Defning Modern Authoritarianism

Writing in Bloomberg View, Leonid Bershidsky argues that more and more emerging economies are led by people modelling themselves after the leadership style of Vladimir Putin – Narendra Modi, Najib Razak, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to name a few.

Bershidsky ventures into the phenomenology of modern authoritarians – which, contrary to old school dictators, rely on a combination of selective freedoms and selective repressions:

It’s not that Putin himself is inherently evil or contagious. The crucial similarities are not really among the leaders themselves but among all authoritarian regimes regardless of the continents on which they operate. The most typical ones:

  1. The leader’s personal power either exceeds the legal allotment or allows the leader to change the law when needed;
  2. Justice is selective and politically motivated (“For my friends, everything, for my enemies, the law”), often in the guise of anti-corruption campaigns;
  3. Censorship of the media falls short of totalitarian repression but stifles dissenting opinions;
  4. The regime associates itself with “traditional values,” revisionist history and strong nationalist rhetoric (and, sometimes, action);
  5. Leaders express irritation with Western “double standards” and “preaching,” believing that the West operates just as cynically, only less openly.

(…) The West squandered its opportunity by cynical and self-serving interference in the emerging world’s affairs. It botched democracy’s marketing campaign: While democratic values themselves are hard to tarnish, the politicians who put themselves forward as their champions did not live up to the task.

A vast generalization perhaps, but Bershidsky has a point – more and more of the world’s emerging economic powers are deficient in rule of law and guided by the “strong hand” approach to state security. But it’s going to take more than just “good examples” to turn this trend around, I would suggest.