The wait for the Fourth Wave of Democracy continues. Several times over the past decade, it seemed that it was about to unfold: in 2003–05, with the “Rose Revolution” in Georgia, the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine, and the “Tulip Revolution” in Kyrgyzstan; and in 2011 with the “Arab Spring”, which sparked hopes in a part of the world that had shown virtually no movement in democratic development for decades. The turmoil in Egypt, the difficulties experienced by Libya and the daily tragedies in Syria have placed those hopes on hold.As the wait for the fourth wave continues, we are witnessing a diametrically different phenomenon: the surge of new authoritarianism. It is happening across a culturally and historically diverse set of countries but is particularly noteworthy in the countries of Eurasia and even Central Europe. We see it in Russia, Belarus and Azerbaijan in its harshest forms, and in milder versions in Turkey, Hungary and, some even worry, Georgia. The recent Freedom House report, Nations in Transit, paints the following picture: Several of Russia’s neighbors saw increasing pressure on political opposition and civil society. Five of the 12 countries in the Eurasia region suffered score declines on Nations in Transit’s civil society indicator, including Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Belarus, which stepped up their persecution of perceived enemies through legal and extralegal means. In Central Europe, most states were able to respond to the mounting public backlash against unpopular austerity measures without straying from core democratic norms. However, in Romania, a new center-left government treated public dissatisfaction with President Traian B?sescu and the outgoing center-right government as a mandate to entrench its own rule and browbeat critical media outlets. Hungary, which showed dramatic decline in last year’s report, slipped further as the administration of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán continued to defend its controversial reorganization and restaffing of the country’s media, data protection, and judicial oversight bodies, while also pursuing legislation to regulate additional dimensions of political and social activity. Let us complement this report with trends pointing to the emergence of new electoral authoritarianism in Egypt, with a duly elected President from the Muslim Brotherhood, and the case of Tayyip Erdogan, the democratically-elected Prime Minister of Turkey, seeking to establish a sultanist regime in his country while relying on support from the conservative majority. The specifics of this nascent authoritarian explosion point to a common trend, both with respect to its origins and its manifestations. Naturally, we can identify certain traits that have always characterized authoritarian regimes, as well as common factors that brought them about. However, a new dimension has now appeared. The drift toward authoritarianism is occurring in a new civilizational situation—that is, in the times of crisis currently engulfing liberal democracies and their political systems. Let’s examine the logic of today’s authoritarian surge, its philosophy and its justifications, as well as the means and instruments of authoritarian mobilization. Authoritarian and (still) semi-authoritarian leaders across the globe like Putin and Aliyev are attempting to appeal directly to the people, bypassing the elite and political parties. While ruling parties do exist, they are either no longer up to the task of supporting personalized regimes or have been so discredited that they have become liabilities to their leaders. Thus, the leaders have to sidestep them by directly addressing the nation. This is especially true in the case of Russia. For instance, Putin is trying to revive the institution of popular fronts in Russia. In any event, use of mass consolidation mechanisms by the ruling class is typical of corporate states and totalitarian leaders. What the modern personalized power regimes are doing harkens back to the age of Franco and Mussolini. In addition, most leaders who seek to prolong their rule amend constitutions and draft legislation to create a legal field for their repressive measures. Cracking down on opponents and civil society under the cloak of legislative and judicial actions is the current favored approach of authoritarian and quasi-authoritarian regimes. Of course, in places like Russia, Belarus and Azerbaijan, the parliaments themselves lack real legitimacy and become mere rubberstamps of their respective leaders. This also discredits the rule of law state and independence of institutions. All modern personalized power regimes use scapegoating to justify their stricter control of society. The list of scapegoats may vary. Putin’s Kremlin blames “extremists” and the West, primarily Americans. Orbán talks of Jews and Roma. Aliyev accuses Armenians and enemies of the state. Indeed, if enemies don’t actually exist, then manufacturing them is critical to justify one’s way of governing, and it must be an internal enemy financed and incited from abroad. “The protests are instigated by foreign powers,” says Erdogan; Putin, Lukashenko, and Morsi repeat the same claim. Meanwhile, none of them rejects Western aid, resources or investments. These new authoritarian leaders simultaneously take advantage of the West by seeking to integrate into it more deeply while denouncing it and holding it up as the source of threats. To look more convincing, all these leaders use the term “extremist” to disguise the laws directed at the regime’s critics and the opposition. Requiring Russian NGOs that receive any funding from the West to register as “foreign agents” (a term loaded with negative connotation from the Soviet period) is part and parcel of this trend. This is how the new authoritarians close off political space from freedom of expression and assembly, political competition and electoral democracy—which, ironically in some instances, helped them to come to power. Scapegoating is frequently used to stoke nationalist sentiments. But not all leaders choose to play the nationalist card. The Kremlin has already realized the limitations of this approach, since it may hasten the breakup of the multinational Russian state. Moreover, the Kremlin is aware that Russian nationalism is adopting an anti-Putin and anti-Kremlin stance. Therefore, in lieu of nationalism, the Kremlin seeks to exploit pseudo-imperial sentiments. Another essential weapon in the new authoritarian arsenal is the idea of a “strong state,” which naturally has to be controlled from the top. Drawing religion and the church into legitimating the regime is yet another approach. Viktor