Modern Authoritarianism: Back to the Future | Freedom House

Chapter 8: Beyond Modern Authoritarianism

Back to the Future

Until recently, a distinguishing feature of modern authoritarianism was the ruling group’s ability to consolidate political power without resorting to the brutal tactics that defined the mainstream dictatorships of the 20th century.

The political leadership maintained control of the commanding heights of the media while tolerating a small group of critical outlets as a safety valve for dissent and in order to tout the existence of diverse opinions in the news. Reformist nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were allowed to operate, but not to grow or gain traction. The regime used violence against its critics, but only sparingly, targeting a few dissidents or independent journalists as a deterrent to others. And they were careful to keep the number of political prisoners to a minimum.

Perhaps most importantly, modern authoritarian regimes generally refrained from overt acts of hostility toward their neighbors. Some, such as China, boasted of a policy that sought harmonious, mutually beneficial relations with other regional states. Turkey similarly claimed a policy of “zero problems” with its neighbors in the period before the Syrian civil war.

Freedom House’s Tyler Roylance has described a “common set of concessions” that 21st-century authoritarians made to the prevailing democratic ethos in the wake of the Cold War, when these regimes were balancing domestic political control with the need for deeper integration into the global diplomatic and economic systems:

  • Economic openness: Rather than attempting to preserve a closed, command, or autarkic economy, the typical “modern authoritarian” regime cultivated extensive connections with the outside world, creating a sense of freedom and prosperity. However, state enterprises and crony tycoons retained a dominant position, and pliant legal systems allowed the leadership and other corrupt officials to set and routinely reset the terms of economic participation for foreign companies, investors, and local entrepreneurs.
  • Pluralistic media: Formal prepublication censorship and media monopolies were abandoned in most cases, clearing the way for a proliferation of commercialized, well-produced, and often entertaining media outlets. But the state and its agents retained direct or indirect control of key sectors, manipulated mainstream news coverage, and kept truly independent journalism on the margins of the information landscape.
  • Political competition: Most regimes allowed multiparty systems to emerge, and held regular elections, but opposition parties were fabricated, coopted, or defanged in practice, allowing the ruling group to retain a de facto monopoly on power.
  • Civil society: Nongovernmental organizations were permitted to operate, but they were kept under close watch and forced to compete with state-sponsored groups. Organizations focusing on apolitical topics like public health or education often received less scrutiny than critical human rights activists, who were variously belittled, harassed, or suppressed.
  • Rule of law: Twentieth-century authoritarian staples like martial law, curfews, mass arrests, and summary executions were largely left behind, and force began to be used more selectively, so that most of the population rarely experienced state brutality. Dissidents were punished through the legal system, with its vaguely worded laws and obedient judges, and in cases where extralegal violence was used, state authorship was either hidden or not acknowledged. Only certain ethnic minorities faced naked military force or deadly police tactics.1

While more calibrated and less expansive methods of repression are the defining feature of modern authoritarianism, the past few years have seen a reemergence of older methods that undermine the illusions of pluralism, openness, and integration into the global economy.

The most extreme departure from the modern authoritarian policy of balancing national ambitions with participation in global governance was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. No breach of international standards of that magnitude had been committed since Iraq’s seizure of Kuwait in 1990. China’s claim of ownership of the South China Sea, along with its creeping militarization of previously uninhabited islets, is at least as ambitious as Russia’s move, though the impact is perhaps less jolting given the dearth of occupied populations.

There have been other reversions to 20th-century methods of repression. For example:

  • Political prisoners: During the 20th century, opposition figures, political dissidents, advocates for minority groups, and people who wrote critical commentaries were regularly sentenced to prison terms, often under grim conditions, by dictatorships of all stripes. Amnesty International’s founding mission was the defense of what were called “prisoners of conscience,” and they ranged from dissidents and Jewish refuseniks in the Soviet Union to those who resisted right-wing juntas in Latin America. Soviet dissidents like Natan Sharansky and Vladimir Bukovsky were the focus of international campaigns organized by human rights organizations and cautiously embraced by the United States and other governments.

