Thu, Dec 27, 2018 - Page 14 News List

2018: the year of the autocrat

The powerful men who put their own interests first made for 12 months of strange and daunting paradoxes

By Simon Tisdall  /  The Guardian

The US midterm elections handed a sharp rebuke to Trump. The Democrats’ “blue tsunami” of 40 gains in the House of Representatives suggested congressional scrutiny of Trump’s activities will increase exponentially next year. Trump’s cynical pre-poll claim that a Central American migrant caravan threatened national security failed to stop the rout.

By year’s end fewer than half of all Americans (40 percent) approved of his job performance.


In Russia, Vladimir Putin was re-elected president in a rigged poll that allowed no other result. Putin ensured his domestic dominance by hounding critics such as opposition leader Alexei Navalny. He used Russia’s hosting of the football World Cup in June to further entrench his position. Putin nevertheless faced nationwide resistance over state pension changes, and his popularity fell amid mutterings about high-level corruption.

Putin purposefully projected Russian power abroad, conducting a large military exercise with China, probing NATO’s defenses in the Baltic and North Atlantic and using disinformation campaigns to influence elections in Europe and the Balkans.

Russia’s military seized Ukrainian naval vessels off Crimea, sparking fears of a war involving NATO. It also helped Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad, regain control of most of the country.

Trump’s fawning attitude to Putin, intensified speculation that the Kremlin holds compromising information about him. Even after Russia was proved to have mounted a chemical weapons assassination plot in southern England, and was punished with additional western sanctions, Trump avoided direct criticism. For his part, Putin ridiculed his accusers.


China’s leader consolidated his hold on power following a decision by the National People’s Congress in March to abolish terms limits — effectively appointing him president-for-life. The Communist party tightened its control over civil society groups, the media, the internet, and academic and religious institutions. Challenging the government became a more perilous activity than ever .

Xi’s zero tolerance of dissent was symbolized by the harsh treatment of Muslim Uighurs in western Xinjiang Province. Reports detailed mass incarcerations in “re-education” centers, ostensibly to contain a threat from Islamist extremism. Human rights defenders and pro-democracy activists suffered repression in Hong Kong.

Like Putin, Xi stepped up an aggressive drive to expand China’s global reach. The militarization of several artificial islands in the South China Sea was completed. Xi tightened Beijing’s diplomatic siege of Taiwan. These moves produced dangerous confrontations with US forces conducting “freedom of navigation” patrols.


The top-down trend favoring “strongman” leadership accelerated around the world. In Brazil, a hard-right nationalist, Jair Bolsonaro, survived a knife attack to win the presidency and was embraced as a kindred spirit by Trump. Bolsonaro’s focus on development intensified worries about the despoliation of the Amazon.

A UN report demanded the Myanmar junta of General Min Aung Hlaing be investigated for genocide and crimes against humanity over its persecution of Rohingya Muslims.

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