How to deal with autocracies?

Authoritarian regimes with populist inclinations are becoming more viable. The dominant debate about a spreading democratization, so popular after the ‘Charter of Paris for a New Europe’ was adopted in 1990, is at least partly being replaced by the discussion of re-autocratization. Everyone following the news knows something about the current usual suspects: Russia, China, Turkey, Hungary, Poland, and, maybe, even the U.S. after the November elections.

Previously, there was a clear policy in many Western countries to go into ‘difficult’ societies and find partners in fields like education, law, finances, institution building, and civil society in general. Once the economies would take off, middle classes would emerge, and, so went the assumption, participation would spread, and democracy surely would blossom.

Now, we have more doubts than certainties regarding this classical ‘modernization’ thesis. Does it really make sense to keep trying and engage those countries in joint activities, projects and programs, summer schools, FDI with dubious property rights, support for Rule of Law training programs that officially are not welcome or even weakened, etc., including putting partners potentially at risk? Or should we be more realistic (if that’s what it is), pack up and leave for good?

– Prof. Klaus Segbers


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  1. Justas Paleckis 2 years ago

    If our planet in the coming decades will not be devastated by one or another global
    catastrophe, it will still change beyond recognition. We will have to get used not only to a
    multipolar but also many-faced, more dangerous and more fragile world. Not much hope that it will uniformed by Western standards. Especially now when the EU is ceasing to be an example.

    Rising standards of living and the spread of democracy both going hand in hand is possible. But under condition that this process is accompanied by the elimination of the widening gap between rich and poor – people and countries. After the fall of dictatorial “barracks socialism” this aspect is forgotten, the middle class in many countries is weakening. This is one of the main reasons of the authoritarian regimes and populists entrenchment. And yet going into “difficult” societies, strengthening relations between people and institutions remain important. Yes, partners often put at risk. But time of allegedly insurmountable concrete walls has passed.

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  2. Sergei Medvedev 2 years ago

    There is much more to humanitarianism than promoting democracy, transforming societies, and generally speaking, “modernizing”. It is not utilitarian in a direct way — i.e. creating Western-friendly regimes and societies. Rather, this is not a political, but a moral issue — trying to help individuals and groups even in non-welcoming and non-receptive environments (unless this could be detrimental or dangerous for the recipients). The West cannot simply disengage because regimes and societies are not willing to accept change; there is a moral obligation to reach out to those in need.

    But also from a practical perspective, it is important to keep a foothold and a vital link to the societies in the countries in question. The global sway of right populism may not be long-lasting, it looks like the ‘1930s lite’, a postmodern re-enactment of 20th-century ideologies and cleavages. With a view to the future, the spirit of cooperation shall be preserved.

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  3. Irina Busygina 2 years ago

    As for me, there are in fact at least two big questions here: (1) what are the reasons for the growing support of authoritarianism in the world? (2) what should “we” do? With regard to the first question, I’d say that, at the individual level, there are two interrelated reasons: the first one being fears of the threats like terrorism, transnational crime, refugees, etc. (common man usually puts them all into one “box”). In fact, these are fears of general unpredictability, when threats and dangers emerge faster than our adaptation. The second reason is the obvious or apparent incapability of liberal democracies (and their Union) to cope with the threats, at least to proposal feasible agenda of doing this. However, I’d like to stress that so far we don’t know how sustainable is this authoritarian trend. We made a mistake counting on the irreversible trend to democracy, so probably, now we overestimate the reverse trend? What to do? “Pack up and leave” is a bad idea for many reasons. Just to mention two: these ‘points of entry” (through education, etc.) provide with the opportunity to see what is going on in the country from inside, and these contacts also give the local population (young people, first of all) the possibility to make choices, and not to accept passively the official propaganda.

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  4. Alexei Voskressenski 2 years ago

    The transition toward a system of open socio-political access undergoes several stages of development. One of the explanations of the trajectory of development (the so-called issue of the political cross-roads) is connected with the possibility or the impossibility of maintaining the balance of factors regulating on the one hand the openness of the system of sociopolitical access, on the other hand, the necessity of maintaining political order, without which development is entirely impossible and, simultaneously, overcoming the possibility of political chaos, if the opening of access occurs suddenly, in the course of unexpected economic or political crisis in the system. The theoretical explanations and practical consequences of this dilemma are explained in my new book “Is Non-Western Democracy Possible? What Russians Think on Asian and African Politics in a Comparative Perspective” forthcoming in 2017 by a leading Singaporean academic publisher World Scientific. The question is who and how may implement the elaborated conclusions and suggestions?

