Growing Influence of Authoritarians in the World

Closed Discussion 
June 18, 2015
Hotel Boscolo 

On June 18, 2015, Forum 2000 organized a closed discussion on the role of authoritarianism in regional and global politics. The discussion was held in Prague under the Chatham House Rule. Among the participants were representatives from the diplomatic community, academia, and civil society.

The discussion opened with a historical overview of democratic development in the past quarter of a century. It was assessed that democracy had promising outlooks in the 1990s. Nevertheless, in the past decade, the world entered a phase of backlash against democracy. The events following the attacks of 9/11 adversely impacted civil society and media, and led to securitization of foreign policy. At the same time the color revolutions impacted the authoritarians who started to rethink their approach against democratic norms in their countries.

The most recent phase of “democracy containment” is characterized by a more proactive approach by authoritarian regimes, such as China, Iran, Venezuela, and Russia, which are trying to limit the impact of democracy close to their borders. On an international level, countries like Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, which are relative newcomers to the international community, work from the inside to alter the rules of organizations such as OSCE and Council of Europe. At the same time, the authoritarian regimes have set up new institutions with highly non-transparent decision making processes that serve as alternatives to the democratic ones.

Yet it is the growing sophistication and interconnectedness of the authoritarians that should indeed worry the democratic community. Russia’s investments into spreading its influence in politics, media, NGO sector, and academia receive lots of attention; however China, central Asian, and Gulf countries act similarly but in less visible ways, yet both have a great impact globally. In the Balkans, institutions financed by the Gulf countries are working exclusively on the education of young Muslims; China has established media offices in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa among other regions, while the U.S. media severely limited their presence in Latin America. The influence of authoritarian regimes extends even to the U.S. and other western countries, with various think tanks and university programs being funded by the regional regimes. This, as several recent disclosures show, may lead to the lack of objectivity by respected experts, as well as a cautious stance by universities on controversial issues related to their donors. The internet governance, on the contrary, gets insufficient attention, despite the fact that much of the norm setting is now with new regional bodies that use their capacity to locally limit the freedom of the global system.

The impact of Russian propaganda received particular attention. It was noted that the exact objectives of the Russian international media from the perspective of decision makers in Russia are not known, however the polling data shows that it is not successful in persuading people, but in confusing and disorienting them. Russian TV and similar channels overblow societal issues of the West such as racism in the U.S., corruption, etc. and are very systematic in clouding various issues. Furthermore, the participants stressed that the rise of authoritarianism in various regions can be felt globally and the Western governments need to recognize this in order to prepare their response.

Finally, the participants discussed ideas on how we should respond to the emerging challenges to the democratic standards and norms. These include:

  • Determination to protect the institutions
  • Support of individuals that are trying to do this in their regions
  • Democratic learning – for authoritarians are learning fast and as a result the internet and civil society laws in China and Russia look very similar
  • Finding ways to reinvigorate democratic media
  • Finding modern arguments for why support of democracy is necessary.