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Meet the four autocrats of the apocalypse.

By John Lloyd

Four leaders of great states run the gamut of political authoritarianism.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi the least so, though he is clearly is a leader with authoritarian tendencies. A report for the US Congress last August noted "critics... commonly portray Modi as having a ruthless and dictatorial style of governance."

But he fairly won a democratic election in a country proud to call itself the world's largest democracy.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, now president of Turkey (he was prime minister for 11 years, since 2003) is further down the authoritarian scale: the Financial Times' David Gardner wrote that while he had begun as a champion of democratic institutions and civil rights, by his third electoral victory in 2011 "his tolerance of any challenge to his power had all but evaporated."

Russian President Vladimir Putin is still further down the scale. His squeezing of Russian civil society, his snatching of Crimea and refusal to allow Ukraine to grapple with the tensions within it are the mark of one whom, like Erdogan (a fervent admirer), has thrown aside the liberal protestations with which he began his first administration in 2000.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is at the furthest extreme: he makes no effort to develop democratic practices and institutions in the Western sense: he told senior party members that to adopt "the universal values of the West" would be "a misunderstanding of our reform. Our reform ... keeps us moving forward on the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics." The Party must, above all, control the military: Xi, like most Chinese Communist leaders, believes the Soviet Union doomed its Party when it lost control of the army.

None of these leaders are declared enemies of the West: they will, in some contexts, share in its projects. Turkey remains a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, though an increasingly detached one, reluctant to impose sanctions on Russia as its Western allies have asked it to do.

A December meeting between Erdogan and Putin in Ankara saw the two presidents, much compared, setting aside differences and pledging greater cooperation and trade.

China has made a choice -- forever, if its leaders have their way -- for communism. Russia and Turkey are busy sundering or weakening the ties that clearly didn't seem to bind them to the West. The leader still uncertain of which way to bend his country is the most recently elected -- India's Modi.

He spent much of his first months in office last year doing the rounds of world leaders, and was suitably diplomatic with all. But not non-committal: his meeting with Putin was warm on the Indian's side, with assurances to the Russian that India's traditional friendliness would be at least as well served in his administration as previously.

Modi would not join in the sanctions against Russia for its Ukrainian adventures, would not condemn them -- and was apparently happy to receive the new Crimean prime minister, indicating that Indian business should invest in the newly-annexed part of Russia.

But his visit with President Barack Obama in November was also warm, and described by his hosts as fruitful. His appeal for more US investment was deemed sincere, and his speech in Madison Square Garden to (mainly) US-based diaspora Indians was rapturously received.

The United States had shut off all contacts with Modi and denied him a US visa while he was chief minister of the state of Gujarat -- believing that he had either been complicit in, or indifferent to, a massacre of Muslims in the state in 2002.

That has been swept under the White House carpet, but may rankle -- though Obama goes to India later this month with high expectations. In India to prepare the visit earlier this week, Secretary of State John Kerry said, "We can do more together, and we must do more together, and we have to do it faster."

Modi can continue a balancing act for some time, and likely will. But as he surveys his possibilities, he will note that the West in general and the United States in particular is less attractive as a model, in either economy or in politics, than it was. The United States is presently growing well, but Europe remains depressed, increasingly hostile to immigrants from the sub-continent and likely to remain so.

Erdogan, once an enthusiast for Turkey's long-deferred application for membership to the EU, has pulled back. He argued in a 2013 interview that the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which united China, Russia and central Asian states, is now "better and more powerful than the EU".

The group has increased both military and economic links over the past decade: and a proposal that both India and Pakistan join was tabled in 2012.

These countries are diverse, with often competing interests and with leaders whose stress on nationalist themes can sit ill with declarations of closer cooperation and integration.

But their leaders, so far, have learned one big thing: that indulging in anti-Western, especially anti-American, rhetoric does you no harm at all in the popularity polls. Ironically, with a president hoping to dispel the view of the United States as a domineering world hegemon, it now attracts more sustained odium than it did under President George W Bush.

Further, the United States -- and Europe's -- commitment to ideals of freedom and democracy give way, often, to the demands of realpolitik. The rule of President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt has been ruthless toward the activists of the Muslim Brotherhood and has cowed the news media -- with a few bold exceptions -- into submission.

The Egyptian president met Obama on the fringes of the United Nations in September, and he has been invited to visit Germany. There isn't any warmth, but the critical position of Egypt in the Middle East and its cold peace with Israel makes cooperation mandatory.

It leads one to think that Modi could go some way down the authoritarian road before US enthusiasm wears thin.

Putin, Xi and Erdogan all believe the world is rebalancing, that new centres of power and influence will grow in the next decade, and that they are these centres. Narendra Modi, who may still lead India when its population surpasses that of China's in about a decade, finds himself in the position of the one being wooed.

He will have some time to enjoy it, in which the "ruthless and dictatorial" side his critics fear may emerge more strongly.

John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford Lloyd has written several books, including What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics (2004). He is also a contributing editor at FT and the founder of FT Magazine.

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Publication:Cyprus Mail (Cyprus)
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Jan 18, 2015
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