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  5. Andrey Makarychev 2 years ago

    A major conceptual flaw from the part of the West is that democracy ceased to be treated as a very peculiar (if not exotic, as seen from Oriental perspective) and extremely vulnerable type of governance. In its stead, democracy became a matter of political technology, reproducible and duplicable in conditions radically different from the West. Ultimately, it is the universalisation of democracy that undermined the credibility of the concept. Under these conditions there is no option other than coming back to country-specific approach to democracy, and do away with a simplistic idea of a demarcation line that allegedly separates it from non-democracies. A less ideological outlook would certainly confirm that mechanisms of totalisation are part of Western democratic discourses too.

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  1. Arseniy Frolov 2 years ago

    Indeed, rise of populism and infatuation with easy(and wrong) decisions for complex problems challanges the political stability of young democracies, and the authoritarian inclinations are indeed tend to gain the upper hand.

    No wonder the effectiveness of academic and social engagement is being questioned as the results are far too modest compared to the used resources.
    Still, i believe we should withdraw from rush decisions and consider the following arguments:
    1. As we see from the American elections, the West itself is now from the authoritarian leanings. As the scholars and political analytics struggle to unveil the causes of these tendencies, the transition countries which are in the grey zone can provide additional data for analysis and cases for better understanding of the phenomenon. In this regard continious dialogue with people inside such countries is essential.
    2. Even though such programmes may lack in results inside the host country, nevertheless they can provide steady influx of taleted youth in the Western countries. The alumni of such programmes are usually better prepared to continue their education abroad and are streamlined to enter the western academic and political discourse.
    3. On the top of that, such programmes provide comfortable framework for exchange of ideas and visions on the world. There are ideas with complement or even compete with the Westen mainstream. It would be more sensible to preserve and nourish this channel of mutual enrichment rather than aborting it altogether.

    To sum up, in spite of the fact that these programmes may not look very effective at first glance, they still bear a number of important fuctions which are worth preserving.

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    1. Zoltán Eperjesi 2 years ago