The ranks of political prisoners declined substantially after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of dictatorships in Latin America, Asia, and to a certain extent Africa. Indeed, it was a major objective of the new authoritarianism to maintain political control without shedding blood or putting people behind bars, actions that provoked condemnation by human rights advocates, democratic governments, and UN entities.

Recently, however, the political prisoner has made a comeback. One notably egregious offender is Azerbaijan. Under President Ilham Aliyev, this country of just 9.4 million people has amassed one of the world’s largest numbers of political prisoners per capita, with approximately 80 prisoners of conscience during 2015, according to verified figures. Azerbaijan’s repression has grown despite the fact that Aliyev already enjoyed near-total control of key institutions and distinctly gentle treatment from U.S. and European political leaders due to Azerbaijan’s role as an alternative to Russian energy exports.

Venezuela also has a substantial number of political prisoners—around 100 as of June 2016, according to credible sources, including prominent members of the political opposition.2 Under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, some estimates suggest that Egypt holds as many as 60,000 political prisoners.3 Turkish authorities have similarly rounded up tens of thousands of people in the wake of the July 2016 coup attempt. A much smaller country, Bahrain, has convicted hundreds of people of political crimes since 2011, when the monarchy began arresting members of the political opposition who were demanding democratic elections and other freedoms.4

China is in a class by itself. Since the 1989 crackdown on prodemocracy protests in Tiananmen Square, the Communist Party leadership has regularly jailed political dissidents, especially those who argued publicly for democratic political changes or made gestures toward the formation of opposition political parties. The most notable political prisoner is Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2009. However, conditions have grown far worse under President Xi Jinping, as a numbing procession of lawyers, journalists, bloggers, women’s advocates, minority rights campaigners, and religious believers have been detained, placed under house arrest, disappeared, or sentenced to prison.5

  • Public confessions: Humiliating public confessions of ideological crimes were a staple of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s purges and Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in China. They were also employed by Eastern European satellite regimes during the show trials of the late 1940s. A peculiarly communist technique, the public confession was largely abandoned after the deaths of Stalin and Mao.

Under Xi, China has revived the practice. A growing list of editors, human rights lawyers, and advocates of political reform have been coerced into making televised confessions of their “crimes.” The Chinese authorities even intimidated a Swedish citizen, legal reform activist Peter Dahlin, into confessing that he broke Chinese law and “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.” Dahlin was accused of endangering state security by funding human rights lawyers and compiling reports on the state of human rights in China.6

  • Intensified media domination: Most modern authoritarian countries allowed a sufficient degree of criticism in the media to justify a tenuous claim of pluralism. In recent years, tolerance for ideas and opinions that are not aligned with those of the regime has steadily eroded. In Russia, a bad situation became much worse after the invasion of Ukraine in 2014. Those who criticized or even raised questions about the morality or wisdom of the Kremlin’s actions were persecuted, dismissed from employment, and banned from media commentary. Putin also expanded the zone of media control from the mainstream television and print sectors to the internet.

In Venezuela, one opposition or independent voice after another has been neutralized, as key newspapers and television stations were sold, under duress, to businessmen with ties to the government. The new and often opaque owners generally watered down political reporting and forced out prominent journalists.7

Even before the 2016 coup attempt, media freedom in Turkey was deteriorating at an alarming rate. The government, controlled by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party, aggressively used the penal code, criminal defamation legislation, and antiterrorism laws to punish critical reporting. Journalists also faced growing violence, harassment, and intimidation from both state and nonstate actors. The authorities also used financial and administrative leverage over media owners to influence coverage and muzzle dissent.8

