Undermining Democracy: 21st Century Authoritarians | Freedom House

Pivotal authoritarian regimes have adapted and modernized their repressive methods and are undermining democracy in updated, sophisticated, and well funded ways. The result is a disruptive and serious new challenge to the emergence of an international system based on the rule of law, human rights, and open expression. Freedom House, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia convened experts for a series of workshops over the course of 2008 and 2009 to analyze the ways in which five influential countries—China, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, and Venezuela—are impeding democratic development both within and beyond their borders. These countries were selected because of their fundamental geopolitical importance. They are integrated into broader economic, political and security networks and exert influence on international policy at the regional and global levels.

Principal Findings:

Democracy Redefined: Authoritarian regimes are tarnishing the public understanding of democracy. A distorted version of the concept is communicated to domestic audiences through state-dominated media. Especially on television, these regimes put forth a dual message that stresses their own achievements while belittling core institutions of liberal democracy. In Russia, the authorities have placed a chokehold on independent media and shut out international broadcasts. Using its own controlled domestic media, the Kremlin creates ideological smokescreens—national renewal, historically indiscriminate nostalgia, and the concept of “sovereign democracy.” A similar distortion of the term democracy by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) complicates domestic arguments about its political system. Russia and China muddy the waters abroad as well with well-financed international media initiatives. The CCP plans to spend billions of dollars to expand its overseas media operations and “Russia Today,” the Kremlin’s international television outlet, had benefited from more than $100 million in funding as of May 2008. Venezuela and Iran have also launched multimillion dollar international broadcasting platforms.

Internet Under Threat: Leading authoritarians are using advanced and well-funded techniques to subvert legitimate online discourse, especially in China, Iran and Russia. In addition to controlling access through physical, economic, and technological means, these regimes have deployed armies of commentators and provocateurs like the “Fifty Cent Party” in China and the “Brigades” in Russia to disrupt legitimate internet discussions. As part of their modern adaptation, these regimes are using the market to solidify their control. China has commercialized censorship for old and new media alike. In Pakistan, the government has only occasionally engaged in crude attempts to block opposition websites but the Taliban and other extremists use the internet to coordinate activities, attract recruits, and spread antidemocratic ideology.

Authoritarian Foreign Aid: By doling out billions of dollars in no strings attached foreign aid, these regimes are hobbling international efforts to improve governance and reduce corruption. Chinese leaders put forward a doctrine of “win-win” foreign relationships, encouraging Latin American, African, Asian, and Arab states to form mutually beneficial arrangements with China based on the principle of noninterference. The Chinese aid program appears to attract willing recipients; the World Bank estimates that China is now the largest lender to Africa. Russia, Iran, and Venezuela have similarly used their oil wealth to build foreign alliances and bankroll clients abroad, particularly in their home regions.

Rules-Based Organizations Under Siege: As part of a broader effort to export authoritarian influence, these regimes are disrupting key international rules-based bodies that support democratic and human rights, including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Organization of American States (OAS) and the European Court of Human Rights. At the United Nations, they have formed ad hoc coalitions to blunt criticism, obstruct proposed sanctions, and advance antidemocratic measures. The governments of Venezuela, Russia, and China have been particularly active in creating new institutions to serve as counterweights to existing rules-based multilateral organizations.

Illiberal Education—Tainting the Next Generation: By either actively promoting or enabling the distortion of history through a nationalistic or extremist lens, authoritarian regimes are inculcating in the next generation attitudes of hostility toward democracy and suspicion of the outside world. In China, regime-authorized textbooks stress the theme that calls for expanded human rights are an instrument for the West to “keep China down.” History courses ignore or explain away the dark chapters in the country’s history during the Communist era, including the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, or the Tiananmen massacre of 1989. In Russia, textbooks introduced at the Kremlin’s direction depict Stalin as among the country’s greatest leaders and suggest that the Great Terror was product of the times. In May 2009, President Dmitry Medvedev created a special commission to investigate and counter falsified versions of history that damage Russia’s “international prestige.” In Iran, school textbooks seek to perpetuate the regime’s theocratic ideology and promote an intolerant and illiberal view of the world, while in Pakistan many of the country’s thousands of madrassas teach children an intolerant theory of world affairs that demonizes those who do not subscribe to an extreme interpretation of Islam.

Challenges Going Forward:

Today’s authoritarians recognize that absolute control over information and economic activity is neither possible nor necessary. Instead, they have adapted their traditional coercive mechanisms with more subtle methods. Political discourse is “managed,” rather than blatantly dictated, through the selective suppression or reshaping of news and information. And while the most important business entities are either co-opted or swallowed up by the state, the days of the command economy are over. Their citizens are allowed to enjoy personal freedoms—including foreign travel and access to consumer goods—that would have been unthinkable in the era of Mao and Brezhnev.

During the Cold War, the nature and goals of the dominant authoritarian states were clearer. In contrast, modern authoritarians, integrated into the global economy and participating in many of the world’s established financial and political institutions, present a murkier challenge.

In a 21st-century context, isolation of or disengagement from these states are not viable options. And generally speaking, in order to advance economic interests, these regimes would prefer engagement with the United States and its allies, but only on their terms.

The strength and competitive advantage of democratic states lie in their rules-based, accountable, and open systems, and in the values and standards that support them. By extension, an international system that is grounded in human rights and the rule of law is far more desirable than the opaque and capricious alternative being actively pursued by the regimes examined in this study. It is therefore in the democracies’ interest to vigorously safeguard and promote the very qualities that set them apart from the authoritarians.

Download the full report