How 2022 Became a Disastrous Year for Autocrats

Julian McBride | 09 January 2023
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This year saw major geopolitical shifts throughout the world. In the aftermath of the COVID-19 Pandemic, we witnessed how fragile many global economies truly were, along with the largest and brutal conventional war between two states that the world has not seen in three decades.

Autocrats, who historically flexed their muscles uninterrupted for years felt the pressure from their own constituents over their own reckless policies. This heat sent a shockwave towards these leaders across the world who were blinded by their seats in power and forgot that they serve the people and not themselves.

Xi Jinping

Xi Jinping, the chairman of the Communist Party of China has enjoyed a growing authoritarianism within Beijing. Spending years purging political rivals and crushing dissidence in Hong Kong and abroad, Xi was recently re-elected to a rare third term during the party’s much watched congress this fall.

Despite broadcasting himself as the new premier of the world, attempting to raise China above the U.S. in terms of influence, the situation in the country has not favored Xi in a way he thought it would go. The Zero Covid policy has come under criticism by human rights activists and Chinese nationals as bodies emerged of people being forcibly locked indoors under the system. One such case resulted in a fire in which residents could not escape from the locked building, leading to protests in which the CCP caved into several demands.

Economic growth has also remained stagnant in China, with many of the younger intellectuals increasingly moving overseas, not having the opportunities their parents and grandparents had in China. In Taiwan, the U.S has recommitted support for Taipei, hampering potential plans for an invasion for now. The growing demographic collapse of China, attempted reunification with Taiwan, and the increasing housing problem will also be a major issue for Xi going forward.

Pedro Castillo

Growing up in a poor neighborhood and eventually building himself up as a man of the people, Pedro Castillo, the President of Peru became enshrined in corruption. As a left-wing President, Castillo faced political gridlock from his more right-wing congress and Peruvians would suffer from it.

In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Peru would suffer from the rise of cost in fuel, agriculture, and inflation. The people would slowly lose faith in Castillo and the president would become desperate, culminating in the self-coup attempt. The self-coup was met with international ire as Castillo had attempted to subvert the rule of law and dissolve congress for his own ambitions.

Viktor Orban

The populist leader of the Fidesz party, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, has come under increasing heat within NATO and the European Union. Orban’s government has been synonymous as a modern-day Trojan Horse, vetoing sanctions against Russia, causing disarray within the EU, and threatening to withhold critical aid to Ukraine.

These policies have come at ire and disappointment by some of Orban’s strongest allies, who like Hungary, suffered under the boot of Moscow for decades, but did not forget the threats the Kremlin holds to Europe. One of these allies who have done a 180 from Orban’s friendly approach to Russia has been PiS in Poland, which has been leading the forefront in supporting Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.

Attempting to blackmail the EU into releasing frozen pandemic funds for Hungary has also backfired, as the bloc was able to bypass the Hungarian populist. Orban has aligned himself to the fringe section of American Republicans that poorly performed in midterms, with a more moderate and pro Ukraine section of the GOP in power—another gamble which failed for Fidesz. Increasingly opening his country up to Russia, China, and Iran, Orban may have isolated himself from his Visegrad allies and the remainder of the West.

Tayyip Erdogan

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the President of Turkish Republic and party head of the AKP has been intertwined in internal and geopolitical conflicts since becoming the premier of the nation. Using his charisma and cunningness in foreign policy, Erdogan has heightened Turkish soft power throughout the world. Nonetheless, promoting himself in the forefront of world leaders has not helped his domestic position.

With growing inflation due to policies known as “Erdoganomics,” the average Turkish citizen feels the brunt of the AKP’s financial decisions. Domestic violence, negligent spending, and the arrest of journalists, critics, and dissidents have put pressure on the government to either reform or face an election loss next year.

Already having a history of being accused of rigging elections, Erdogan may have made a martyr out of one of his most prominent rivals by playing a hand in his court sentence. This has sent the country in a rage and could potentially be the last string of the autocrat’s rule.

The Turkish President has also drawn the ire from some of his most prominent international allies. US-Turkish relations are at a near low as Washington sees Ankara’s growingly close-knit relations with Russia and aggressiveness to Kurdish paramilitaries as reckless. Erdogan likewise feels the same way about the U.S sheltering groups such as the SDF from a potentially looming Turkish offensive.

Taking a more aggressive policy towards Greece’s and Cyprus’ EEZ and UNCLOS rights, both Athens, Nicosia, and Ankara have tensions not seen since 1974. This has prompted Washington to continue to bolster its military presence in Greece and lift the Cyprus embargo, moves condemned by the Turkish foreign ministry. Taking risks has been a playbook for the President of Turkey, whose luck may have finally caught up to him.

