The question occurred to me as I read this genuinely bizarre story about Putin's latest move to control the Russian media: a twisted uno-por-uno scheme where radio stations will be forced to run one "positive" news item for each "negative" item they put on the air. And how do you know if an item is "positive"?
“When we talk of death, violence or poverty, for example, this is not positive,” said one editor at the station who did not want to be identified for fear of retribution. “If the stock market is up, that is positive. The weather can also be positive.”There you have it, enforced good cheer!
When it comes to taming the media, Putin is way ahead of Chavez. He already controls all the TV networks, which ignore the opposition and never criticize him. With the new "50% rule" he guts news radio, leaving only the newspapers to scrutinize him. Worse, critical journos get whacked at an alarming rate in Russia these days.
By just about any standard, today's Russia is more authoritarian than Venezuela. Putin's oil kitty is bigger than Chávez's, and he controls it just as discretionally and secretively. Small-scale protests are brutally crushed by the police in Russia and their leaders jailed, while in Venezuela the authorities grumble but they still let us march. Russian opposition groups are shut out of the electoral process in ways that would make Jorge Rodríguez blush.
Most striking is Putin's willingness to shed his citizens' blood for partisan advantage: probably over 100,000 Chechens died during his PR exercise cum brutal war against separatists in their province, including the near total destruction of Grozny. There's no parallel in Venezuela's contemporary history. I mean, however much you may loathe him, you can't accuse Chávez of firebombing Maracaibo.
So it's an open-and-shut case: Putin is far more authoritarian than Chávez's, right?
Well sure, but that's not the question we started with. We were talking about which of the two is more dangerous to his nation's freedom. And here, the situation is more complex.
The first thing I notice is that you never hear people described as "Putinists." There's no Russian equivalent "bolivarianismo," no parallel to "socialism of the 21st century." Putin has no time for outsized ideological fantasies, his sense of the ridiculous precludes him from vowing to save humanity. No one in the Kremlin wants to export the Russian model. Putin's ideology, if you can call it that, is modest: a kind of national security state aimed at providing stability as a basis for prosperity.
As a result, Putin hasn't developed a real cult of personality. Polls show he's very popular, but you don't see his photo on billboards all over Russia. His aphorisms are not rammed down the throats of schoolkids and factory workers. He has rebuffed calls to amend the constitution to stay in power after next year, which he easily could do.
What I'm getting at is that where Chávez's authoritarianism is ideological, Putin's is functional: he'll use as much power as he needs to meet his political goals, no more. His is the mafia don's authoritarianism: it's never personal with Putin, it's business. Chávez dreams of utopia in his lifetime; Putin never dreams at all.
Why does this matter? Because his instrumental view of power places a kind of "cap" on the danger Putin represents for the future. He takes an expansive view of raison d'état, for sure, but not an unlimited one. He has limited goals and he doesn't want more power than he needs to achieve them.
Chávez's goals, by contrast, are basically unlimited. Venezuela is just the start: he wants to redeem humankind. He wants as much power as it takes to achieve this. But since the aim itself is unlimited, there's no evident cap to the amount of power he'll accumulate to achieve it.
It's Chávez's messianic streak that ultimately makes him so dangerous. The history of self-appointed messiahs gone horribly wrong is too long, too well documented. Over the last two-hundred years, every single calamity of world-historical proportions has come at the hands of people so suffused with good intentions they could see no nobler goal than to accumulate as much power as possible so they can impose them on the world. As Adam Gopnik put it, "the road to hell is paved with good intentions because the people doing the paving think they've found a shortcut straight to heaven."
Combined with his rampant statism, Chávez's messiah complex makes his movement tend towards totalitarianism. Because nothing in his conception of power, nothing in his understanding of his role in history could make him curb his quest to amass still more power. And that makes all the difference. Putin's regime, by contrast, doesn't tend towards anything: it is what it is.
As we approach the era of indefinite re-election, the gap between Chávez's regime as it is and the regime as its habits of thought and conception of power will tend to make it becomes ever more alarming. If anything, the real puzzle in Venezuela these days is Chávez's excess of tolerance - the way his actions still lag behind the autocratic logic of his discourse.
So yes, Putin has been worse, far worse. Nonetheless, Chávez is more dangerous.