How autocrats use democracy to their advantage


Armenia’s abuse of democratic principles is indicative of larger trends in domestic democratization, and in international democracy promotion, argues Nelli Babayan, a Fellow at the Transatlantic Academy and Associate Fellow at the Freie Universität Berlin. For starters, even as democratic rhetoric is on the rise, real democratic behavior is declining, she writes for RealClearWorld:

  • Take Russia as the prime example. The initial promise of its speedy democratization is long gone, and Moscow has managed to consolidate its authoritarian regime. Yet even if the notion of democracy is not particularly popular among the public, its presence is easily visible in official rhetoric. Terms such as managed democracy or suverennaya demokratia (sovereign democracy) are meant to show that Russia’s democracy is beyond all reproach. This is not to say that Russia’s regime is inherently democratic, but it underlines that the Russian political elites have also agreed to the global dominance of the democratic script and have been paying it lip service. There are virtually no countries in the world that would refrain from styling themselves as some sort of democracy.

    Second, while the debate in the 1990s and early 2000s was dominated by the understandings of democratic contagion or democratic learning, the 2010s are about authoritarian learning. The latter has come to attention specifically after the initial events of the Arab Spring: The experiences of toppled regimes in Tunisia and Egypt taught other authoritarian governments to become savvier in preventing similar outcomes. Moldova is usually considered a frontrunner in democratization among post-Soviet countries. But Chisinau followed Russia’s example and passed anti-gay propaganda legislation, which it later overturned in anticipation of signing an Association Agreement with the European Union. EU member Lithuania has been considering a similar law, while Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is a known admirer of Russia’s illiberal practices. Less surprisingly, Kyrgyzstan followed Russia‘s example and adopted the so-called foreign agent law.

    Third, democracy promoters prefer stability even if it often comes at the expense of democracy. This results in an absence of pressure on countries that fail to implement democratic reforms but remain strategically important. Differentiated treatment of Belarus and Azerbaijan by both the European Union and the United States is one of the most vivid examples of the unevenly applied pressure. This much-criticized preference further adds to the resilience to change of authoritarian regimes, and to their growing ability to adapt to the demands and interests of democracy promoters without tangible change.

Nelli Babayan is a Fellow at the Transatlantic Academy (based at the German Marshall Fund US) and Associate Fellow at the Freie Universität Berlin. She is the author of “Democratic Transformation and Obstruction: EU, US, Russia in the South Caucasus.”


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