      It is obvious that long-lasting effects of economic recession and fear of social unrests have led authoritarian regimes to implement tools of apparatus of power. They fight against their own dissident movements, while waves of mass migration and spread of new forms of terrorism in 2015/16 intensified the occurrence of prejudiced thoughts concerning foreigners even in Western democracies. Besides, is relevant to mention some latest developments a in several states with authoritarian governments inclusively in Eastern Europe, (within the EU), the deficit in revenues, mostly generated by decreasing commodity prices led rigid powermongers to increase their personal political domination. That means they picked up again that kind of rhetoric that is openly directed against perceived foreign external/internal enemies, but in the meantime economically this also involves the implementation of a set of new protectionist measures, thus the return to new kind of protectionism and the centralisation of key institutions. The legitimisation practices of authoritarian rulers towards masses are also based on additional observable facts as growing Euroscepticism and the reinforcement of hate against significant global players. Charismatic rulers are really keen to keep certain uncertainties alive within the population and besides they are prepared to attack potential competition by provocative formulations at national/international levels to profit regionally. It is much easier to implement such superficial tactics instead to take part on constructive debates (mostly want to avoid sane criticism or culture of debate). Moreover, some of these new forms of populism within the EU, but also outside are fully loaded with various patriotic and nationalistic slogans and concepts by trying to control the beliefs of the target audience to mobilise them in certain directions. Demagogue political ideas have tradition in certain European countries as it can be tied to historical contents and for example to the label of Antemurale Christianitatis used for a state that was defending the borders of Christian Europe from the expeditions of conquest of the Ottoman army. Accordingly, the strong image of the external enemy was not disappearing after the Ottoman Wars in Europe and remained in the collective memory being strengthened by linearly written historical narratives. Furthermore, it was embedded in several rhetorical frameworks in the modern era (nationalism), before and during the world wars but even afterwards in the times of communism. In this respect certain unprocessed legacies of the Cold War era are pivotal as ”masses” were not enlightened as much as necessary (education, media) not even in the post-Cold era about the above mentioned sophisticated bequests. Thus, the reinforced image of the foreign enemy is going hand in hand with its counterpart, as it should be accepted that in this difficult times there is need for strong protectors. In this way, autocrats are making reference to various current topics, but they are also invoking the issue of dangerous insecurity gaps, which is mostly constructed on half-truths and biased ideas by trying to legitimate their actions to prove: there is permanent need of hardliners. This is one modality to generally address the re-emerging model of authoritarianism partially incubated “right in the middle” of modern European societies. A basic lesson for the EU. It bears mentioning that there were many complicated diplomatic and hidden practices of different Western official institutions with radical organisations and regimes during the Cold War era: also an unprocessed legacy. However, democratic governments are now subject to pressure because of terrorist attacks and unprecedented numbers of refugees. Problems emanating from financial crisis and regional conflicts such as the Syrian civil war are putting Europe to the proof. On the top of lingering economic problems there is Europe’s inability to mediate among its 28 member states in order to commonly manage the surge of asylum seekers from Syria and other conflict regions. Could be seen as pretext for populists to slander against the EU and the liberal, universal values that it represents. The discussion of re-autocratization shows the volatility of political regimes with populist inclinations on the one hand; and the difficulties of long lasting democratization processes on the other hand.
      According to my opinion, it is relevant to continue the previous trend of Western countries to keep relations with agents of complicated societies in order to find associates even if current economic frameworks are quite unfavourable or the middle classes of certain societies are still very fragile and the models of democracy are weak or at least only fake patterns. Why so? Because perseverance of transnational ties partially generated the breakdown of communist dictatorial regimes; endurance of East- and West Germans was ending in a miracle, consequently the unification of Germany without the use of military hardware. Accordingly, the focus on exchange of ideas, networking, internationally constituted commissions, clarifying events through the free media and various other factors influenced positively the final outcome.
      Indeed, today it seems that there are more worries than confidence concerning the classical modernization thesis, but is that the only framework that Western societies have to offer? Even if the answer would be yes, there is a possibility to shift to alternative paradigms within this outline. The concept of modernization began in the late 19th century being popular among scholars in the mid-20th century. According to D.C Tipps, (1973, vol. 15, no. 02, pp. 200-225) the idea of modernization is primarily an American thought, shaped by social scientists in the period after the Second World War that was very well-known in the middle of the 60s. Certain scientific consensus put it as westernization or the implementation of correlated development standards to adjust the out-dated agrarian to contemporary industrialized society. This scientific assumption is still used now and again to elucidate the process of modernization within societies. It aimed to recommend the sample of industrialized countries to underdeveloped with the fundamental presumptions of transfer of technological experience from developed to non-industrialized countries. It highlighted the significance of societies being open to reforms and perceived reactionary regimes as negative because they hinder progress. Accordingly, Tipps searched to consider specialized literature in order to discover its weaknesses and made possible to think critically about definitions of modernization. Critical aspects gathered by Tipps regarding the thesis was an important step to examine modernization theory on critical perspective, as well; but his study remained uncompleted: doesn’t stresses the pros and cons of modernization wihin society. Instead presented various other aspects but missed to clarify the function of regional/global actors (international organizations, regional organizations, and non-governmental organizations). Tipps also failed to identify the direct and comparative connections between the features which could have an effect on society during the change process from traditional to modern nation state. He mainly focused on the characteristics of transformation in society by highlighting and underlining modernization as industrialization/westernization. A direct but quite ineffective method of synthesizing societal developments, because it hasn’t described realistic socio-economic consequences of implementing/imitating the modernization pattern in least developed or developing states. Every nation state or at the micro level each social group, has its own special course of transformation which can’t be changed at once, at a moment as requested from certain actors. Theorists assumed that the implementation of the American or European industrial revolution will help countries to directly develop into modern nation state, which is a mistaken way in my view, because some of these processes are still in progress even now. Furthermore, in the 21st century, the world became a global village where no agent can simply avoid the shaping power of IT at micro-societal levels. Consequently, I am often surprised mainly about two facets concerning the applicability of modernization theory. 1. How contemporary societies in our world could have profited by transformation either through industrialization or prompt modernization of society without directly dissecting initial values in current context? 2. ITC is now pioneer by the spread of various modernization trends. It completely changed the manner how people think, communicate study, as well the way how companies trade (e-comm). Thus, it is to see how modernization theory can be helpful to deal with socio-economic and socio-political change of societies in the frame of sustainability and improvement. Furthermore, global matters as growing inequality, conflicts, human rights, unemployment, state of law, transparency and accountability, or even sustainability were not processed within this thesis. Therefore, is possible to revisit modernization theory and concentrate on emerging European issues in order to identify where autocratic rulers stay and are positioning themselves currently in our modern world? The EU has to focus on its own cohesion. However, agents should not put partners potentially at risk: therefore, in certain cases it has to be monitorized (in-depth case study) if it is it still worth to engage countries ruled by autocrats in joint activities as basically a good partnership needs at least two sides ready to cooperate. If this is not the case there are many possibilities to signify the wrong behavior of such partners who are often isolating themselves from others.
      Zoltán Eperjesi

