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The Popular Appeal of Authoritarianism in Russia and Bolivia

Last summer when Vladimir Putin boldly declared his interest in building a new global economic “architecture,” eschewing the influence of institutions such as the World Bank and Bretton Woods system, few in the West could predict how exactly Russia would go about doing this. The rapid rise of a new, powerful energy alliance, including countries like Iran, Venezuela, Nigeria, and Bolivia, appears to be the central instrument by which Moscow hopes to accomplish their lofty goal, and already we have seen the potential for damage posed by closer relationships between authoritarian states. banzer010408.jpg Hugo Banzer Suárez (right), an authoritarian populist president of Bolivia photographed with Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1975. What leads voters in nominally democratic countries like Russia and Bolivia to support authoritarians?

As described by Joshua Kurlantzic in the New Republic, the Russia-led “axis of autocracy” has a certain quality of non-ideological flexibility, incorporating hybrid elements of free market capitalism, limited liberties, and assorted political models. The alternative alliance has permitted some countries to regrettably move away from rule of law and further isolate themselves from the international community. Not long after both Venezuela and Bolivia announce their intention to withdraw from the ICSID (International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes), are they rewarded with substantial energy investments by both Russia and Iran.Apart from sharing energy resources, what are the common traits that could possibly tie together nations as different as Russia, Iran, Venezuela, and Bolivia? One interesting theory is explored in a 2003 paper by Amber Seligson and Joshua Tucker, which examines what motivates voters in both Bolivia and Russia to select leaders who are well known for authoritarian qualities (the article was recently republished in the journal Democratisiya). Part of their conclusion identifies past economic crises as being a major engine behind this trend: “If elites and masses believe that authoritarianism works better than democracy, fragile new democracies may be in danger. At the same time, there is also a clear economic dimension to the support for ex-authoritarian candidates. It seems possible that support for renewed authoritarianism might increase in the absence of an improvement in economic conditions.”Today I am submerged with an extraordinary amount of legal work to get into this much deeper, but I wanted to make clear that I am not for a moment trying to argue that there is any close connection between these peoples and their cultures, but rather begin a discussion over what qualities are facilitating these new forming relationships, with an emphasis on rule of law, investor rights, populism, and resource nationalism. Stay tuned for more.