The Authoritarian International goes on the defensive

By Chrystia Freeland
February 4, 2011

It has been a bad couple of weeks for what Vitali Silitski, a political scientist, calls the Authoritarian International.

Mr. Silitski is from Belarus — a good background for studying authoritarian rulers — and he is a student of the troubling way in which the world’s autocrats responded to the “color” revolutions in some former Soviet republics a few years ago by increasing repression at home and forming a loose international support group.

China is the star of this Authoritarian International, with its robust growth guided by a government that quashed the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests but now wins plaudits even from many Western business leaders who concede that it is often better at getting things done than querulous democracies.

But just as the Authoritarian International drew strength from the Chinese model and the so-called “Beijing Consensus” it inspired, the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia have been unsettling for the world’s unelected rulers.

“When you see somebody like Chávez in Venezuela reaching out to somebody like Ahmadinejad it is clear these authoritarian regimes are forming an alliance that helps them to maintain their control,” Aryeh Neier, the president of the Open Society foundations, said, referring to President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran. “If I were Hu Jintao,” he said of the Chinese president, “I would be nervous at this moment.”

If you happen to be a dictator, the scariest thing about the Egyptian uprising is its suddenness.

Mohamed A. El-Erian, chief executive of the bond giant Pimco, is the son of an Egyptian diplomat, holds an Egyptian passport, and spent much of his childhood in Egypt. He is an expert in emerging markets, where regime change is the norm, and he spent Christmas with his family in Egypt. But he, like everyone else, was taken by surprise.

“These processes aren’t linear,” Mr. El-Erian said. “Nothing happens, and nothing happens and nothing happens, and then everything happens. The protest movement got ahead of policy makers in both Egypt and the West.”

That was certainly true last week at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, which largely ignored the world-changing events in the Middle East in its long-set official program. Yet Egypt was the talk of the corridors and cafes, and, apart from the Arab participants, some of the most riveted were the Russians.

That is because, as the Russian opposition leader Boris Y. Nemtsov said by telephone from Moscow this week, “many in Russia are drawing direct parallels between Mubarak and Putin.”

A key similarity between the Egyptian leader and Prime Minister Valdimir Vladimir V. Putin, in the view of Mr. Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister and provincial governor, is that “both are corrupt regimes and both regimes have been about the enrichment of a small group of people around the leader.”

Mr. El-Erian agrees that the gap between the super-privileged and everyone else was an Achilles’ heel of the Mubarak regime.

That weakness was invisible — or deemed irrelevant — to many because of the growth of the economy overall.

But the lesson of history is that the most fragile authoritarian regimes aren’t necessarily the poorest ones. They are often those where the economy is doing reasonably well, but where gains are unequally shared. Hence, for example, the complaints in Tunisia about the enrichment of Leila Trabelsi, wife of the deposed president, and her family.

“In Egypt, there was an income distribution problem, even though the economy was growing impressively,” Mr. El-Erian said. “But there wasn’t enough trickle down.”

China’s mandarins are seen by some as the world’s smartest authoritarians. One example might be the information war that China has waged around the events in Egypt, restricting online access to independent news while in the official media emphasizing the “chaos” attendant upon the uprising.

Another is that Chinese leaders are conscious of their vulnerability to public perceptions that Communist Party rule is about enriching the cadres, rather than generating prosperity as a whole. That is why the most surprising story out of China recently was the conviction of Li Qiming, son of a senior police official, who ran over and killed a young woman.

At some level, the Russians have listened. Speaking in Davos before the uprising in Egypt had gathered true force, President Dmitri A. Medvedev said: “What happened in Tunisia, I think, is quite a substantial lesson to learn for any authorities. The authorities must not simply sit in their convenient chairs but develop themselves together with the society. When the authorities don’t catch up with the development of the society, don’t meet the aspiration of the people, the outcome is very sad.”

Mr. Nemtsov doesn’t think that Russia’s rulers will necessarily heed that advice. Russia has oil, he noted, “but the Russian regime is so corrupt it requires the price of oil to constantly increase. Oil won’t save Putin.”

For the West, one conclusion must be that even though authoritarian plutocrats can be easier to work with than dissidents — a few weeks ago, Hillary Rodham Clinton, the U.S. secretary of state, has spoken publicly about her warm personal friendship with Mr. Mubarak and his wife, Suzanne, who has upheld women’s rights — staying close to the activists is not just morally justifiable, it is pragmatic, too.

Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister, wrote in an e-mail that one indirect consequence of the uprising in Egypt will be that “Western governments will be more alert to the need to reach out to civil society in these societies and be more proactive on some sort of democracy agenda.”

He sent that message from Warsaw, where he was working to support the beleaguered opposition in Belarus.

Indeed, the hardest part of overthrowing authoritarian regimes is often the day after. “If you look at the most successful transitions — Poland, Mexico, Taiwan — they’ve been long hauls,” said Lucan Way, a political scientist at the University of Toronto. “You want there to be established oppositions, and that doesn’t happen in a two-week period.”

Mr. Silitski argues that the Authoritarian International was emboldened by the disappointing performances of the governments that were installed by the color revolutions — the Rose Revolution in Georgia, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan.

What one might dub the Democracy International could be needed now to prevent a similarly disappointing second act in the Arab world.

11 comments

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The operating paradigm here is the internet, and the operating architecture of the internet is Claude Shannon’s Information Theory. Though it is a dense work, prone to obscure mathematics periodically, there are really three important rules at work.

#1 – Information breaks down hierarchies.
#2 – The more plausible a message sounds, the less new information it contains.
#3 – The most flexible node on a network becomes the controlling node on the network.

