Fatal attraction: authoritarianism goes global


The main thing to note about the new authoritarian camp is its heterodox composition, analyst Michael Burleigh writes for the Literary Review:

Officially atheist China sits alongside an assertively conservative Christian Russia and an Islamic theocracy that has both democratic and revolutionary tinges. Eager hangers-on include the left-wing Chavista regime in Venezuela, the Saudi despots and Turkey’s Kemalist-cum-Islamist president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

But there is a bigger battle of ideas too, he adds, in a review of Authoritarianism Goes Global: The Challenge to Democracy, by Larry Diamond, Marc F Plattner & Christopher Walker (eds):

Founded in 2001, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation consists of China, Russia and four of the Central Asian ’stans (several other countries are trying to join it). This is the main international forum for asserting absolute state sovereignty (except when it comes to Ukraine). It also demands ‘respect for civilizational diversity’ (a nice touch, that last, talismanic word so beloved by academia) and ‘defense of traditional values’, a term that conjures up quaint Inuit folkways rather than hanging gays from cranes. Indeed, containing the values of what the Kremlin calls ‘Gayropa’ is very much part of the authoritarian strategy to rally the support of traditionally minded folk, something Putin has done most successfully. It is a pity that in an otherwise astute essay, Lilia Shevtsova does not ask why Putin’s fusion of Orthodoxy and neo-fascism resonates with many Russians, despite the pervasive corruption and poverty. At least the content Chinese middle classes have the excuse of a house price bonanza, and no capital gains and income taxes too.

The ‘finest’ essay by Alexander Cooley explores how authoritarian regimes undermine democratic norms by copying the language and institutions used in the West, Burleigh adds:

Fear of Western-engineered ‘colour revolutions’, similar to those that broke out in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan in 2003–5, haunts all the regimes concerned, while a second Arab Spring is the cauchemar of Gulf rulers.

One tactic is to turn the West’s fabled ‘soft power’ against it. Many of the contributors, most notably Peter Pomerantsev, focus on television as the authoritarian medium of choice. The South American channel TeleSUR was apparently the inspiration for Iran’s Press TV, though both China’s CCTV News and Russia’s RT offered global English-language services earlier. But this is not just a matter of propaganda and the West is not entirely innocent of what is going on. Many of the West’s problems are self-generated.


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