Drezner: Die-Hard Autocrats

Ten years ago the autocrat was an endangered species. According to the conventional wisdom, authoritarian regimes were incapable of adjusting to a world of globalization and global civil society. Autocrats recognized the need to exploit the economic benefits of globalization, but how could they keep out intrusive NGOs and censor the Internet? Policymakers also jumped on this bandwagon. Soon after George W. Bush delivered his second inaugural address, his administration exulted in a wave of democratic uprisings. By the spring of 2005, "color" revolutions took place in Georgia (Rose), Ukraine (Orange), and Lebanon (Cedar). Even totalitarian societies like Belarus faced unrest. Freedom seemed to be on the march.

These hopes now seem quaint. The democratic aspirations articulated by so many in the past decade overlooked some important facts. Democracy, for instance, is easy to demand but hard to sustain. The color revolutions have faded quickly. Last month Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili declared a state of emergency for nine days. In Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko's election has been followed by fracturing and squabbling within the reform coalition.

A more important overlooked fact is that nondemocratic regimes have proved themselves adept at perfecting techniques to cement their hold on power. They've proved themselves capable of thriving in the global economy while cementing their hold on power (at least in the short to medium term). In the Pacific Rim, for example, China has taken great strides in exploiting the commercial dimensions of the Internet while filtering out antigovernment messages. The system is not perfect, but it is good enough to effectively suppress dissent.

China's rapid economic growth has enabled other authoritarian leaders to enhance their control. The country's rapacious demand for resources has jacked up commodity prices, particularly in energy. When oil prices are high, dictators find it easier to stay in power. They have more resources to buy off challengers, and it becomes more difficult for powerful actors to credibly push for regime change.

In the Middle East, rising oil prices have made it easier for rulers across the region to stay in power. The global war on terror has allowed Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak to spurn American pressure to liberalize. Armed groups in Iraq see no contradiction between seeking elected office and using insurgent tactics to bolster their positions. Furthermore, the combination of armed uprising and social services has proved to be an electoral winner. In Lebanon and Palestine the biggest political winners in recent years have been Hizbullah and Hamas, respectively.

In Latin America the recent trend is that of the "democratator": a populist who wins a free and fair election but then consolidates executive power through a series of legal and quasi-legal means. Bolivia's Evo Morales and Ecuador's Rafael Correa are bypassing opposition parties in traditional legislatures by convening constitutional assemblies dominated by their own parties. Each leader is proposing reforms to enhance his presidential powers and to exert greater state control over key economic sectors. This week U.S. prosecutors accused four men of transporting cash from Venezuela's Hugo Chávez to fund the campaign of President Christina Fernandez de Kirchner of Argentina.

Authoritarian governments have also reacted to the color revolutions by clamping down on the NGOs and international organizations that have assisted civil society. Over the past 18 months Iran has imprisoned four Western scholars, accusing them of trying to foment a "velvet revolution."

Russia has moved the furthest in this direction, requiring Western NGOs to register with the government in order to stay in the country. Vladimir Putin's government placed so many onerous restrictions on election monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that the organization refused to send a large delegation to monitor last Sunday's parliamentary elections (which Putin's party won handily). This did not prevent the body from concluding that the polls "took place in an atmosphere which limited political competition." This week Putin endorsed Gazprom chair Dmitry Medvedev to be Russia's next president. Medvedev responded by stating that if he won he would appoint Putin prime minister.

These tactics have succeeded in part because Iraq has turned democratization into a dirty word. Authoritarian elites can tarnish any democracy movement by connecting it to Bush administration efforts at forced democratization in the Middle East. The costs of Iraq now extend beyond the Bush administration—they have made the work of democracy-minded NGOs all the more difficult.

If there is a silver lining, perhaps it can be found in Venezuela, where Chávez lost the referendum on constitutional reform. Had he won, Chávez would have been able to stand for re-election indefinitely, all the while centralizing his grip on power. Despite Chávez's vast oil revenues, control over most media outlets, and never-ending supply of anti-Americanism, the Venezuelan people rebuffed their democratator's wishes.

The past few years have demonstrated the limits of democracy promotion. Hopefully, Venezuela demonstrates the limits of the autocratic response.