Modern Authoritarianism: Flacks and Friends | Freedom House

Chapter 6: Flacks and Friends

Flacks and Friends

As an operator, but not as a human being, I would say Putin. The way he played the whole Syria thing. Brilliant.

– Nigel Farage, on the world leader he most admires

I admire his cool head. Because there is a cold war being waged against him by the EU at the behest of the United States…. I admire that he has managed to restore pride and contentment to a great nation that had been humiliated and persecuted for 70 years.

– Marine Le Pen

[Putin] makes a decision and he executes it, quickly. And then everybody reacts. That’s what you call a leader.

– Rudy Giuliani

Did the Russian government attempt to surreptitiously influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election in Donald Trump’s favor? The answer to that question may never be definitively known. There is, nevertheless, a critical mass of evidence that Kremlin-allied forces were responsible for hacking into the Democratic National Committee’s computers, stealing millions of files, and turning the information over to WikiLeaks, which in turn circulated it to the media. Some may find the evidence unsatisfactory. But given Russia’s well-established record of cyberwarfare, previously directed at neighboring states like Estonia and Ukraine, and the Russian regime’s dislike for the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, there is ample reason to treat charges of Russian culpability as strongly credible.

Another body of evidence can be found in Russia’s record of involvement in the internal politics of a number of countries in Europe, including European Union (EU) member states. In fact, under Vladimir Putin, Russia has repeatedly interfered in the affairs of European states in ways that the Kremlin would regard as intolerable if Russia were the target.

Russian involvement is usually camouflaged so as to ensure a degree of deniability, but the disguise is sometimes rather thin. In late 2014, France’s far-right National Front party, led by Marine Le Pen, secured a €9 million loan from a Russian bank with indirect ties to the government in what many interpreted as a bet by Putin on the future of French politics. Le Pen has subsequently spoken favorably of Putin and criticized the sanctions imposed on Russia by the EU.1 She has even called for a strategic alliance with Russia and proposed a pan-European grouping that would include Russia while leaving out the United States. By 2016, the National Front was seeking more funding that would enable it to participate on an equal footing with mainstream parties in the 2017 presidential contest.2

The 2014 loan came just months after the National Front helped provide a veneer of legitimacy to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. Aymeric Chauprade, a Le Pen adviser who once called Russia “the hope of the world against new totalitarianism,” participated in an observer mission to monitor the Crimean referendum on secession from Ukraine and union with Russia. The mission was arranged by a pro-Moscow organization called the Eurasian Observatory for Elections and Democracy, and consisted largely of politicians from a variety of European far-right parties, including Hungary’s Jobbik and Austria’s Freedom Party. The vote, held under Russian military occupation, was widely regarded as falling well short of international standards. However, the Eurasian Observatory delegation gave the referendum an enthusiastic thumbs-up.3

Moscow has paid considerable attention to evolving political developments in Central and Eastern Europe. Despite their relatively recent histories of Soviet subjugation and communist rule, a number of these countries have seen the rise of populist or nationalist parties that express admiration for or affinity with Putin’s regime. Meanwhile, mainstream parties have developed attitudes toward Russia that are notable for their ambivalence, including on the pivotal issue of the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine.

In some countries, Russia has made progress among both far-right nationalists and more traditional conservative parties. In Hungary, for example, Moscow has a reliable ally in Jobbik and a business partner in the ruling Fidesz party, which has been critical of the EU’s economic sanctions.4 The Hungarian parliament conducted an investigation into allegations that the Kremlin was helping to finance Jobbik. There were also charges that a Jobbik member of the European Parliament was a Russian agent. Gábor Vona, the chairman of Jobbik, has embraced the idea of Eurasianism and speculated that Hungary could serve as a “bridge” between Europe and Asia.

