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Are oil autocrats fated to be a bit weird?

Russian President Vladimir Putin looks at a crane as he sits in a motorised deltaplane at Yamalo-Nenets district September 5, 2012.
Reuters/Alexsey Druginyn/RIA Novosti
Just out for a jaunt.
By Steve LeVine
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

As 2014 winds down, it is worth considering the relationship between oil and peculiar personality.

Take Russian president Vladimir Putin, who on Dec. 4 treated the world to an unforgettable performance of small-time, self-pitying, paranoid, and ahistorical megalomania.

In his annual state-of-the-state address, he suggested that Ukraine’s right to choose its foreign alliances is equivalent to Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union. And his annexation of Crimea last March? A sacred undertaking, he said, akin to the legitimate claims to the “Temple Mount in Jerusalem for the followers of Islam and Judaism.”

The outside world simply chooses to ignore such principled aims, all the while seeking to contain and dismember Russia, Putin said, a policy that “has been carried out against our country for many years, always, for decades, if not centuries. In short, whenever someone thinks that Russia has become too strong or independent, these tools are quickly put into use.”

Despite the speech’s risible side, no one seems to have found it amusing, or even an occasion for academic scrutiny. Instead, it has evoked plain fear, writes the Economist, “that [Putin] may actually believe” all those misstated basic facts and history.

Is Putin disturbing or just farcical?

In part because of Putin’s recent actions, the Financial Times’ Philip Stephens is calling 2014 (paywall) “the year of the political strongman.”

Perhaps it’s better to call it the year of the parodical strongman.

Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei, for example, whose presumed ambitions to build a nuclear weapon terrify the US, Europe and many of his neighbors, declined to meet a Nov. 24 deadline to make the sort of concessions that would lift sanctions. That’s because the so-called P5+1 countries with whom Iran was negotiating were not simply urging him to do away with his country’s nuclear program. No siree. Rather, “the United States and European colonialist countries gathered and applied their entire efforts to bring the Islamic Republic to its knees,” Khamenei said. Despite such Herculean and tricky attempts, he said, “they could not and they will not” succeed.

Khamenei’s message was clear—let Iran stay firmly on its feet, and no pushing it to a standing position on any lower joints.

The conspiratorial mindset trends through numerous petrostates. In Venezuela, president Nicolas Maduro recently charged opposition figure Maria Corina Machado with scheming with the US to assassinate him.

If oil is a factor in the petrostate personality, one might ask whether we might see some change in the leaders, since oil prices have tanked by about 40% in the last six months. So far, all three mentioned above have suggested a plot in the oil market afoot to scupper their states, and vowed not to be so easily cowed. This suggests that, whatever the price, the oil strongmen will remain curiosities.

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