A great deal has been said and written in recent years about the world’s democratic recession. Many democracies suffered from the weakening or suborning of the institutions on which their political and civic processes depend, while other have seen authoritarian impulses essentially destroy a tenuous democratic veneer. But more than that, authoritarianism itself is on the march.
At the beginning of the 1990s, democracy was widely seen as the only viable endpoint of political evolution. The transitions from one-party states, Communist regimes and military and civilian dictatorships that had been ongoing since the 1970s – in southern Europe, Latin America, Africa and parts of Asia – suggested that ultimately, democracy encapsulated a universal aspiration for competitive politics, representative government and the freedoms that had been associated with it.
The reality was rather different. Democracy is no guarantor of development, stability or probity in government. Nor was it immune from the manipulation of sectarian entrepreneurs or the vicissitudes of ethnic or cultural or socio-economic resentments.
While these problems created a gap for uncommitted democrats to tamper with their domestic arrangements and undermine the substance of the democracies in which they operated, the opportunities for more openly authoritarian societies were more profound.
As is pointed out in an illuminating collection of essays entitled Authoritarianism Goes Global: the Challenge to Democracy (published in 2016), not only did authoritarian regimes push back against democratising and liberalising impulses domestically, but they found ways to export their ideas.
China’s rapid growth – demonstrating that modernisation and development can coexist with authoritarian control – has been a boon for authoritarian governments worldwide. China itself has pushed the idea of ‘regime-type neutral’ in its dealings with the outside world. That is, its stance is that its political arrangements and those of other countries are normatively no better or worse than any other. Countries should in this reasoning decide for themselves what their political systems should look like. Democracy, freedom, human rights are to be interpreted according to national definitions and priorities. Indeed, China itself sometimes presents its own system as one of ‘Chinese democracy.’
At the same time, China has spent profusely on promoting a narrative of China as a responsible, reliable partner for development. Increasingly sophisticated in their work, Chinese propagandists have sought to tailor messages to various constituencies (ethnic Chinese communities abroad being key here), to enlist the support of prominent personalities and to leverage cultural transmission to its benefit.
Iran, likewise, has used claims of the culturally-specific interpretation of democracy and human rights – ‘Islamic democracy’ and ‘Islamic human rights’, in its own case – as part of its own strategy to rebut criticism of its own record. It has matched this by seeking out alliances with other states wary of their own records being probed.
Venezuela has used its oil resources along with ideologically-motivated investments in telecommunications and the invocation of Latin American nationalism in its own drive for influence.
Russia has used its media outlets not only for propaganda within Russia, but abroad. It has also provided platforms for political figures of diverse ideological persuasions whose agendas are in some way useful to Russia – generally because their views are hostile to the Western ‘establishment’. Russian media content is shared with like-minded media groups elsewhere. In a similar vein, Russia has provided funding and support to political groups elsewhere in the world. ‘Today the Kremlin forges alliances with and funds groups on both the left and the right,’ writes Peter Pomerantsev, ‘European right-wing nationalists are seduced by Russia’s anti-EU message; Europe’s far-left is enticed by the prospect of fighting US hegemony; and US religious conservatives are attracted to the Kremlin’s stance against homosexuality.’
Altogether, this has created a web of alliances and cooperation, formal and informal, that has the net effect of fortifying authoritarian regimes.
Transborder authoritarianism has an even darker side. Last week, the US-based NGO Freedom House released a report entitled Defending Democracy in Exile: Understanding and Responding to Transnational Repression. This calls attention to a growing propensity among authoritarian regimes to go beyond reputation burnishing, propaganda and influence-buying to secure themselves. Repression itself is crossing borders.
It is also doing so at an accelerating pace. The report identifies some 36 countries that targeted activists, dissidents and refugees outside their own borders in 2021. This was an increase of four over the number that had done so the previous year. The majority of countries named as engaging in transnational repression are nondemocratic, including China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Vietnam. Thailand and Turkey, which have both undergone democratic regression in recent years appear too, as does India – which, despite being a democracy, has evinced some concerning authoritarian trends.