At the intergovernmental level, Russia in 2015 provided Hungary with a $10.8 billion loan to expand the Paks nuclear power plant, a facility that supplies 40 percent of the country’s electricity. The project was to have been put out for open bidding until Hungarian officials abruptly decided to accept the proposal from Russia’s state nuclear energy firm—financed by the Kremlin’s loan—without competition.5 Some believe that the Paks deal is meant to encourage the Fidesz government to continue its support for an EU policy that would be more sympathetic toward Russian interests.6 While the Fidesz leader, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, has been cautious in public statements about Putin and Russia, he did identify Russia as one of several countries with illiberal or authoritarian governments that would provide the models for global political development in the future, as opposed to supposedly declining powers like the United States and the EU’s founding members.7

The Russian government has also developed friendly ties to parties in Slovakia. Marian Kotleba, leader of the far-right People’s Party–Our Slovakia, supported Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych in his decision to reject an association agreement with the EU and pursue closer ties with Russia instead—a decision that ultimately led to Yanukovych’s fall from power in February 2014. Slovakia’s left-leaning populist prime minister, Robert Fico, has publicly expressed his lack of enthusiasm for the EU sanctions imposed on Russia following the invasion of Ukraine.8

In other countries, there is evidence that Moscow has bankrolled environmentalist protests against the development of local hydrocarbon resources, which would reduce European dependence on Russian oil and natural gas. In 2012, street protests compelled Bulgaria’s prime minister, Boyko Borisov, to cancel contracts with Chevron to explore shale-oil sites in the country. Those who suspect the Kremlin’s involvement in the demonstrations point to a €20 million media campaign that was handled by companies with Russian ties, as well as enthusiastic support from Ataka, a far-right political party that is aggressively pro-Russia.9

Putin’s Foreign Admirers

“Putin decides what he wants to do, and he does it in half a day, right? He decided he had to go to their parliament—he went to their parliament, he got permission in 15 minutes.… He makes a decision and he executes it, quickly. Then everybody reacts. That’s what you call a leader.”
—Rudolph Giuliani, former New York City mayor


“In my opinion, Putin is right on these issues.… Obviously, he may be wrong about many things, but he has taken a stand to protect his nation’s children from the damaging effects of any gay and lesbian agenda.”
—Franklin Graham, American Christian evangelist


“As an operator, but not as a human being, I would say Putin [is the most admirable world leader]. The way he played the whole Syria thing. Brilliant.’”
—Nigel Farage, former leader of UK Independence Party


“Putin is certainly a pure democrat, but with an authoritarian style. Russia is a great state. The president has been endowed with great power by the constitution.… Putin tries to keep Russian interests from his perspective.”
—Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of Freedom Party of Austria


“I admire his cool head. Because there is a cold war being waged against him by the EU at the behest of the United States, which is defending its own interests. I admire that he has managed to restore pride and contentment to a great nation that had been humiliated and persecuted for 70 years.”
—Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s National Front


“Between Putin and [Italian prime minister Matteo] Renzi I will always choose Putin. I wish Putin tomorrow morning became chairman of the Council of Ministers of Italy.… Punishment against Russia [through sanctions] is a stupid measure, which will cost us 5 billion euros. If there is a part of Ukraine, which wants to be Russia, I don’t see why not.”
—Matteo Salvini, national secretary of Italy’s Northern League

Russia and the right

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union could count on the uncritical support of a network of left-wing parties and personalities in the democratic world. Some were formally communist; others were independent leftists or part of what was called the peace camp, which argued that the West, especially the United States, shared responsibility with the Soviets for the world’s political tensions, and therefore chose a path of political neutrality. In the Cold War’s later years, a growing collection of business interests encouraged détente between the Soviet Union and the United States due to the economic opportunities it would offer.

Under Putin, Russia has formed its alliances on a strictly nonideological basis. Russia has built close diplomatic ties with Venezuela, governed by a socialist movement; Iran, an authoritarian system under the rule of Shiite Muslim clerics; Syria, a dictatorship with nominally Arab nationalist views; and China, a formally communist regime devoted to state-led capitalism. The interests that draw these governments together are a common hostility to democratic norms, a need for allies to block criticism and sanctions at international bodies, a fear of “color revolutions” and the potential consequences of democracy-promotion projects backed by foreign donors, and an adversarial relationship with the United States.

In its dealings with European political parties or movements, Russia adheres to a similar policy of ideological indifference, focusing instead on those with an interest in disrupting Europe’s political establishment and weakening its unity. Thus Putin has courted leftist parties like Syriza, which leads the current government of Greece and opposes austerity measures imposed by the EU. Nigel Farage, former leader of the anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), and Nick Griffin, head of the far-right British National Party, have both praised Putin for his leadership qualities; but so has Alex Salmond of the Scottish National Party, which seeks Scottish independence within the EU and supports social democratic policies.

