Dr Stephen Hall is a Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in Russian and Post-Soviet Politics at the University of Bath. His new book ‘The Authoritarian International‘ (Cambridge University Press, 2023) explores how authoritarian regimes in the post-Soviet space learn from each other. If you would like to know more, join us on 12 September for an online discussion of Stephen’s book.
In 2012, during the Arab Spring, Head of the Russian Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, flew to Algiers to meet his Algerian counterpart, Rachid Lallali. They discussed ‘the prospects for the development of the situation in the Middle East and North Africa’. This vague phrasing gleaned from the Russian Security Council website masks the visit’s real purpose: to swap notes on how to stifle popular uprisings.
The Algerian regime had quickly reacted to protests linked to the Arab Spring, thus successfully evading regime change like in Egypt or Tunisia, or a civil war scenario like in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Patrushev was on a fact-finding mission to determine how the Algerian regime had stopped protests and not experienced the same problems as other North African and Middle Eastern autocracies. In short, Patrushev was learning directly from Algerian success.
This example highlights the role learning plays in the development of survival practices among autocracies. No autocrat wants to share the gruesome fate of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. They would much rather die in their beds at a ripe old age, like Spain’s Francisco Franco. Therefore, autocrats – and authoritarian-minded leaders – want to have an effective survival toolbox to use when times get tough.
Modern authoritarian regimes have developed ‘spin’ techniques. These regimes have become media savvy and have developed tactics that allow them to manipulate media sources and control narratives, without having to rely on naked repression to maintain power. Of course, having a large coercive capacity is crucial, but repression is expensive and difficult to get right. Repress too hard and it may create a zero-sum game, with protesters prepared to countenance the regime’s violent overthrow. Repress too little and the regime looks weak, emboldening protesters to stay on the streets in an attempt to outlast the regime.
Therefore, authoritarian regimes have developed other strategies to ensure regime survival, including legitimation techniques such as pseudo-free elections or co-optation of other elites who can support the regime when times get tough.
The Authoritarian International
These practices are not developed in a vacuum. Rather authoritarian regimes take inspiration from survival strategies used by other autocracies or previous domestic regimes. Thus, authoritarian regimes are constantly learning and adapting. To develop effective survival strategies, it takes more than browsing Google. Direct knowledge exchange is key. For example, much of the Kremlin’s first preventive efforts to counter Colour Revolutions in the mid-2000s came from direct dialogue with Belarus.
Cooperation between authoritarian regimes is regular and comprehensive. Personnel in authoritarian regimes are constantly meeting and exchanging ideas. This is happening at all levels of power, not just at the top echelons of these regimes. These regimes are aware that the collapse of one weakens other authoritarian regimes in the neighbourhood and can spark a wave of autocratic collapse across a region, like with the Arab Spring.
Consequently, authoritarian regimes cooperate to prevent such domino effects. Some authoritarian regimes serve as models for others, with China, Russia, and Singapore having a certain pull of attraction. This is especially the case for leaders with authoritarian tendencies in weak democracies – or autocracies – who are looking for examples on how to effectively consolidate power.
However, inter-regime knowledge exchange is multidirectional. Authoritarian regimes must get the tactics right every time whereas protesters – or other actors seeking regime change – only must get it right once. Consequently, every authoritarian regime is ready to take lessons from others to enhance their palette of survival practices. Even regional hegemons – like Russia in the post-Soviet space – will take examples from other authoritarian regimes when needed, particularly if they are established autocracies.
Cooperation between authoritarian regimes is particularly institutionalised at the regional level. This is the case, for instance, in the post-Soviet space, with regional organisations acting as learning rooms for authoritarian regimes. These organisations provide opportunities for regular meetings across multiple ministerial levels. Similarly, these organisations provide institutions to collect the legislation of all members, allowing others to see, for example, what the legislation of Kazakhstan is on Internet restrictions. Finally, regional organisations provide opportunities to test best practices with training exercises, for instance those ostensibly aimed at counter-terrorism. The definition of terrorism is broad in these regional organisations, and there are examples of these organisations developing best practices against ‘terrorists’ who take to the streets with banners – otherwise known as protesters.
While authoritarian regimes are constantly collaborating with one another, learning also occurs at a domestic level. This has been an understudied aspect of authoritarian learning. Elites in established authoritarian regimes will analyse previous policies used domestically and ascertain if the same policy can be used again. In states with weaker regime longevity, elites have often been in several governments and so will bring ideas from previous governments into their present role. What may work in Baku may not necessarily work in Toshkent. However, what worked in Toshkent previously may well work again.
Authoritarian regimes are adaptive but also susceptible to mistakes
Through learning and regular cooperation these regimes are increasing their chances of survival. This has wider implications for the ongoing struggle over the values and norms that shape the global order. As authoritarian longevity is increased, these regimes become more attractive models for authoritarian minded elites elsewhere, reinforcing the perception that autocracy is a viable alternative political model to democracy. Indeed, countries such as China are actively promoting their political system as a model “that works”.
However, this is not the whole story. Authoritarian regimes are susceptible to collapse as they must get it right all the time, and they run the risk of learning the wrong lessons or remaining in power too long, thus losing the capacity to learn and adapt. Therefore, democracies should maintain support for democracy activists, supporting civil society, offering easy access visas for those facing persecution and supporting independent media. We cannot stop authoritarian regimes from learning, but we can maintain constant pressure, forcing them into making mistakes, thereby initiating their own demise.