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  2. worldklaus 2 years ago

    The political reality is limiting the leverage democracies have against autocracies considerable, Chancellor Merkel’s toothless politic against Erdogan’s autocratic style is a prime example. The “European Press and Media Freedom project”, co-founded by the European Commission, encourages transnational independent journalism. Can Dundar, believes his live sentences in Turkey was only revoked after intents international pressure. Maybe encouraging and fostering transnational journalism is our best alternative, as it is much more difficult for autocratic leaders to go after international journalists. Transnational Journalism as the core of international pressure on autocratic rulers, coordinated by the European Commission, maybe worth the additional funding.

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    1. Zoltán Eperjesi 2 years ago

      This summary is based on the German writing of Johannes Gerschewski as quoted at the end of this writing.

      Autocratic rule is mainly constructed on key issues that stabilize the state order as legitimization, repression and cooptation. European and German foreign policy must be aware of the major role of soft repression with the main task to hinder initiatives of civil society and independent media if they really want to consolidate democratic developments in the world. Although a wide range of different autocratic regimes can be identified today, it is to observe that differences within non-democracies is often much greater than that between democracy and autocracy. However, certain autocratic regimes survived crises, while others collapsed. There are strong examples of repressive regimes as in Equatorial Guinea, North Korea, or Syria that engulfed in a civil war, on the one side. Regimes as those installed in the younger Vietnam or Singapore, on the other side are mostly searching to legitimize themselves less by the implementation of repressive tools as by their economic success story. Besides, certain Communist regimes survived even after 1989/90 with a new image to the outside world but in varying degrees sticking to their original ideological principles, – or as the Chinese case clearly shows they have almost turned into their opposite. Additional noticeable tendencies are: politicization along ethnic fault lines (reinforcement of nationalism) and radicalization of religiously shaped regimens. The design of autocratic regimes is also very different if considering their power structure: there is the traditionally oriented monarchy or the kleptocratic autocracy model (robbing the state for its own purposes). Additionally, there is the personalistically oriented (one ruler) model usually fitted with patrimonial networks, which in turn has to be distinguished from autocracies with long established institutionalized structures. The latter ones are usually supported by strong parties that are sustaining autocratic regimes due to particularly regulated conflict resolution in their own interests. Assuming that by most of the autocratic regimes, the aforementioned three features (repression, legitimization cooptation) used to stabilize the state order are available it is quiet problematic to make out the additional defining characteristics for example tied to the exercise of repression in order to get a profile definition. Concerning additional defining characteristics for instance one could distinguish between the violation of personal integrity rights, known as hard repression and the restriction of political participation rights also named soft repression. The former version includes political detention, torture or sudden disappearance of persons and the assassination of opposition members, whereas soft repression, comprises the limitation of freedoms like the right to practice religion, to move, to gather and liberty of the press. Thus, the soft repression restricts especially the political participation of civil society actors: a phenomenon that has been elucidated by T. Carothers as “closing space”. The second basis, thus cooptation of autocratic rule, involves the circumstance that strategic economic and military elites are intertwined with the political regime: – by means of concessions and offices in formal bodies such as party and parliaments or patrimonial networks, be which the elites were bought. Latest factors are very important system prerequisites nowdays for authoritarian leaders as they often work with a carrot and a stick or incentives and punishments. However, according to latest developments in the EU and outside it (Turkey) , I consider it essential to not to ignore the third basic, thus legitimization. It is quite assumable that even autocracies have to legitimate themselves to be stable in the long term. Latest events are clearly showing that autocracies optionally make reference in various directions in order to legitimate their current status: politicized religions, scattered nationalisms or strong political ideologies, as well as by their economic success, the production of specific public goods and the propagation of law and order. Accordingly, by legitimisation tyey are trying to generate political support within the masses; by repression to control the political demands of the system; and by cooptation to assure the cohesion among its elites. Restriction of the political possibility space of civil society is more important for the stabilization of non-democratic dominance as to bind strategic elites from military and economy to the autocratic core. Although a high degree of legitimacy through economic performance and social achievements also has a stabilizing effect, but this basic assures not so far-reaching effects as in the case of trying to reduce the freedoms of civil society. The same is true for the cooptation basic. Surprisingly the soft repression tools seems to be the most successful in respect to the longevity of autocracies. These strategies are supporting the longevity of autocracies.