Orbán of Hungary has reached new creative heights at that. He has already checked out the Calvinists, and now, as Charles Gati puts it, “at times…attends a Catholic church.” It makes no difference to an authoritarian leader which church and religion he may solicit support from; it’s more important that it compensates for its lack of, or shrinking, legitimacy. The authoritarians’ call to return to “traditional values” may refer to the return to a certain time period in a country’s history, but it also serves as code to tell critics to mind their own business and not interfere in the internal affairs of their states. For Orbán, the “traditional” past is the interwar period of the fascist Horthy regime. For Putin, it’s a blend of the Soviet era (mostly its Stalin years) and tsarism. For Erdogan, it’s a longing for the Ottoman Empire. It is quite possible that, having exhausted the above means of power preservation, authoritarian leaders may resort to one more instrument that similar regimes had used in the past: exploiting an external conflict. For instance, Morsi could attempt to deflect attention from his own declining fortunes by instigating an armed conflict with Ethiopia, which has decided to build a hydroelectric dam on the Blue Nile that will reduce the water supply to Egypt.Aliyev of Azerbaijan may try to reclaim the Nagorno-Karabakh region. In any event, escalating internal repressions often go hand in hand with a country’s militarization and its readiness to flex its muscles on the international scene. Putin’s attempt to launch a return to militarization, which has always served as a way to preserve personalized power in Russia, is an even starker example of how these trends become intertwined. The new wave of authoritarianism is emerging just as the West is faced with crisis, a lack of leadership, and a search for responses to several new challenges. The new authoritarian leaders have used Western decline to justify their moves toward harsher authoritarian rule. Also of note is the disillusionment in democratic institutions in Central-East Europe, which has to do in part with the difficulties of their transformation and integration into the Euroatlantic community. Another explanation for the new authoritarianism is the weakness of the oppositions—primarily the liberal ones—which have been unable to present viable alternatives to the personalized regimes. The new authoritarianism is also fueled by abortive or halfway revolutions—that is, by social and political awakenings that fail to change the rules of the game or structures of governing. In the case of Egypt, this awakening has only led to a regime change at the top, but the movement in Tahrir Square has essentially been hijacked—first by the military and then by the Muslim Brotherhood. In the cases of Ukraine and Georgia, the hopes that accompanied their respective revolutions dissipated and over time have been replaced by the emergence of more bureaucratic-authoritarian rules. In Russia, certainly, and possibly Turkey as well, protests have given the regime an excuse to intensify repressions and introduce elements of a police state. But even more serious and worrisome is the threat that young democracies are beginning to slide backward amid looming challenges. We see this in Brazil, with President Rousseff showing Putin/Erdogan-like use of force in dealing with the mass protests. One certainly hopes that Brazil will not move in the direction of electoral authoritarianism. We see this in Bulgaria and Bosnia, where people take to the street protesting inefficient and corrupted governments. Despite many differences in their political systems and environment, Brazil and Russia witness social anger and political protests triggered by similar causes. The current Brazilian rebellion is the result of people’s anger over the billions of dollars budgeted for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics even as basic services in the country are in decline. In Russia, the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and the 2018 World Cup could easily provoke anger and protests for the same reason. The Brazilian case reveals an even more worrisome trend. It’s not just the political leadership that is responsible for social and political anger; the political system itself has failed to prevent the corruption and degeneration of the state, leading to the undermining of democratic norms. The spreading contagion of protests and demonstrations across the globe demonstrates a new phenomenon: popular dissatisfaction not only with authoritarian regimes but also with democratic systems that are failing to guarantee the people their rights and dignity. We saw this with the European crisis in countries like Greece and Spain. How democratically elected leaders seek to address these challenges will be a key test. Will they resort to authoritarian means as Erdogan is trying to do and Rousseff tried at the beginning? Dissatisfaction can also manifest itself elsewhere, as with the “Occupy Wall Street” movement in the United States, or the protests in France. All this leaves us with two interdependent questions: What can stem the new authoritarian tide? How should street rebellion in democratic societies be handled? This “dual” problem could become the big challenge of the 21st century, and responding to the first challenge will depend on how democracies handle the second. We tend to agree with James Traub, who wrote in Foreign Policy that “the era in which citizens will accept a return to autocracy, much less clamor for it, is drawing to a close.” For example, Russia’s system of personalized power is showing signs of decay. To staunch the authoritarian surge, the West must find ways to end its crisis—the sooner, the better—so that it can be in a stronger position to push back against the authoritarian challenge. Some Western countries need to think about serious restructuring of their political systems to guarantee the rights and dignity for all of society, not just a ruling minority. In addition, the liberal opposition in authoritarian and semi-authoritarian societies should consolidate their efforts and offer a viable alternative to authoritarianism. Easier said than done, of course, but necessary nonetheless. Presently, we appear to be stuck in the doldrums, with little reason to be optimistic about either the West’s capacity for reinvention or turning back the authoritarian tide. Leadership and a strengthening of the democratic model are crucial not only for fending off threats from protests but also for challenging the rise of the authoritarian alternative.
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Published on: July 2, 2013The Authoritarian Surge