Take those to heart, and the long range trajectory on all this stuff is fairly obvious.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive

Lets see how much he takes out of the Egyptian when he goes and how much he has already banked of the Egyptian peoples money. Simple problem GREED !

Posted by Zanty | Report as abusive

The simple measage to authoritarian rulers, be they political or corporate is: the trickle down effect has to work equitably to enable civil societies in all political cultures.

Posted by haveapulse | Report as abusive

It seems like the underlying issue is not inequality. Rather it is a sense people have concerning whether they have a chance to improve their lot. People who have a chance to improve their lot for the benefit of themselves and their families focus on that activity and care little about the wealthy other than wanting to become wealthy. People who feel confined to their current circumstances with no chance to improve it become irritable. Sooner or later a stimulus will come that leads them to action and their actions feed on each other in a classical chaotic bifurcation. The interesting application is to America. For our whole history people have had a chance to improve their lot and people have focused on that even during periods of massive inequalities of wealth. The result has been an engine driven by private ambition that made us the wealthiest and most successful and powerful of nations. In the current situation we have a socialist Obama government obsessed with destroying the wealthy (other than their crony capitalist donors like Immelt and the financial giants) and imposing socialism on the masses with endless regulations, high taxes, protected teachers unions crippling educational opportunities and an endless series of barriers to the accumulation of personal wealth. The end result of their system will be to put a roof on how high Americans can advance (again excluding their crony capitalist allies and wealthy donors like the Kennedys) – an imposition of economic stagnation we can see developing all around us. So far, with the aid of an ideologically driven leftist mainstream media the Obama left have blamed the stagnation on factors other than its root cause – government policies and redistribution. But people are not stupid. Eventually they will understand that under conditions of economic freedom, low taxation and lower regulation personal economic progress was possible but under Obama’s policy of socialism for the masses and subsidies for the crony capitalists their personal prospects are crippled. It will take time for this awareness to develop – but develop it will and with it a fundamental change in the relationship of the American people to their government, a change from seeing the government as representative to one of seeing it as oppressive. I strongly suspect that the American people will not tolerate that oppression for long.

Posted by student1776 | Report as abusive

Authoritarian states should include the United States of America where the Executive and Congressional branches of government are arrogantly ignoring the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the will of the people.

Posted by ww2kid8 | Report as abusive

According to my point of view you make a confusion between weakening a dictatorship and weakening China. The move of the Arabic countries in north africa is weakening the dictatorships but it is reinforcing the Chinese dictatorship. Of course China is threatened and first because it is used to contain a strong Arabic minority. But there is a border between what is happening in an aera of power and what is happening inside the country. And I am afraid to see that is the same thing in Russia where the arabic move helps Chechens but doesn’t reach yet Putin which still counts stalinian reports to withold the split of the federation.

Posted by meleze | Report as abusive

The ironic thing, is how America is incongruent with actual Populism.. Only in America, would a *Populist* movement go to the Streets, to rally for their Corporate/Authoritarian Masters, as the so-called *Tea-Party* did. When our Government cut Civil Rights after 9-11 (Habeas Corpus, Wiretapping, etc) barely a whimper. Torture in our name was OK. As is Corporations looting the Treasury, or the Supreme Court appointing a President. The streets were quiet.
But, try to give the People Health Care, ah, then they’re out on the Streets, in support of the Insurance Industry, etc. Kudos to Tunisians & Egyptians, for wanting out of Authoritarian Rule. I wonder if America will ever wake up?

Posted by burf | Report as abusive

Why is Hugo Chavez being lumped in with the dictators of the “Authoritarian International”? Last I checked he was the winner of several free and fair elections and respected the will of the people when they voted down his constitutional reforms. His tactical alliance with Iran is about defending his country against US interference (remember Bush’s support for the coup against his government?). It was a mass movement against Venezuela’s corrupt elite that put him in power in the first place. He’s not a perfect man, but the First World media’s smear campaign against him is disgusting.

Posted by 1manmuffin | Report as abusive

chavez rammed his emergency powers legistlation through his congress, arrests rival party members, negates elections, overrules local authorities, overrides his Contitutional term limits, seizes private buisinesesof those who won’t follow his policies of ‘strip the rich’ and pays his bloated force of dole-dependent state employees off of oil revenue that is not sufficient to do what he wants to have done.
He’s a dictator covering himself with rigged elections and strong-arming the opposition.

==RED

Posted by REDruin | Report as abusive

If they want to survive, the key that the autocrats have to learn is to grant economic freedom prior to political freedom. If economic freedom is granted and the rule of law prevails in economic matters, the economy naturally perks up, people see that they have the opportunity to prosper and attention naturally gravitates to the sphere of economic competition. In this situation an authoritarian government like that of China can prevail for a generation or more. Eventually prosperous people demand freedom but when they do it is a more civilized and stage-wise progressive process since by then they have something to lose. By contrast when the Russians or other nations provided political freedom while economic liberty was nil, corruption was high, and people had no chance to better their lot, things turn ugly fast.

Posted by student1776 | Report as abusive

@Chinapro

“Hmmm, somehow the media is always bringing China in the picture, however i live in china and every american and european news website i can read any place and any computer about anything in the world and china.
i spoke with my sister in holland by skype and even the dutch media reports we are blocked out and we are NOT.”

***Different Chinese have different opinions. Where do you live? Few chinese from Beijing I spoke to said govt is taking precautions in view of Egypt situation in terms of the nature of news to be given to public. There are not total block on news per se I was told. These guys are as much haters of Chinese Negative News (CNN) but still say this. There must be something to it.

Posted by rehmat | Report as abusive