As we are sitting here, a brutal war is unfolding in Ukraine. The brutality is not only evident on the battlefield. Russian soldiers have rounded up civilians, beaten them, sent them to concentration camps and deported them to Russia.
When the Ukrainians liberate their territories, they find mass graves, makeshift prisons and torture chambers. This violence illustrates a central fact about this war: The Putin regime is fighting it not only to occupy parts of Ukraine, and not only to destroy Ukraine, but also to show the outside world that it doesn’t care about human rights, the laws of war, respect for borders or seventy years of European and UN diplomacy, and it will no longer pretend to do so.
At the same time, on the other side of the world, Iranian police and security services are carrying out acts of brutality too. Young women, and even schoolgirls have marched and demonstrated for the right to be unveiled, the right to travel and work freely, the right to make their own decisions about their own lives. Their demands, and the demands of factory workers who are on strike in sympathy, have also been met with repression, arrests and violence. One young Iranian girl was murdered for singing a resistance song. Russians have also forbidden Ukrainians from singing Ukrainian songs. Different regimes, same tactics.
Meanwhile, somewhat closer to where we are sitting, the Chinese communist party last week held a congress that consolidated the one-man rule of Xi Jin Ping, who is now the de facto dictator of the largest country in the world.
He has come to enjoy this position by staging a “war on corruption” that turned into a mass purge, by inventing new surveillance tactics that control the movement of ordinary people, and by undermining the powerful democracy movement in Hong Kong and civil society all over the rest of the country.
Usually, we think of these stories – Russia, Iran, China – as belonging to different geographic areas. We assume they have little relationship to one another. But the fact that they are all unfolding at once is not a coincidence, because they are closely linked. Let me use the time that I have with you today to explain how and why.
All of us have in our minds a cartoon image of what an autocratic state looks like. There is a bad man at the top. He controls the police. The police threaten the people with violence. There are evil collaborators, and maybe some brave dissidents.
But in the 21st century, that cartoon bears little resemblance to reality. Nowadays, autocracies are run not by one bad guy, but by sophisticated networks composed of kleptocratic financial structures, security services (military, police, paramilitary groups, surveillance), and professional propagandists.
The members of these networks are connected not only within a given country, but among many countries. The corrupt, state-controlled companies in one dictatorship do business with corrupt, state-controlled companies in another. The police in one country can arm, equip, and train the police in another.
The propagandists share resources—the troll farms that promote one dictator’s propaganda can also be used to promote the propaganda of another—and themes, pounding home the same messages about the weakness of democracy and the evil of America.
This is not to say that there is some super-secret room where bad guys meet, as in a James Bond movie. Nor does the new autocratic alliance have a unifying ideology. Among modern autocrats are people who call themselves communists, nationalists, and theocrats. No one country leads this group. Washington likes to talk about Chinese influence, but what really bonds the members of this club is a common desire to preserve and enhance their personal power and wealth.
Unlike military or political alliances from other times and places, the members of this group don’t operate like a bloc, but rather like an agglomeration of companies—call it Autocracy Inc. Their links are cemented not by ideals but by deals—deals designed to take the edge off Western economic boycotts, or to make them personally rich. That is why they can operate so easily across geographical and historical lines.
In this new world, the country of Belarus is, in theory, an international pariah—Belarusian planes cannot land in Europe, many Belarusian goods cannot be sold in the US or the EU, Belarus’s brutality has been criticized by many international institutions and Belarus’s role in the war has been condemned. But in practice Belarus remains the site of one of China’s largest overseas development projects.
Iran has expanded its relationship with Belarus over the past year. Cuban officials have expressed their solidarity with Lukashenko, the Belarusian dictator, at the UN. And of course Russia offers markets, cross-border investments and police support, while Belarus, in turn, offers Russia a staging ground for its war on Ukraine.
In theory, Venezuela is also an international pariah. Since 2008, the US Canada, the EU, and many South American neighbors have increased sanctions on Venezuela, a nation so badly run that it, and not Ukraine, is the largest source of refugees in the world. But at the same time, Nicolás Maduro’s regime receives loans as well as oil investment from Russia and China. Cuba has long provided security advisers and security technology, to the country’s rulers.
