of pro-democracy activists. What is more surprising is that Putin also continues to have friendly relations with the leaders of some of the world’s most powerful democracies.

Indeed, it is entirely possible that the world’s three largest democracies — India, the US and Indonesia — will all elect admirers of Putin as their leaders this year. Prabowo Subianto of Indonesia, Narendra Modi in India and Donald Trump in the US are all notable for standing aside from the international condemnation of Putin — for reasons that go beyond realpolitik.

Prabowo won a decisive victory in Indonesia’s presidential election last week. His ascent to the top job makes many supporters of Indonesian democracy very nervous. They fear Prabowo may aspire to rule as a Putin-style strongman and point to accusations that he was responsible for human rights abuses while in the Indonesian military.

Last year, Prabowo proposed a peace settlement for Ukraine that was so accommodating to Putin’s ambitions it was dismissed by Ukraine as a “Russian plan”. Kornelius Purba, managing editor of The Jakarta Post, recently noted Prabowo’s “admiration” for Putin and suggested that, among the Indonesian electorate, there are “many [who] are supportive of the retired army general because they are fanatical fans of President Putin”.

At the beginning of the year, Modi had a friendly phone call with Putin in which the Indian and Russian leaders wished each other luck in their upcoming elections. Modi, unlike Putin, will be running in a genuine election, which he is likely to win easily.

Indian diplomats argue that Modi’s working relationship with Putin is a matter of simple pragmatism and the national interest. India has bought a lot of its military equipment from Russia and cannot sever that relationship overnight. The Indian economy has also benefited from cheap Russian oil.

To be fair to Modi, he did issue a mild public rebuke of Putin in 2022, telling the Russian leader that “today’s era is not the era of war”. But since then relations between the two leaders have warmed up again, with Putin recently hailing Modi as “a very wise man”. Jaiveer Shergill, national spokesman for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party, reacted to a question about the death of Navalny by blandly stating: “Russia was, is and will remain India’s strong friend and ally.”

Putin’s anti-western and anti-colonial rhetoric finds a large and appreciative audience in India, where Modi has chosen to stress his identity as a nationalist strongman who is finally freeing his country from the legacy of colonialism. Modi’s critics argue that his government has eroded India’s democracy and used state institutions to launch prosecutions of his opponents. Last week, the Congress party, the country’s largest opposition grouping, complained that its bank accounts had been suddenly frozen. Congress leaders have accused Modi of a Putin-like desire to suppress all real opposition.

And then there is Trump. While US President Joe Biden accused Putin of responsibility for the death of Navalny, Trump remained silent. This could be partly because he was preoccupied by denouncing the massive fines imposed on him by a New York court. But Trump — normally so free with insulting language and nicknames — has famously never uttered any criticism of the Russian leader. Instead, he has praised Putin as strong and smart.

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Some Democrats have driven themselves to distraction trying to discover if Putin has something on Trump. But there may be a simpler explanation. Trump genuinely admires Putin.

The wider world of Trump advisers and hangers-on has long contained some unabashed Putin fans. Shortly after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s close adviser, said of Putin: “That’s what you call a leader.” Just before Navalny’s death, Tucker Carlson, the pro-Trump commentator, was still publishing admiring videos about the beauty of the Moscow metro.

Carlson may have been so bedazzled by the wonders of Russia that he failed to notice that another strongman leader he has fawned upon — Hungary’s Viktor Orbán — has run into trouble. Mass demonstrations have taken place in Budapest against his government’s mishandling of a child sex abuse scandal.

The unexpected backlash against Orban is instructive. Strongman leaders are good at impressing credulous foreigners with their nationalism and their spotless trains. But locals usually understand the reality behind the facade.

Navalny specialised in highlighting and ridiculing the corruption and violence of Putin and his inner circle. He has paid for his bravery with his life. It is long past time for Putin’s foreign fan club to finally pay attention to the sordid realities Navalny exposed.

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