Autocrats’ Favorite Word? Democracy.

Authoritarian leaders are using the language of democracy in an attempt to conceal the abusive systems through which they cling to power.

Autocrats’ Favorite Word? Democracy.

Illustration: Gil Wannalertsiri/Freedom House


The sides share the understanding that democracy is a universal human value, rather than a privilege of a limited number of states, and that its promotion and protection is a common responsibility of the entire world community.”

One could be forgiven for assuming this quote was from the March 2023 Declaration of the Summit for Democracy, signed by 73 world governments committed to strengthening global democracy. But in fact, the line was pulled from a joint statement of the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China in the weeks prior to Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

The world’s authoritarian leaders often pay lip service to democracy. Especially following the end of the Cold War, democracy’s apparent victory over communism created an environment where commitment to democratic systems—or at least the appearance of it—was a prerequisite for full participation in the international community. But amid a 17-year decline in global freedom, authoritarian leaders have invoked the language of democracy in an attempt to conceal the abusive systems through which they cling to power.

As autocracies proliferate and anxieties rise about democracy’s ability to deliver, it is crucial that democracy’s supporters be able to differentiate genuinely democratic practices from the hollow imitations and self-serving “democracy” rhetoric of the world’s authoritarians.

A Potemkin village of democratic legitimacy

Freedom House’s Nations in Transit survey region, stretching from Central Europe to Central Asia, provides ample examples of authoritarian leaders who speak the language of democracy while presiding over profoundly undemocratic institutions.

The supposed democratic opening in Uzbekistan is one case study. Coming to power in 2016 following the death of Islam Karimov—Uzbekistan’s autocratic leader of nearly three decades—President Shavkat Mirziyoyev signaled a desire to distance his administration’s policies from those of his despotic predecessor. He made highly visible moves to free political prisoners and loosen the state’s grip on the media, and announced a strategy to strengthen the rule of law and improve religious tolerance.

But seven years later, even as Mirziyoyev touts a “New Uzbekistan,” Freedom House data shows that democratic reform has been marginal at best. Following an ignoble path laid by other repressive leaders, Mirziyoyev orchestrated a dubious constitutional referendum this April that locked in his control of the country. Described as a plan to improve social and legal protections, in fact, the referendum’s passage reset presidential term limits. Mirziyoyev went on to secure a third term with a reported 87 percent of the vote in July’s presidential election, which international election monitors said lacked genuine competition.

Indeed, democratic elections—or, rather, the appearance of—are an important piece in the autocrat’s toolkit, enabling all sorts of dissembling about the “will of the people.” The sham referendums held in Russian-occupied Ukrainian territories, first in Crimea in 2014 and then in eastern and southern Ukraine in 2022, are also prime examples. With “campaign” periods characterized by severe intimidation and dubious approval margins ranging from 87 to 99 percent, choreographed elections of this sort serve the dual purpose of providing a thin veneer of democratic legitimacy, while producing crushing margins of victory that signal to citizens that dissent will not be tolerated.

Redefining democracy—or rejecting it

While many antidemocratic leaders issue duplicitous statements about their commitment to democratic norms and practices, others have sought to redefine democracy. A few have gone a step further, rejecting the premise of the post-Cold War democratic consensus altogether.      

In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has advocated for “illiberal democracy,” declaring that liberal democracy—a robust form of democracy that entails the protection of a full array of individual and collective rights—is in irreversible decline. To this end, Orbán has chipped away at the country’s once-democratic institutions, rejecting the notion that checks and balances, civil society, and an independent press corps are necessary for democracy. As a result, Hungary’s Democracy Scores have fallen farther than any other country in Freedom House’s Nations in Transit survey, where it once was categorized as a consolidated democracy but is now a hybrid regime.

In many ways, Hungary’s movement towards “illiberal democracy” under Orbán resembles the way Vladimir Putin manipulated Russia’s nascent democratic institutions in the early 2000s to cement his hold on power. But unlike Orbán, Putin has mostly abandoned invocations of democracy—which he once called a “fundamental value” and “the main goal and task of politics”—in favor of claims to “popular approval” and for “compliance and respect for laws.” Just last week, the New York Times reported that Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov had openly stated that Russia’s “presidential election is not really democracy” and that “Putin will be reelected next year with more than 90 percent of the vote.”

Alongside this semantic shift, polling data from 2018 and 2021 showed that an increasing number of Russians reject the notion that they are “a person of democratic views.”

Autocracy by any other name

Today, the world’s illiberal leaders are developing ever-more sophisticated ways to spread poisoned messages beyond territorial borders. In this environment, the ability to recognize and explain the difference between hollow “democratic” rhetoric and the tenets of a truly democratic system is fundamental to countering authoritarian abuses, and promoting democratic systems where leaders are accountable to voters and fundamental rights and freedoms are upheld.