For the most part, however, Russia’s allies in democratic countries are found on the political right. A Swedish journalist who examined votes in the European Parliament reported that right-leaning Euroskeptic parties supported Russian interests on a select group of issues. The most reliable pro-Russian party was Dutch politician Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom, followed by France’s National Front, Italy’s Northern League, the Swedish Democrats, and UKIP.10

Putin and other Kremlin officials speak of Russia as a successful example of interreligious harmony, boast of government policies to ensure fair treatment for Russia’s large Muslim population, and denounce those who brought down Yanukovych’s government in Ukraine as fascists and pogromists. Yet when it comes to potential allies in Europe, it makes no difference to the Kremlin whether a party has views that are racist, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, or even openly fascist. Russia welcomes the support of parties like Jobbik, with its history of anti-Semitism and contempt for Hungary’s Romany population, and has no qualms about right-wing parties that speak of Muslims as criminals and rapists.

For Russia, the payoff from this strategy is a network of parties that identify with the Kremlin’s hatred of liberal values, support Russia on critical foreign policy issues, and praise Putin as a strong leader. While some of these parties are still marginal forces in domestic politics, a growing number are regarded as legitimate contenders, especially since an uncontrolled influx of refugees and an increase in terrorist attacks dented public trust in mainstream parties. Even if Russia remains unpopular in most European countries, the fact that increasingly influential political figures laud Putin for his energy, decisiveness, and eagerness to challenge liberal orthodoxies is regarded as a gain for Moscow. As these parties acquire a share of governing power in EU states, the prospects for a recognition of the Crimea annexation and the abandonment of economic sanctions improve significantly.

The benefit for European far-right parties is less clear. Though they claim to be champions of national sovereignty, they are aligning themselves with a Russian leader who has sought to dominate neighboring states and who regularly invokes his country’s imperial and Soviet past. Putin has refused to apologize for Russia’s historical subjugation of Central and Eastern Europe. He has defended the Soviet Union’s occupations as necessary to secure its national interests, and denounced the movement of former Soviet bloc countries to join the EU and seek protection in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Far-right parties apparently see Putin not as a threat to national security, but as an exemplar of their own nationalist values. Like him, they hope to build a strong national state without regard for international agreements, domestic checks and balances, or fundamental human rights. Putin’s contempt for democracy carries no stigma among these parties, for which elections and civil liberties are purely instrumental. While Le Pen, Wilders, and their ilk need elections as a means of gaining power and a free press to convey their arguments, they are hostile to the extension of rights to immigrants and minorities, and unenthusiastic about independent courts that might block their initiatives. To the extent that the EU enforces democratic norms in its region, Putin and Europe’s far right have a common enemy in Brussels.

Flacks for autocrats

Paul Manafort, a Washington lobbyist and consultant, had a long career of work for leading Republicans, including presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan. But by the time he became Donald Trump’s campaign chairman in 2016, Manafort was best known for his work on behalf of foreign political leaders, including several with distinctly autocratic pedigrees: Ferdinand Marcos, the strongman of the Philippines until 1986; Mobutu Sese Seko, the kleptocratic dictator of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo; Sani Abacha, a Nigerian military ruler; and Viktor Yanukovych, president of Ukraine from 2010 to 2014, when he was forced to abandon the presidency and flee to Russia in the wake of nationwide protests.

Manafort’s work to dress up the images of Marcos and Mobutu stood out at a time when American consultants seldom represented dictators or authoritarians. In the 1980s, U.S. political operatives with experience in major campaigns were expanding their clientele to include foreign governments and political parties, though usually in democratic settings.11

By 2005, when Manafort signed on to work with Yanukovych, political consultants, public relations specialists, and blue-chip law firms were earning fees paid by a majority of the world’s autocracies, dictatorships, and illiberal regimes. Some, especially Middle Eastern monarchies, are American allies. But others are hostile to democracy and regard the United States—and often the EU—as adversaries. The lobbyists and spin masters they employ are not located exclusively in the United States. Authoritarians with the requisite means and interests have hired representatives in London and Brussels as well as Washington and New York.

Lawyers and consultants often represent dictatorships indirectly, through state-owned enterprises. A number of China’s state businesses have hired legal and political consultants in major democracies, as have state energy corporations in oil-rich countries like Azerbaijan, Venezuela, and Angola.