  • War propaganda: For some time, propaganda from Russia, China, and other authoritarian countries stressed a hostility toward liberal values and democracy, framed around a relentless anti-Americanism. There were, however, certain redlines that propagandists were unlikely to cross. They would criticize American foreign policy and blame it for a country’s problems. But only rarely would they accuse Washington of warlike intentions, and they seldom if ever made military threats themselves. Since the invasion of Ukraine and the resulting economic sanctions imposed by the United States and the EU, Russian propaganda has assumed an uglier, more menacing tone. The same is true in China, where official expressions of hostility toward the United States and “Western” democratic values intensified—indeed took on a histrionic and belligerent character—after the ascension of Xi Jinping as Communist Party leader. In Turkey, progovernment commentators have accused the U.S. government and even an American think tank of involvement in the failed coup of 2016.9
  • Closing doors to the outside world: More than anything else, modern authoritarianism is distinguished from traditional autocracy by its openness to relatively normal relations with the outside world. China, for example, long sought to balance calibrated repression at home with participation in an impressive array of global institutions. Beijing welcomed the establishment of local branches of foreign, mostly American, universities, joint research ventures with foreign scholars, and even the involvement of foreign NGOs in areas such as legal reform and environmental conservation. While more ambivalent about the international media, Chinese authorities did give unprecedented freedom of movement to foreign journalists in the period surrounding the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Russia was less welcoming to foreign involvement in the country, whether by governmental or private entities, but for a time it maintained academic exchanges with the United States and European countries, grudgingly tolerated foreign NGOs, and took some pride in the freedom of Russians to travel freely abroad.

Conditions have deteriorated over the past several years. In Russia, the government reduced trade with Europe in response to sanctions, imposed travel restrictions on millions of public-sector employees, smeared domestic human rights organizations as “foreign agents” for accepting international funding, and began blacklisting foreign NGOs as “undesirable.” China has increased regulatory and legal pressure on foreign companies, bullied foreign countries into repatriating Chinese political refugees, significantly increased regulatory restrictions on foreign NGOs, and sharply curbed journalistic freedom for foreign correspondents.

Propaganda and official rhetoric in both countries has increasingly portrayed them as besieged fortresses, threatened on all sides by hostile foreign powers, spies, separatists, and traitors who seek to topple the government and deny the nation its rightful place in the world. In this environment, any interaction with foreigners becomes suspect, and national security takes precedence over the benefits of global integration.

  • Foreign aggression: The revival of Russia as a military power has been a central goal of Putin’s leadership. He increased troop levels, devoted billions of dollars to equipment modernization, and instituted a series of reforms designed to enable the military to engage in several limited conflicts simultaneously. To compensate for the material advantages of the United States and NATO, the Russian military developed a strategic approach known as hybrid warfare, which seeks to combine conventional tactics, espionage and subversion, cyberattacks, and propaganda so as to limit the role of traditional battlefield operations and, where possible, sow confusion as to who is responsible for the aggression and how it should be dealt with. The strategy has been put into action in Ukraine, and intrusive Russian patrols have also harassed foreign navies and air forces across Northern Europe. In Georgia, Russian troops have constantly encroached on the Tbilisi government by simply moving border fences encircling the Russian-backed separatist region of South Ossetia.

China has also engaged in a massive military buildup, and is pressing its maritime territorial claims with huge fleets of coast guard vessels and new island bases that bristle with armaments. Its tactics at sea are openly aggressive, but stop just short of the sort of action that might trigger live fire.

Iran has long cultivated indirect methods of foreign aggression, particularly through the covert equipping and training of allied Shiite militias in Arab states. In recent years, however, it has openly deployed these militias in large numbers—overseen on the front lines by high-ranking Iranian officers—to battle zones in Syria and Iraq, and it has increasingly drawn on Afghan recruits in addition to Arabs. Iran’s regional rivals, chiefly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have responded with more direct foreign interventions of their own, most notably in Yemen.

