The Achilles heel of Putin, Erdogan and Zuma
Image by Francisco Osorio on Flickr

Our lead researcher Haroon Sheikh writes a weekly column for Dutch newspaper NRC. In these columns, he shares his insights about changes in the global hegemony, economy and society. In this column he writes about teenagers who become more rebellious.

Putin, Erdogan and Zuma govern in different parts of the world, but they have more in common than we think. First, all three of their regimes show a paradox: Russia, Turkey and South Africa are officially democracies, but despite great dissatisfaction, none of these three countries has a credible opposition. Of course, it is also made difficult for opposition, especially in Russia, but that is not enough to explain the absence of a strong, alternative voice.

‘Teens will become more rebellious. Regimes lose their grip on the next generation.’

For an explanation, we must go back in time more than twenty years. The three countries were then going through a painful transition. In South Africa, it was the end of apartheid, Turkey had a series of political and economic crises, and in Russia, the Soviet Union fell. The current regimes came out of those crises as the victors: the ANC gained power in South Africa in 1994 (then under Mandela), Putin in 2000 and Erdogan in 2003. For the black population in South Africa, for the impoverished, ordinary Russians and for the pious Muslims of Turkey, these leaders became the champions who restored dignity to their lives. When it was going well with the world economy in the first decade of this century, the middle class grew and these countries improved their reputation worldwide. It was a classic hero story.

Another feature that these three regimes share is that they have become rigid in recent years. It is no longer going well with the economy, and too little has been done to make the economy more sustainable and innovative, especially in South Africa and Russia. The elite appears to be a closed network that is strengthening its grip on the population, and scandals about their immense wealth surface. The disappointment among the population is growing, and internationally the regimes are more isolated due to their authoritarian behavior. However, for many people who experienced the crisis years and the improvement afterwards, the ANC, Putin and Erdogan still stand above the parties with their hero status. But something about that is going to change.

Currently, a generation born after the turn of the century is reaching maturity. They did not experience the pain of the crisis years and therefore have no conscious memory of the salvation. Of course they are told about it, but that is different from experiencing it first-hand. This generation has not known any leaders other than the current ones. They will blame everything that is wrong in their country on this regime. Blaming apartheid, the fall of the Soviet Union or the Turkish secular elite is becoming less plausible.

There is another reason why teenagers will become more rebellious. Young people everywhere in the world now interact differently with media. They get news from social media and less often from the newspaper. Instead of linear television channels, they prefer online video services. The classic way in which leaders influenced their populations – through the state newspaper and state television – are disappearing, so regimes are losing their grip on the next generation.

There are already signs of change. Instead of millennials, it was teenagers who were prominent in Russian protests earlier this year. A video recording went viral in which high school students challenged their instructors about the regime. Since Gezi Park, a generation of Turkish youth have been protesting. South African students are losing faith in the ANC and protesting against inequality in the country.

Can the rulers do anything about this? Perhaps they can create a new hero story. Such as the annexation of new country or a defeated coup. That may help, but those stories are controversial. In the long term, it is too little to inspire a new generation.

To read the article in Dutch, click here.