Bashar al-Assad

After consolidating his hold in Syria, thanks to the military backing of Russia, Bashar al-Assad gloated over international players who wanted him removed. With most of the Syrian rebels confined to Idlib and the remaining under the authority of Turkey, Assad has effectively told the world Syria’s future cannot be negotiated without his presence. Though solidifying his hold over Damascus, Assad’s regime continues to slowly decay.

The Syrian economy continues to decline, with large scale energy shortages with an upcoming winter. The Syrian pound continues to inflate to where Assad now prints money to survive, inflating the economy and closing job sectors. Through his proxies in Lebanon, such as Hezbollah, the country had turned into the Middle East’s largest narco-state, with the captagon drug now being their largest export.

The effects of the Caesar Act Sanctions, years of government mismanagement and fatigue are starting to show in Syria, particularly amongst the Druze of al-Suwayda who gained international attention for renewed protests in the province. As Russia’s military and diplomatic posture continues to diminish and Iran is embroiled in one of its largest protests, without the strength of his key allies, Assad has now come under increasing pressure.

Ali Khamenei

The Supreme Leader of Iran has found himself in a similar position as the Shah was in the seventies. One of the largest progressive protests in Iranian history has taken place in the wake of Jina Masha Amini’s murder at the hands of the ‘morality’ police. Four months into a potential uprising, the protestors show no signs of fatigue.

Growing economic stagnation, fraud, embezzlement, unjust public executions, women’s rights, hardline draconian laws, and prioritizing the IRGC and foreign militias over the people are some of the leading factors that led Iranians to the streets against the Mullahs. Despite mass arrests and the start of executions from the protests, Iranians continue to persist.

Starting to feel under pressure, Tehran has attempted to provoke its foreign enemies, hoping to unite the country under one common banner to distract them from the protests akin to how Saddam’s invasion gave cover to Khomeini’s executions. Saudi Arabia has warned the U. S of potential IRGC provocations in the country, the Mullahs have sent Russia thousands of drones and potentially ballistic missiles in its brutal invasion of Ukraine, assassination plots against Iranian dissidents continue, and tensions between Baku and Tehran continue to escalate.

Recently, Iran was expelled from the UN Commission of Women and the potential leverage it held with the JCPOA has been indefinitely halted. Though the protests have not grown into a full-fledged revolution yet, it is important to remember the 1979 revolution took fifteen months to overthrow the shah, and with the momentum growing, the supreme leader and his religious council remain in a precarious situation.

Vladimir Putin

The autocrat who has paid the price for his reckless policies has been the longtime Russian President Vladimir Putin. Escalating every time he finds a weakness amongst his international rivals, the Russian premier went all in with a total invasion of Ukraine this past February.

The invasion has come with international condemnation, making Russia the most sanctioned nation on earth and a country which now relies on oil exports to India and China to contain an economic depression. The invasion this February only unified Ukrainians more than ever, who are far more prepared to fight the Russian military compared to the near military collapse seen in 2014.

The invasion has not gone the way the Kremlin thought it would say the least. Losing thousands of pieces of equipment, visually documented by the Oryx blog and tens of thousands of manpower, Putin was forced to call for a partial mobilization, which also went poorly. Ukrainian victories have unleashed infighting amongst his inner circle, and gambling on Western resolve that would fade, the exact opposite has occurred.

The EU and NATO have vowed to continue to fund Ukraine’s defense for as long as it will take with vows of military intervention if nuclear weapons are used in the country. With military objectives having failed, such as the failed Battle of Kyiv, the loss of Kherson, and Kharkiv, the Russian dictator has now directed indiscriminate missile strikes with no military objectives on the Ukrainian population, hoping to freeze forty plus million this upcoming winter.

Russian overall casualties have been estimated to be around 100,000, making the war in Ukraine its deadliest conflict since WWII. Potentially fearing his removal if he withdraws from all occupied territories, Putin now for the first time in his life finds himself in a conundrum that he cannot get out of on his own favorable terms. Putin’s autocratic regime is linked directly to the likes of Belarus’ Lukashenka, Syria’s Assad, and Iran’s Khamenei, the latter three who would face a potential uprising if the Kremlin collapsed today.

Autocrats in 2022 have felt the brunt of the same pressure they have inflicted on their own constituents. With the prospects of a global economic recession and global conflicts, despots have now grown closer together, realizing their own power is threatened due to their policies. What many of these hardline rulers faced was force from their own people of foes — diplomacy and negotiations have only emboldened them whereas direct action taken by the people has forced their hands. A reminder as we head into the new year is at the end of the day, dictators only listen to threats of force.

Julian McBride is a forensic anthropologist and independent journalist born in New York. He is the founder and director of the Reflections of War Initiative (ROW), an anthropological NGO which aims to tell the stories of the victims of war through art therapy. As a former Marine, he uses this technique not only to help heal PTSD but also to share people’s stories through art, which conveys “the message of the brutality of war better than most news organizations.”

This article was originally published on The Geo-Politics.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.