Exporting Repression

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written by
Daniel Calingaert
Executive Vice President

Authoritarian regimes around the world are exporting their worst practices and working together to repress their own citizens and undermine human rights standards internationally. They have collaborated extensively to strengthen their grip on power, often in the face of domestic discontent and international criticism. This cooperation, which might be dubbed “authoritarian internationalism,” presents a significant challenge to democracy around the world and has likely contributed to the decline in global freedom registered by Freedom House over the past seven years.

The interactions between authoritarian regimes are largely opaque, but they have become evident as methods of repression are replicated from country to country, direct assistance is provided across borders to crack down on dissent, and joint efforts are made to chip away at international protections for fundamental freedoms. Authoritarian internationalism is manifested in multiple ways:


Photo Credit: Malika Khurana
  • The “China model”: China, with its combination of rapid economic growth and political repression, presents an appealing policy model for other authoritarian regimes. It offers a supposed alternative to democracy as a route to prosperity, and its vague ideological emphasis on national sovereignty and the guiding role of a permanent ruling party is easily transferrable to other regimes that seek to resist international pressure and crush political opposition. However, the sustainability of China’s economic growth under the existing system is increasingly questioned by experts, and dictatorships that claim admiration for the Chinese example often function as mere kleptocracies, where economic gains come from the extraction of natural resources rather than industrial expansion and accrue largely to the benefit of a small elite.
     


Belarusian president Alyaksandr Lukashenka at Hugo Chávez's funeral.
Screengrab from Canal de n24fuenteno

  • Close ties between dictatorships: Authoritarian regimes have built extensive economic, military, and political ties with like-minded governments, both in their neighborhoods and further afield. The government of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, for example, provided $82 billion in grants and subsidies to more than 40 countries from 2005 to 2011, according to the opposition’s estimate, and established close relationships with distant countries, such as Iran, that have little in common beyond a shared opposition to democracy. The mutual affinity of dictators around the globe was on display during Chávez’s funeral on March 8, when Belarusian president Alyaksandr Lukashenka bade a tearful farewell to his Venezuelan counterpart.


    Counter protesters attack LGBT rights advocates peacefully demonstrating in Voronezh, Russia.
    Photo Credit: Article20.org
  • Replicating worst practices: Authoritarian regimes tend to adopt the same kinds of restrictive laws and policies as their peers. Their laws on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), for instance, often share features like ambiguous or onerous registration requirements, wide discretion for authorities to block NGO activities, and restrictions on foreign funding. Foreign prodemocracy groups have increasingly become the targets of repression; they were put on trial in Egypt, kicked out of the United Arab Emirates and Russia, and vilified in the media in Azerbaijan. The pattern of copying worst practices was evident most recently in a wave of bills to ban “homosexual propaganda” that were introduced in Russia, Ukraine, and other settings.
     
  • Technology exports: China has set the standard for sophisticated methods of control over the internet and actively exports technology for monitoring digital communications. It has reportedly supplied telephone and internet surveillance technology to Iran and Ethiopia and provided several Central Asian governments with telecommunications infrastructure that may increase their ability to spy on their own citizens.
     
  • Security service collaboration: While authoritarian regimes naturally try to avoid notice of cooperation between their security services, indications of such cooperation have surfaced. Cuban intelligence officials are reportedly working within Venezuelan government and military structures. Central Asian governments appear to have carried out several renditions of their citizens from Russia, probably with the complicity of Russian officials. And Russian opposition activist Leonid Razvozzhayev was abducted last October in broad daylight in Kyiv, where he was seeking political asylum, then driven to Russia, abused, and pressured into signing a confession.
     
  • Military intervention: When heavy-handed police methods are insufficient to quell unrest, authoritarian regimes at times intervene militarily to save a fellow dictator. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates sent troops into Bahrain in March 2011 to help put down peaceful protests. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are reportedly advising Syrian generals and using Hezbollah to build a large Syrian militia to fight in support of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
     
  • Challenging international norms: In an effort to blunt international criticism, authoritarian regimes seek to water down accepted international standards for human rights. Russia has sponsored a series of resolutions at the UN Human Rights Council to recognize “traditional values,” which serve as a handy excuse to infringe on the universal values of human rights that are codified in UN conventions. At the World Conference on International Communications last December, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, and other authoritarian states pushed for an international treaty to give governments greater control over the internet.
     
  • Undermining international institutions: Authoritarian governments have tried to impede and even gut international institutions that protect political and civil rights. Russia and like-minded Eurasian dictatorships have made concerted efforts to hamper the ability of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to issue hard-hitting observation reports on flawed elections. Meanwhile, Ecuador is leading leftist-populist governments in its region in attempts to stifle the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, particularly by defunding the special rapporteur for freedom of expression, who has strongly criticized restrictions on media in Ecuador and elsewhere in Latin America.


    Muratbek Imanaliyev and Vladimir Putin.
    Photo Credit: Premier.gov.ru
  • Counter-organizations: At the same time, authoritarian regimes have built up their own regional organizations to provide a counterweight to existing international institutions. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is a prime example. It promotes security and economic cooperation between China, Russia, and neighboring Central Asian states. The Commonwealth of Independent States’ Election Monitoring Organization directly challenges the OSCE by white-washing flawed elections. It called Ukraine’s parliamentary elections last October “transparent and democratic”; the OSCE said they were “a step backwards” and criticized the lack of a level playing field, of transparency in campaign finance, and of balanced media coverage.

The reach and vigor of authoritarian internationalism point to the need for democratic countries to bolster their own cooperation. The pushback against democracy extends beyond the borders of autocratic states and threatens international norms and institutions that contribute to global stability. The world’s democracies cannot afford to let the authoritarian challenge go unanswered.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.