The report states: ‘Freedom House has recorded 735 incidents of direct, physical transnational repression that occurred between January 2014 and December 2021, with 85 incidents in 2021 alone.’
Algeria, Belarus, Comoros and Nigeria also appeared in the report for the first time. Belarus’ conduct was especially noteworthy, accounting for 31% of the repressive actions recorded in the study. One account of the Belorussian authorities’ actions makes for particularly alarming reading:
The most audacious act of transnational repression committed by Belarusian authorities was the forced landing of a commercial airliner traveling from Athens to Vilnius to arrest journalist and activist Raman Pratasevich and his companion, Sofia Sapega. Belarusian officials faked a bomb threat to divert the plane to Minsk and detain Pratasevich, who had left the country in 2019 and used a channel on the social media platform Telegram to document the regime’s brutality against protesters.
It also points out that the expansion of extra-territorial repression was enabled by the decline of freedom worldwide, in the sense that unfree countries are inclined to assist one another in undertaking harassment. Close to three quarters of the incidents of repression recorded occurred in countries that were not free. It noted, for example, the Turkey has become increasingly unsafe for the refugee communities it hosts. For various reasons, it has been a destination for dissidents from such countries as China and Turkmenistan – both regimes seeking to stamp out dissent abroad. Turkey has been willing to assist in this, seeking closer ties with these countries and having few qualms about doing so. Repression is often a reciprocal business among countries with an ethos hostile to freedom.
How is this done? The report examines twelve methods, running a full spectrum of severity: assassination, assault, physical intimidation, unexplained disappearances, rendition, detention, unlawful deportation, the abuse of Interpol’s services, passport and document controls, coercion by proxy, digital threats and the use of spyware.
Examples of all of these are numerous and chilling, even where – as in cyber bullying – not much bodily danger is present. The goal is to raise the costs of opposition and dissent, whether physically or emotionally.
Physical danger is, of course, a real threat, and fully a third of the 36 countries named – 12 in all – have used assassination. Russia appears to be the most prolific in this regard. Assassination accounts for a quarter of Russian extraterritorial repression and one third of total assassinations recorded in the report. Kidnapping and ‘disappearances’, sometimes even in democratic host countries – last year, a number of Iranian agents were indicted for the attempted abduction of author Masih Alinejad in the United States – have been documented too. This is complemented by threats to loved ones remaining in the home country.
Perhaps most concerningly, in addition to cooperating to limit the scope for international human rights enforcement, authoritarian governments have sought to use international institutions such as Interpol – a body of great value in combating criminality – to assist them in harassing dissidents. This is done by issuing Red Notices for particular individuals, who may be apprehended abroad and then shipped back to the custody of the government of which they are critical.
And lest anyone think that South Africa is untouched by this, recall that there have been a number of suspected assassinations of Rwandan exiles here, including that of Seif Bamporiki in Nyanga last year.
Fortunately, the rising vulnerability of exiled dissidents to the extended reach of authoritarian regimes has been recognised in some democracies, such as Canada and Sweden. Germany’s intelligence service responded to a request from its Turkish counterpart to surveil members of Germany’s large Turkish community – recognising the import of this, German intelligence warned the intended targets of the request and that they might be in trouble if they travelled to Turkey.
‘No country that hosts exiles and diasporas has yet solved the problem of transnational repression,’ the report remarks. Noting that some measures have been taken by individual countries, it adds: ‘These domestic responses, however, can never be more than partial solutions, because transnational repression is both a symptom and a driver of the global spread of authoritarian rule.’
It provides a long and detailed list of recommendations, which deserve to be studied individually.
But the challenge of globalised authoritarianism requires a broad recognition and understanding of the growing authoritarian assertiveness globally. Mark Steyn, a Canadian journalist unafraid of controversy, has made the point that democracy and civic freedom are a delicate and exceptional thing in world history, and should never be taken for granted. Those of us who care about freedom would be well advised to pay close attention.
The struggle of those living under repression is something in which we all have an interest, sometimes a more direct one than we might realise.