The international narcotics trade keeps individual members of the regime well supplied with designer shoes and handbags. Leopoldo Lopez, a former mayor of Caracas, now in exile, and in fact in this room, has observed that although Maduro’s opponents have received some foreign assistance, it’s “nothing comparable with what Maduro has received.”
Like the Belarusian opposition, the Venezuelan opposition has charismatic leaders and dedicated grassroots activists who have persuaded millions of people to go out into the streets and protest. If their only enemy was the corrupt, bankrupt Venezuelan regime, they might win. But Lopez and his fellow dissidents are in fact fighting multiple autocrats, in multiple countries.
Like so many other people propelled into politics by the experience of injustice—like Svitlana Tsikhanouskaya in Belarus, like the leaders of the extraordinary Hong Kong protest movement, like the Cubans and the Iranians and the Burmese pushing for more open societies in their countries—they are fighting against people who control state companies and can make investment decisions worth billions of dollars for purely political reasons.
They are fighting against people who can buy sophisticated surveillance technology from China or bots from St. Petersburg. Above all, they are fighting against people who have inured themselves to the feelings and opinions of their countrymen, as well as the feelings and opinions of everybody else. Because Autocracy Inc grants not just money and not just security to its members, but also something less tangible: impunity.
Once upon a time the leaders of the Soviet Union, the most powerful autocracy in the second half of the 20th century, cared deeply about how they were perceived around the world. They vigorously promoted the superiority of their political system and they objected when it was criticized, even pounding their shoes on the table at the United Nations.
Today, the most brutal members of Autocracy Inc don’t much care if their countries are criticized, or by whom. The leaders of Burma don’t really have any ideology beyond nationalism, self-enrichment, and the desire to remain in power. The leaders of Iran confidently discount the views of Western infidels.
The leaders of Cuba and Venezuela dismiss the statements of foreigners on the grounds that they are “imperialists.” The leaders of China and Russia have spent a decade disputing the human-rights language long used by international institutions, arguing that these “Western” concepts don’t apply to them. The war in Ukraine is, as I said, one of the results.
Impervious to international criticism, modern autocrats are using aggressive tactics to push back against mass protest and widespread discontent. Vladimir Putin was unembarrassed to stage “elections” last year in which some 9 million people were barred from being candidates, the pro-government party received five times more television coverage than all the other parties put together, and vote counts were mysteriously altered anyway. More recently, he has stationed policeman next to metro stops to catch men and conscript them.
The Burmese junta is unashamed to have murdered hundreds of protesters, including young teenagers, on the streets of Rangoon. The Chinese government boasts about its destruction of the popular democracy movement in Hong Kong and stonewalls any criticism of the concentration camps it has built to lock up the minority Uighur population.
At the extremes, this kind of contempt can devolve into what the democracy activist Srdja Popovic calls the “Maduro model” of governance, after the leader of Venezuela. Autocrats who adopt it are willing to pay the price of complete disaster, to see their country enter the category of failed states, accepting economic collapse, isolation, and mass poverty if that’s what it takes to stay in power. Assad has applied the Maduro model in Syria.
It’s what Lukashenko has created in Belarus. It seems to be what the Taliban leadership had in mind when they occupied Kabul: Their goal was not a flourishing, prosperous Afghanistan, but an Afghanistan where they are in charge.
The same is true now in Russia. Clearly, Putin is happy to cut the country off from the world, end foreign investment and preside over plunging living standards. Like the Taliban or the Venezuelan regime, he doesn’t care about the wealth or well-being of ordinary Russians. That’s not his goal and it never will be. Nor does he care about the views and opinions of anyone else, in the US and Europe, in Australia or Japan, in the UN or the OSCE or the human rights community.
In part, this atmosphere of impunity is also made possible the autocratic world’s successful penetration of many established democracies. There are many examples of this success, ranging from the Russian information operations in American, French, and other elections to the business interests that helped make Germany over-dependent on Russian gas or countries as different as Turkey or Cambodia reluctant to criticize China. Some of these influence campaigns are quite subtle, offering not punishment or criticism but opportunities.
Some American and European companies have come to understand, for example, that business deals will be presented for those who learn to go along with the autocratic line. In 2018, for example, the McKinsey corporation held a corporate retreat in Kashgar, just a few miles away from a large Uyghur concentration camp .
