Authoritarians mobilizing illiberal non-state actors against democratic forces


Authoritarian regimes are mobilizing and orchestrating ‘uncivil’ society groups and illiberal non-state actors against democratic forces, reports suggest.

The uniformed men who shot Venezuelan pro-democracy demonstrator Carlos Moreno were not government security forces, witnesses say. Rather, they were members of armed bands who have become key enforcers for President Nicolás Maduro as he attempts to crush a growing protest movement against his rule, the New York Times reports:

The groups, called collectives or colectivos (above) in Spanish, originated as pro-government community organizations that have long been a part of the landscape of leftist Venezuelan politics. Civilians with police training, colectivo members are armed by the government, say experts who have studied them.

Colectivos control vast territory across Venezuela, financed in some cases by extortion, black-market food and parts of the drug trade as the government turns a blind eye in exchange for loyalty. Now they appear to be playing a key role in repressing dissent.

“These are the true paramilitary groups of Venezuela,” said Roberto Briceño-León, director of the Venezuelan Violence Observatory, a nonprofit group that tracks crime.

Resurgent authoritarians see civil society as contested terrain – not only in terms of curbing independent civil society, but forming and instrumentalizing non-state actors and illiberal ‘social movements’ (think of China’s GONGOs, Saudi and Gulf States’ charities funding jihadist networks, or Russia’s Nashi (right) – reportedly established as a result of the Russian state’s fear of “creeping radicalization” in the wake of the Color Revolutions).

Youth groups such as Nashi were formed to promote nationalism and prescribe support for the president as every Russian’s civic duty, notes a STRATFOR analysis.

“The ideological groundwork these organizations laid sustained the Putin administration’s popularity for nearly two decades of political stability and economic prosperity,” it adds. “After about a decade, though, the groups fizzled.”

Aleksei A. Chesnakov, the director of the Center for Current Policy and a former Kremlin official who advised the president on domestic politics, said that in recent years the government had largely withdrawn support for pro-Putin youth movements, leaving the authorities without the ability to stage counterprotests and keep young people occupied, the New York Times noted.

“Now, the government requires police and administrative methods to ensure the opposition doesn’t cross the line,” he said.

Iran recently announced that the Basij – hitherto a movement primarily known for cultivating regime support and for domestic repression – is being deployed in Syria).

Iran’s Organization for the Mobilization of the Oppressed (Sazeman-e Basij-e Mostazafan), commonly known as the Basij, is a paramilitary organization used by the regime to suppress dissidents, vote as a bloc, and indoctrinate Iranian citizens, notes Saied Golkar, author of Captive Society: The Basij Militia and Social Control in Iran, described by one reviewer as “the authoritative account of a secretive but pervasive institution whose tentacles reach into every corner of Iranian life.”

Facing domestic demands for reform and anticipating economic hardships from international sanctions, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has mobilized the Basij to counter perceived threats to the regime, notes analyst Ali Alfoneh. The Basij’s growing powers have in turn increased the force’s political and economic influence and contributed to the militarization of the Iranian regime, he writes for USIP’s Iran Primer. The group gained notoriety for the assassination of Green movement protester Neda Agha-Soltan.

The Basij Organization’s volunteer paramilitary force, now an integral part of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (I.R.G.C.), has been running an extensive recruitment drive inside Iran (and reportedly in Afghanistan as well) for Shiite “volunteers” to fight in Syria. Moreover, it has played a direct role by sending its own members to support the regime of Bashar al-Assad, according to Ahmad Majidyar, Fellow and Director of the Middle East Institute’s Iran Observed Project:

Last year, I.R.G.C.’s elite Quds Force commander, Qassem Suleimani, said Basij forces had been instrumental in exporting Iranian revolution across the region. “Islamic movements such as Hezbollah of Lebanon and Palestinian Hamas received inspiration and spiritual aid from Basij. This is why Iran’s flag would fly in those countries,” he claimed.

It was not until late 2009 — after “Green Movement” protestors took to the streets en masse to dispute the presidential election — that the Basij were fully integrated into the IRGC’s “mosaic defense” provincial security architecture, gaining their own professional cadre in the process, notes Washington-based analyst Farzin Nadimi:

The Basij were originally the brainchild of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who envisioned mobilizing the oppressed Iranian masses into a twenty-million-strong army. When this vision did not exactly materialize, it gradually transformed into an international corps of devout Shiite youths recruited through an elaborate network of seminaries and universities, with the aim of creating a “new Islamic civilization” (similar to the Sunni jihadist concept of restoring the caliphate, though with less of a territorial emphasis). Yet it was not until fairly recently that Tehran began implementing the Basij model abroad on a major scale, beginning in Iraq and Syria.

Basij chief Gen. Gholam Hossein Gheibparvar believes that safeguarding the Islamic Revolution should continue to have “priority over peace, welfare, and progress”, Nadimi writes for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The press agency for Iran’s hard-line conservative volunteer militia, the Basij, quoted a senior official as saying that 50 Iranian student volunteers have been killed while fighting in Syria, RFE/RL reported.

As rising foreign debt and falling world oil prices have depleted the Venezuelan government’s coffers, it has increasingly turned to colectivos as enforcers. From labor disputes with unions to student demonstrations on university campuses, colectivos are appearing almost anywhere the government sees citizens getting out of line, the Times adds:

Today, the groups control 10 percent of towns and cities in Venezuela, according to Fermín Mármol, a criminologist at the University of Santa María in Caracas. Mr. Mármol said the deep left-wing ideological bent of the groups means they will defend Mr. Maduro at any cost.

“If tomorrow the revolution loses the presidency, the colectivos will immediately change to urban guerrilla warfare,” Mármol said.

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