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Around the time that the Soviet Union formally disintegrated and Communism’s demise was acknowledged, a friend, an exile who had participated in the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, predicted that a form of the old system would return, “Only this time without the stupidities.”
By the “stupidities,” he meant those instruments of repression that had unnecessarily alienated ordinary people or condemned societies under Communist rule to a permanent second-class status. For starters, official atheism. Likewise, the imposition of state control on all institutions in what is today called civil society, including the Scouts movement, chess clubs, and shelters for battered women. Finally, of course, total state domination of the economy.
In today’s Russia, we have a partial, but nonetheless dismaying, vindication of my friend’s prediction. Religion is not only tolerated, the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church have been raised to an exalted status by the Putin leadership. Putin routinely invokes religious history and values to justify his policies, including repressive actions and the invasion of his neighbors. Civil society organizations are permitted to function, as long as they avoid entanglement in political affairs. As for the economy, Putin has instituted a system that combines the free market with heavy state involvement and rampant corruption, a kind of stratified crony capitalism.
Under the system of modern authoritarianism that predominates in Russia, Venezuela, Iran, and China, the repressive features are meant to enable the leaders to retain a monopoly of power and, increasingly, to prevent a genuine opposition to threaten the elite’s authority. Here are the principal instruments of control:
Elections: The major goal is to mobilize the resources of the state to ensure the outcome of elections well before Election Day. This requires tolerating weak or pliant opposition parties or even creating sham parties that make no effort at genuine competition. Potentially strong opposition leaders are dealt with through trumped up legal cases, with corruption charges the usual vehicle. Media coverage is not merely biased but intended to make opposition candidates seem buffoonish, extreme, or unpatriotic.
Media: Nothing is more critical to a successful authoritarian than control of the political message. Modern authoritarians do not use the old techniques of censorship. Instead, they gain control of the principal sources of news—often national television stations—through state ownership or ownership by the leader’s cronies. Critical voices are excluded from the airwaves while the leadership’s policies are given extensive, positive coverage.
Internet: For some time, the internet was the major source of opposition perspectives. Recently, however, things have changed, as country after country has imposed controls on new media content, usually by blocking websites or blogs operated by the opposition.
Protests: With elections effectively rigged, the opposition has often taken their case to the streets through demonstrations and sometimes creative forms of street theater. This weapon, however, has been put in jeopardy by laws which effectively make protests illegal. In some countries, protest leaders are being prosecuted for treason.
Universities: A traditional haven for freedom of thought, universities are increasingly finding themselves under pressure. In the past several months, professors with dissenting views have been fired in both China and Russia.
Civil Society: Civil society organizations are permitted to function normally as long as they avoid sensitive political issues. But non-governmental organizations that defend political prisoners, investigate cases of corruption, or monitor elections are eventually destroyed through tax prosecutions, libel suits, or bogus corruption accusations.
Judges: During Communist days, politically charged legal cases were often decided through “telephone justice,” whereby the judge would be instructed on the decision and sentence by a call from party officials. Political control of the judiciary is a core feature of today’s authoritarian regimes. While defendants in political cases occasionally avoid prison time, the fact that the prosecution occasionally “loses” a case reinforces the capricious and unpredictable nature of the system.
Increasingly, we are seeing a template for dictators being forged by the world’s most durable despots. By ridding themselves of the stupidities, today’s authoritarians may have created a system that is more part of the real world of trade and diplomacy, less identified with a foreign power, and therefore less vulnerable to outside pressure than was Soviet communism. While the gains that accompanied the end of the Cold War remain largely in place, democracy is today facing its most serious challenge of the past quarter-century.
Arch Puddington is vice president for research at Freedom House and a Fellow in Human Freedom at the Bush Center.
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