Twenty-four years ago this month, Soviet hardliners, desperate to stop the country’s nascent democratic transition, arrested Mikhail Gorbachev and declared martial law. In response, millions of protesters poured into the streets of Moscow and towns across the Soviet Union. Key elements of the army refused to accept the coup, and it soon collapsed — with the Soviet Union soon to follow.
Even though economic conditions were dire in the USSR’s final months, people could see the freedoms that were coming and, unlike today, were willing to stand up for them. Indeed, in the early years of the democratic transition that followed, most post-communist voters did not succumb to the temptation to elect extremists who promised to end the hard times they were enduring. Instead, they usually chose the most sensible candidate available.
Russians, for example, rejected Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a clownish Donald Trump-like nationalist and anti-Semite, in favour of Boris Yeltsin, who had stared down tanks during the failed 1991 coup and recognised that his country’s future lay with democracy and the West. In Romania, the extremist poet Corneliu Vadim Tudor lost to a succession of corrupt pragmatists, beginning with Ion Iliescu, who had led the ouster of the country’s last communist leader, Nicolae Ceausescu.
Since then, the world has been turned upside down. As life has gotten easier, with people’s material expectations largely met, voters have increasingly favoured neo-autocrats who promise to “protect” the people from this or that threat. Russian President Vladimir Putin, of course, leads this group, but there are also Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Czech President Miloš Zeman. And the trend extends beyond the former communist countries to include, for example, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The French philosopher Jean-François Revel saw the rise of violent dictatorships in the twentieth century as driven by a “totalitarian temptation.” What we are witnessing today is something a bit less sinister — call it an “authoritarian temptation.” But it is a growing threat not only to democracy, but also to global stability. After all, the one thing today’s autocrats have in common with their totalitarian predecessors is contempt for the rule of law, both domestically and internationally.
One cause for this shift toward authoritarianism is that many countries no longer view the United States as a beacon of democracy and a model of stability and prosperity to be emulated. Putin’s claim that democratisation is actually an American plot “to gain unilateral advantages” resonates with many societies following the disastrous invasion of Iraq and revelations about the National Security Agency’s spying on citizens and leaders worldwide.
But even before these developments, the Cold War’s winners — and especially the US — were showing a boastfulness that probably alienated many. When even allies are treated with disrespect — recall George W. Bush’s infamous shout of “Yo, Blair,” as if then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair were some cowhand — people naturally wonder whether their country, too, is deemed subservient.
Rising “soft” dictators — what the journalist Bobby Ghosh calls authoritarian democrats — have used these feelings of unease and alienation to attract votes. Their supporters do not want to be oppressed, but they do want stability and national sovereignty — desires that their leaders fulfill partly by limiting opposition.
Criminal cases instead of gulags
Given the reach of today’s mass media and social networks, only a few people must be targeted to cow the rest of society into conforming to the leader’s vision. So, instead of building gulags, neo-authoritarians launch criminal cases. The defendants range from political opponents and critics in Russia — such as the oil oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the anti-corruption lawyer Alexei Navalny — to independent journalists in Erdogan’s Turkey.
Citizens seem convinced. At least 70 per cent of Russians agree with Putin that this kind of “managed democracy” is superior to the chaotic version practised in the West. Almost half of Hungary’s citizens find membership in the European Union, whose liberal values Orbán mocks, unnecessary. And more than 70 per cent of Turks have a negative view of the US, which Erdogan blames for the rise of social media (the “worst menace” facing Turkey today — trumping, it seems, even Daesh’s (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Lavant’s deadly attacks in Turkish cities).
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, people did not understand the link between capitalism and democracy. Many wanted a Western lifestyle, with access to the kinds of jobs and goods available in the US, but seemed not to recognise that access to that lifestyle requires increased economic and personal freedom — precisely the kind of freedom that underpins democratic societies.
If, in the current environment, Western powers attempted to point this out to the people of Russia, Hungary, or Turkey, they would likely stoke even greater resentment. The better option would be to work on the countries’ leaders. If the Putins, Erdogans, and Orbáns of the world want to continue to benefit economically from the open international system, they cannot simply make up their own rules.
The power of such an approach can be seen in Russia, where Western sanctions, imposed following Putin’s annexation of Crimea, are the main factor limiting the pro-Russian rebels’ incursion in eastern Ukraine. Putin’s efforts to reclaim “great power” status for Russia may find support among his people; but that support will probably dwindle if Russians face the prospect of losing all of the comforts derived from the relatively open economy that their country has had for more than two decades.
At a time when more and more Russians are being denied passports to travel outside the country, those tempted by authoritarianism would do well to recall the elementary point made by John F. Kennedy in his Berlin speech in 1963. “Freedom has many difficulties, and democracy is not perfect,” Kennedy said. “But we never had to put up a wall to keep our people in.”
— Project Syndicate, 2015
Nina L. Khrushcheva is a dean at The New School in New York, and a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute, where she directs the Russia Project.