The event directly supported one element of Chinese propaganda, namely the Chinese argument that nothing all that bad is happening in Xinjiang. But McKinsey had good reason not to talk about human rights at the retreat: At that time, the consulting firm was advising 22 of the 100 largest Chinese-state companies, including one that had helped construct the artificial islands in the South China Sea that have so alarmed the US military.
Maybe it’s unfair to pick on McKinsey. After all, the list of major corporations caught in tangled webs of personal, financial, and business links to China, Russia, Iran and other autocracies is very long. Russian money can buy former German chancellors, dinners with the British prime minister and more. Not just property moguls but banks and law firms in London, Luxembourg and Miami have long helped autocrats from Africa, Asia and Latin America as well as Europe to launder and hide their money too.
Sometimes the impact is hard to see, these actions contributed to an increase in inequality and corruption in the United States and Europe, helping to degrade democracy there too. Part of the democratic world’s inability to cope with the rise of Autocracy, Inc comes from its own internal weaknesses, some of which have been exacerbated, deliberately, by autocratic actors.
But maybe there is a lesson for us in this story, as well as a warning. After all, if the leaders of the autocratic world are able to work together, to cooperate with one another; if they can help one another suppress internal opposition, teach one another how to use surveillance technology, then why can’t the democratic world also work together to push back against them?
By “democratic world” here I mean something very specific. Not just democratic governments but also the democratic opposition in Russia, Hong Kong, Belarus, Iran, Venezuela, Burma, Saudi Arabia, Cuba and so many other states, too numerous here to list. For too long, we have all too often seen each one of those struggles as unique, which of course in some ways they are. But they are also connected, perhaps more deeply than ever before, by the fact that they face a common enemy. Not Putin, not Xi, not Maduro, but Autocracy Inc itself.
Of course some links between democracy activists around the world already exist. The fact that you are all here, in a single room in Taipei, is evidence of that fact. The World movement for Democracy, the Oslo Freedom Forum that will also take place here next week, the World Liberty Congress that will happen in Vilnius next month, these are all meetings that are held precisely in order to deepen ties between activists from around the world. But simply meeting is not enough. We should all begin to think, rather, of what we can do together, where are the concrete areas of cooperation that might make a difference.
Here’s an example: many people in this room work on kleptocracy and corruption, and many are very good at exposing theft in high places, in their own countries. What if these projects could be internationalized, with work shared and amplified in many countries? What if investigators focused not only on their own countries, but on the connections between countries? What if we could find ways of telling that story in a manner that reaches more people, on the Youtube channels and social media accounts that we all share?
Many in this room also have had the experience of lobbying their governments about reform of the financial system to minimize corruption. What if that lobbying was coordinated internationally, by people from dozens of countries, across many time zones, to focus on international kleptocracy? Maybe we could get better laws passed, maybe we could reach more people.
I could make the same argument about technology, funding, legal issues and the fight against autocratic propaganda too. In fact the list is very long, but it’s not really for me to present it. The extraordinary group of people gathered in this room are the experts, not me. Over the next decade, you will create the new coalitions that will define the democracy movement, you will come up with the technological and political solutions, you will find ways to carry them out together and you will make them work.
Let me end by noting that, if the 20th century was the story of a slow, uneven struggle, ending with the victory of liberal democracy over other ideologies—communism, fascism, virulent nationalism—it is true that the 21st century is, so far, a story of the reverse. The Stanford scholar Larry Diamond, who is also in this room, calls this an era of “democratic regression” and every survey that you can think of demonstrates that this conclusion is true, not only in the autocratic world but in the world of established democracies too, where democratic decline is also a fact.
But there is also another way to look at it. Perhaps the autocrats are working together because they no longer have confidence in their ability to fight their own democracy movements alone. Perhaps the autocracies are becoming less tolerant because they realize their opponents have better arguments, that people listen to them and that the desire for political freedom will never go away.
Perhaps the confrontations between autocrats and their populations are growing harsher precisely because democratic movements are becoming more articulate and better organized. I am certain that we have the brainpower and the willpower in this room to define and match the challenges of this new world. I look forward to hearing more about how you will meet them. Thank you very much. – Rappler.com