This is the final Brief in the three part series by Charles Simkins on democracy and looks at authoritarian strategies.

A review of (eds) Larry Diamond, Marc Plattner and Christopher Walker, Authoritarianism goes global, Johns Hopkins Press, 2016

The first brief in this series delineated the uneasy equilibrium between democracy and authoritarianism in the last decade, with advances more or less matched with declines.  The second brief considered some recent interpretations of the state of democratization.  This brief concludes the series by considering authoritarian strategies.

1.International organizations of authoritarian states have been growing. 

The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), formed at the time of the breakup of the Soviet Union has nine members:  Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, with Ukraine (participation suspended) and Turkmenistan as associate members.  The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), an intergovernmental military alliance has six members: Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan, with Afghanistan and Serbia as observers.  The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), founded in China in 2001, is a Eurasian political, economic and military organisation which was founded in 2001. Its members are ChinaKazakhstanKyrgyzstanRussiaTajikistan, and Uzbekistan, with Iran as an observer. In July 2015, the SCO decided to admit India and Pakistan as full members.  During the Chavez presidency, Venezuela created a foreign aid organization Petrocaribe which has seventeen small Caribbean and Central American countries as members, and which won Venezuela diplomatic support. The Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) is an intergovernmental political and economic union, with BahrainKuwaitOmanQatarSaudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, as members.  All these countries are monarchies.

2.Liberal democratic norms in international organizations are being countered by an emphasis on state security, civilizational diversity and traditional values. 

The increased emphasis on state security has been a consequence of terrorism and is encountered mainly in the United States and Europe.  China has been a particular advocate of civilizational diversity and has resisted the imposition of political and economic conditionalities by international organizations.  Russia has been pursuing a traditional values agenda, counterposing these against universal human rights.

3.Repression of civil society. 

The common charge by authoritarian regimes is that NGOs act on behalf of outside interests.  Some countries have banned foreign funding outright and others force NGOs to secure government approval of any outside funding.  Russia requires NGOs receiving foreign funds to register as ‘foreign agents’.  There has also been a proliferation of government organized ‘non-governmental organizations’, countering independent NGOs. 

4.Zombie election monitors.

The gold standard of election monitoring is the careful work of international organizations, such as the Office for Democratic Institution of Human Rights in the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and some skilled NGOs.  Hybrid regimes (countries with elections, the outcome of which is determined in advance) have sought the services of zombie monitors, which try to look like democratic observers, but in fact pretend that flawed elections deserve endorsement as free and fair.  While these endorsements are not internationally credible, they confuse and distract citizens, and allow governments to complain that critical foreign observers are biased.

5.Cyberspace control.

Three levels of control can be identified.  The first level involves limiting citizens’ access to information from abroad.  The most extensive control is exercised by the Chinese government, with Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen and Vietnam coming close, and lesser degrees of filtering becoming common.  The second level is a set of government requirements which force the private sector to police privately owned and operated networks according to government demands.  Turkey, Ethiopia, Thailand, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, India, Singapore, Russia, United Arab Emirates, Iran, Belarus and Pakistan have all been active at this level.  The third level is offensive and involve surveillance, targeted espionage and covert disruptions.  Here again, China leads the pack.  There are also efforts by governments to crowdsource antagonism against political enemies.  An example is Venezuala’s chavista communicational guerrillas and there are a number of others.

6.Soft power projection.

This works at various levels.  Communication is one.  Russia’s international television broadcaster, Russia Today, claims to reach 600 million people globally.  China has CCTV International.  Three themes now dominate China’s foreign communication:  ‘tell a good Chinese story”, the “Chinese dream’ (focusing on economic co-operation, with an emphasis on partnership and development) and “rich country, strong military” (which offers a softer version of hardline domestic communication on military matters).  Venezuala founded Telesur, an international television news channel.  It has international funding partners in Argentina, Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Uruguay, as well as information sharing agreements with Al Jazeera, Russia Today, Iran’s IRIB, China’s CCTV, as well as the BBC.

Another level of soft power is economic.  China and Russia both provide favourable economic access, investment opportunities and diplomatic support to authoritarian regimes. 

If democracies are modernizing, so are authoritarian regimes, and the outcome is in the balance. 

Charles Simkins
Senior Researcher