But authoritarian governments generally seek the assistance of global public relations companies in the wake of repressive crackdowns at home or acts of aggression against neighbors. During Manafort’s relatively brief tenure with the Trump campaign, it emerged that several American firms had been contracted to discourage Congress from criticizing the Yanukovych government for its jailing of Yanukovych’s 2010 presidential campaign rival, Yuliya Tymoshenko. That effort failed, as members of Congress and the American media made Tymoshenko’s fate a crucial criterion in their assessment of Yanukovych’s record.12 Manafort had more success in his earlier work to prepare Yanukovych for his candidacy in 2010. Ukrainian observers credited the American adviser with smoothing Yanukovych’s rough edges, convincing him to stay on message, and reminding him that it was important to assure U.S. and European audiences that he was committed to democracy and the fight against corruption.13

In 2016, Reuters reported that five global public relations firms had competed for a contract to improve China’s image abroad. The planned campaign would presumably repair reputational damage caused by the Chinese government’s intensifying domestic repression, its aggressive territorial policies in the South China Sea, and a push by Chinese companies to acquire crucial assets in democratic countries. The firms that participated in the public relations audition were Hill+Knowlton, Ogilvy, Ketchum, FleishmanHillard, and Edelman. According to the Reuters account, the firms were asked to give a presentation “on China’s most pressing image problems and demonstrate their expertise on managing new forms of media.”14

Several other examples of consultants in the pay of authoritarians are worth mention:

  • Until rather recently, Azerbaijan was represented by a battalion of lawyers, political operatives, and public relations specialists in Washington, London, and Brussels. While some worked for the national energy company, others were hired directly by the government to explain away the regime’s miserable human rights record to the administration, members of Congress, think tanks, and other opinion makers in the United States.15
  • Bahrain spent over $32 million between 2011, when political protests broke out, and 2015 on political consultants in the United States and Britain. During that period, the country experienced an explosion in the number of political prisoners as the Sunni Muslim monarchy carried out an often violent persecution of the Shiite majority.16
  • Despite their efforts to hollow out Venezuela’s democratic infrastructure and their virulent anti-Americanism, the late Hugo Chávez and his successor, Nicolás Maduro, had no difficulty in finding American consultants who would represent the interests of their government and the national oil company.17
  • Richard Burt, a former U.S. diplomat in Republican administrations, earned hundreds of thousands of dollars promoting a critical Russian energy project while also helping to shape candidate Trump’s foreign policy positions. According to Politico, Burt received $365,000 in the first half of 2016 for lobbying on behalf of Nord Stream II, a Russian-backed pipeline plan that would deliver more natural gas directly to Western and Central Europe via the Baltic Sea, bypassing Ukraine and Belarus. At the same time, Burt was helping to write a major Trump foreign policy address. That speech, among other things, called for greater cooperation with Russia.18
  • In early 2017, an Egyptian intelligence agency hired two Washington public relations firms to lobby on the country’s behalf and boost its image. Filings with the Department of Justice showed the General Intelligence Service hired Weber Shandwick and Cassidy and Associates in a deal worth $1.8 million annually.19
  • Michael Flynn, who served briefly as President Trump’s national security adviser, did lucrative consulting work for a firm with ties to the government of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan before and immediately after the 2016 election. Among other things, Flynn wrote an op-ed that urged the American government to expel Fethullah Gülen, a controversial cleric who was accused by the Turkish government of masterminding the 2016 coup attempt. Flynn’s consulting firm was paid $535,000 for work between September 9 and November 14.20

Balance sheet

Even as they declare their disdain for liberal values, modern authoritarians take maximum advantage of the freedoms that are embedded in democratic systems. Russia, China, Venezuela, Iran, and others have established television networks that broadcast beyond their borders to countries around the globe. Viewers in the United States or Europe can watch Russia’s RT or China Central Television on their local cable systems. Pro-Beijing tycoons have gained a strong foothold in the Hong Kong press landscape, and Chinese businesses are making substantial investments in Hollywood studios and production companies.

Russia would not tolerate a foreign power providing funding for an opposition political party. Yet it helps to finance France’s National Front and quite possibly Hungary’s Jobbik. In 2013, Greenpeace activists attempted to scale a Russian offshore drilling platform as part of a protest against Arctic oil exploration; the authorities arrested the protesters, charged them with piracy, and held them for two months before their release.21 Yet at the same time, the Kremlin was allegedly fostering anti-fracking demonstrations in parts of Central and Eastern Europe.22 Russia organizes bogus election-monitoring missions that give a stamp of approval to polling in Crimea and other authoritarian settings, while effectively preventing legitimate election observation teams from functioning on its own soil.