The recent embrace of more overtly repressive policies stems in part from the common structural flaws of the modern authoritarian model. The question of succession in authoritarian governments is a constant source of tension, producing crises—such as Putin’s return to the presidency after his circumvention of term limits in 2012—that require new crackdowns on dissent.

Moreover, because these regimes do not allow peaceful rotations of power through elections, they rely in large part on the promise of economic growth as a source of legitimacy. However, they also feature systemic corruption as a means of maintaining internal cohesion. All of this leaves them ill-equipped to cope with economic shocks and related public anger. The global economic downturn of 2008 and the more recent drop in energy prices have shaken economies and political establishments around the world, but while citizens of democracies can take their frustrations to the ballot box, authoritarian rulers must treat protests against austerity or unemployment as existential threats.

The promise of national greatness and the menace of external enemies are tried-and-true alternatives to economic prosperity as sources of regime legitimacy. Unfortunately, promoting these narratives also generates new cycles of dissent and repression, and damages ties with the outside world, further undermining the economy.

A transition from bad to worse

While the return to the blunt instruments of the past suggests a fundamental weakness in the modern authoritarianism model, it would be a mistake to conclude that these regimes are doomed to extinction. The emergence of this model was in fact a remarkable demonstration of adaptability on the part of authoritarian rulers, who faced a uniquely inhospitable environment in the years after the end of the Cold War. Democracy, human rights, and the rule of law were newly ascendant as the governing principles of the international order, and undemocratic leaders made the changes necessary to survive without surrendering their political dominance.

If they are now reversing some of these changes, it is not just because the basic structures and incentives of authoritarian rule tend to encourage greater repression over time. It is also because the external pressure to conform to democratic standards is rapidly disappearing.

Leading democracies have absorbed the economic blows of recent years without revolution or repression, but voter frustration has increasingly lifted up antiestablishment, populist, and nationalist politicians who have little interest in the democratizing mission traditionally espoused by mainstream parties with deep roots in the global struggles of the 20th century. The new mood is reflected in the democracies’ foreign policies, many of which are aimed more at seeking national advantage than at promoting the common good.

The rise of populist politics in democracies could give modern authoritarianism a new lease on life. While it may no longer be as useful for entrenched autocracies to mask their nature with an illusion of pluralism, freely elected leaders with authoritarian ambitions can use similar techniques to replace genuine democratic institutions with hollowed-out façades. This process is already under way in the countries that have been dubbed “illiberal democracies.”

With states across the spectrum shifting in an authoritarian direction, there is not much comfort in the fact that repressive regimes are fundamentally more unstable and vulnerable to breakdowns than democracies. Major authoritarian governments may collapse in the face of economic crises, popular protests, or succession battles. But in the absence of international pressure and support, it seems doubtful that they would be replaced by aspiring democracies. Indeed, they could be succeeded by something even worse.


1 Tyler Roylance, “The Twilight of ‘Modern Authoritarianism,’” Freedom at Issue, October 29, 2014,

2 Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez, “In Venezuela, Political Prisoners as Pawns,” New York Times, July 1, 2016,

3 Albaraa Abdullah, “Egypt Fills Its Prisons, But Don’t Worry, It’ll Make More,” Al-Monitor, February 3, 2016,

4 “Bahrain,” in Annual Report (London: Amnesty International, 2016),

5 “China: List of Political Prisoners Detained or Imprisoned as of October 11, 2016,” U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China,

6 Tom Phillips, “Swedish Activist Peter Dahlin Paraded on China State TV for ‘Scripted Confession,’” Guardian, January 19, 2016,

7 “Venezuela,” in Freedom of the Press 2015 (New York: Freedom House, 2015),

8 “Turkey,” in Freedom of the Press 2016 (New York: Freedom House, 2016),

9 John Hudson, “Erdogan Allies Accuse Leading Washington Think Tank of Orchestrating Coup,” Foreign Policy, August 8, 2016,