Elections have traditionally been interpreted as fair and competitive just as long as they were free of blatant fraud on election day. Modern authoritarians took note. Increasingly, they have developed strategies that aim to fix the outcome of political contests weeks, months, or even years before the ballots are cast. Their goal is to win elections while avoiding the brazen acts of vote rigging that inevitably trigger international opprobrium.
Until recently, it could at least be said that countries with objectionable political systems played host to major global sports competitions only occasionally. Forty-four years elapsed between the Berlin and Moscow Olympics, and it was another 28 years before the games were held in Beijing. Second-tier events in dictatorial states tended to be limited to low-profile sports like weightlifting and wrestling. But all that is changing fast. Some of the most prestigious international athletic competitions have recently been held, or are now set to be held, in countries that regularly make world headlines with their rigged elections, state-dominated media, repression of minorities, or full-bore retreat from democracy to authoritarianism.
In recent remarks made at the Heritage Foundation, House Speaker John Boehner said that “in Russia’s use of old tools and old thinking, we see nothing short of an attempt to restore Soviet-style power and influence.” In using this formulation the Speaker gets things only half right. Moscow is undeniably seeking ways to reassert power and influence. But Russia’s Putin-era effort to flex its muscles is not in the Soviet mold, as the Speaker suggests. The contemporary effort represents, instead, a modern, adaptive form of authoritarianism, whose particular methods and tools pose new challenges.
About a year ago I attended a meeting whose purpose was to showcase newly elected Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych before an audience consisting mostly of representatives of the world’s largest multinational corporations. Yanukovych’s remarks were carefully crafted to appeal to these guests. But he devoted the bulk of his presentation to an explanation of his commitment to the strengthening of Ukrainian democracy. Ukraine, he declared, would be Western-oriented under his watch. He promised to protect freedom of the press, minority rights, and—here he was especially emphatic—the rule of law.