Authoritarian states also rent the services of former government officials and members of Congress, powerful lawyers, and experienced political image-makers to persuade skeptical audiences that they share the interests of democracies. These lobbyists work to advance the economic goals of their clients’ energy companies and other businesses, but they also burnish the reputations of regimes that have been sullied by the jailing of dissidents or opposition leaders, the shuttering of media outlets, or violent attacks on peaceful demonstrators.

Is the money that authoritarians allocate for image beautification well spent? Some campaigns have been more successful than others, but autocracies that hire well-known former cabinet secretaries or elected officials to defend or deny their acts of repression often fail to sway either the public or the policy community in the United States. If democratic leaders have not mounted adequate responses to such repression, it is generally because of other strategic concerns or simple neglect, not because lobbyists have persuaded them that the regime in question is benevolent and just.

Authoritarian efforts to change governments, as opposed to perceptions, may ultimately prove more rewarding. Russia’s wager on the rise of friendly European populist parties already seems to be paying off. After Britain’s vote to withdraw from the EU and the triumph of Donald Trump in the United States, the prospect of radical shifts in global politics can no longer be dismissed as unthinkable.


1 Brian Whitmore, “Vladimir Putin, Conservative Icon,” Atlantic, December 20, 2013,

2 Ivo Oliveira, “National Front Seeks Russian Cash for Election Fight,” Politico, February 19, 2016,

3 Andrew Higgins, “Far-Right Fever for a Europe Tied to Russia,” New York Times, May 20, 2014,

4 Susi Dennison and Dina Pardijs, “The World according to Europe’s Insurgent Parties: Putin, Migration and People Power,” European Council on Foreign Relations, June 27, 2016,

5 Krisztina Than, “Special Report: Inside Hungary’s $10.8 Billion Nuclear Deal with Russia,” Reuters, March 30, 2015,

6 Dennison and Pardijs, “The World according to Europe’s Insurgent Parties.”

7 “Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Speech at the 25th Bálványos Summer Free University and Student Camp,” Website of the Hungarian Government, July 26, 2014,

8 Dennison and Pardijs, “The World according to Europe’s Insurgent Parties.”

9 Ibid.

10 Jason Karaian, “Putin Has Friends on Europe’s Far Right and Left (but Mostly Right),” Quartz, January 15, 2015,

11 Amber Phillips, “Paul Manafort’s Complicated Ties to Ukraine, Explained,” Washington Post, August 19, 2016,

12 Steven Lee Myers and Andrew E. Kramer, “How Paul Manafort Wielded Power in Ukraine Before Advising Donald Trump,” New York Times, July 31, 2016,

13 Ibid.

14 Engen Tham and Matthew Miller, “Exclusive: Beijing Auditions Foreign Public Relations Firms to Polish China Brand,” Reuters, April 22, 2016,

15 Arch Puddington, “Paul Manafort Is the Tip of the Iceberg,” Freedom at Issue, August 18, 2016,; Ilya Lozovsky, “How Azerbaijan and Its Lobbyists Spin Congress,” Foreign Policy, June 11, 2015,

16 Ken Silverstein, “How Bahrain Works Washington,” Salon, December 8, 2011,; Akbar Shahid Ahmed, “How Wealthy Arab Gulf States Shape the Washington Influence Game,” Huffington Post, September 2, 2015,

17 Lachlan Markay, “State-Owned Venezuelan Oil Firm Spends Millions on U.S. Lobbying,” Washington Free Beacon, June 6, 2016,

18 Ben Schreckinger and Iulia Ioffe, “Lobbyist Advised Trump Campaign While Promoting Russian Pipeline,” Politico, October 7, 2016,

19 Brian Rohan, “Egypt’s Mukhabarat Hires Washington Lobbyists to Boost Image,” Associated Press, March 5, 2017,

20 Theodoric Meyer, “Flynn Lobbied for Turkish-linked Firm after Election, Documents Show,” Politico, March 8, 2017,

21 Ben Stewart, “When Russia Declared War on Greenpeace: The Story of the Arctic 30 Captured on a Gazprom Drilling Platform and Sentenced to Years in Jail,” Independent, April 11, 2015,

22 Andrew Higgins, “Russian Money Suspected Behind Fracking Protests,” New York Times, November 30, 2014,