      Moreover, according to the study “Vom Umgang mit autoritären Systemen” ( Johannes Gerschewski wrote the following: “One finding, it is to be emphasized here. We can show that soft repression is the main tool to maintain power, hard repression, however, often causes the opposite. Reminder: hard repression was defined through the violation of personal integrity rights (politically motivated detention, torture, murder, “disappearances”). This form of repression of opposition members has rather a destabilizing effect on the autocratic regime. It is therefore more likely to be interpreted as a sign of weakness than of strength of the regime. What is the meaning of such an analysis for dealing with autocracies? Authoritarian Great Powers such as China and Russia, regionally highly interconnected countries like Iran, Egypt or Nigeria and resource-rich nations like Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan and Venezuela are major challenges for the German and European foreign policy. The historical, power political, regional and geopolitical complexity of individual cases complicates any type of generalized advices. Foreign policy is always a game on two levels – on the one side the genuin foreign policy arena in the interaction with the international counterparts and on the other side in the consideration of domestic restrictions. Herein autocracies do not differ from democracies.
      However, on the domestic side, we can demonstrate that autocracies especially stabilize over soft repression. The restriction of civil society actors is the key for maintaining autocratic regimes. There are not the often even medially spreaded hard-repressive measures, but the small needle pricks against political participation. Autocracies aim to stifle collective action in the bud. Displeasure may indeed be expressed by the population, but these malcontents should not meet. Political involvement is only cutted at this threshold. Opposition nuclei and democratic enclaves must not join together from the perspective of autocratic regimes. German and European external policy must be aware of the prominent meaning of soft repression for the obstruction of civil society initiatives if they are aimed to adhere to the idea of strengthening democracy worldwide. Soft repression is necessary for non-democratic rule and here it would be required to take action more decisively against violations of political participation rights. The comprehensive analysis of all Autocracies since 1945 implies at least that such courage would be rewarded.” (Source: Dieser Beitrag ist im Vorfeld zur 16. Außenpolitischen Jahrestagung der Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung vom 18. und 19. Juni 2015 entstanden.)

      This is only one publicly accessible study that shows the preparedness of the German Federal Foreign Office in dealing with autocratic rule. A closer reading of the study also shows the traditional logic of German diplomacy based on bilateral realtions and agreements, which is often the entrance for additional diplomatic relations and the lever to attract or encircle other partners. To bulldoze one’s way is only in very rare cases successful – and then only temporarily. Rather intuition and diplomacy is needed. Many people think that diplomacy is a “hollow art” that works with delay, flattery and lies. Thus, it often has a very bad reputation. However, diplomacy can be also understood differently: as high art by the use of interpersonal sense of tact, negotiating skills and strategic approach to achieve the partially predetermined (to be negotiated stage) objectives. To come to a conclusion I will close with the words of Can Dündar: Turkey is a free country. You can say anything. You only have to pay the price for it. (Source:

      Zoltán Eperjesi

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