How Autocrats Use Democracy to Their Own Advantage
AP Photo/Davit Hakobyan, PanARMENIAN, File
How Autocrats Use Democracy to Their Own Advantage
AP Photo/Davit Hakobyan, PanARMENIAN, File
Story Stream
recent articles

During the Republican presidential debate on Dec. 15, the good half of the candidates spoke about the futility of democracy promotion. While these debates typically stand out for their scarcity of fact-based arguments, this specific line of discussion, from the political party that puts democracy promotion at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy, points to the confusion that marks the implementation and the results of efforts to promote democracy.

Here is an example from a post-Soviet state that has been a long-term recipient of democracy promotion, and a one-time aspirant to greater democratization:

On Dec. 6, 2015, Armenia undertook a constitutional reform. It effectively moved from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary system. The research tells us that a parliamentary system is more conducive to democratization than a semi-presidential one, since it is supposed to provide people with more direct power. 

Yet these seemingly democratic reforms have done more to preserve autocratic power than to encourage meaningful democratization. The latter would require moving beyond formal changes and addressing the challenges inherent to the current regime: perpetually rigged elections, abuse of administrative resources by the ruling party, corruption, and limits on press freedom, to name a few. Yet there seems to be little if any political willingness for democratic progress among the ruling elites. 

The opposition in Armenia has claimed that constitutional changes were carried out with the single goal of ensuring incumbent president Serge Sarkisian's power once his second term comes to an end, after which he is banned from running by the Constitution. Temporarily swapping positions with someone else, as was done in Russia in 2009, was out of the question for Sarkisian. Among other reasons, Sarkisian's ability to control his coalition does not match that of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Thus, another largely rigged vote seems to provide a quicker fix than complicated coalition-building, or fair elections that are likely to result in a transfer of power from the incumbent. At the same time, moving to a parliamentary system provides a cloak of democratic progress, one needed during ongoing negotiations with the European Union, and in order to dodge criticism from the United States.

This specific abuse of democratic principles is indicative of larger trends in domestic democratization, and in international democracy promotion.
For starters, even as democratic rhetoric is on the rise, real democratic behavior is declining. Take Russia as the prime example. The initial promise of its speedy democratization is long gone, and Moscow has managed to consolidate its authoritarian regime. Yet even if the notion of democracy is not particularly popular among the public, its presence is easily visible in official rhetoric. Terms such as managed democracy or suverennaya demokratia (sovereign democracy) are meant to show that Russia's democracy is beyond all reproach. This is not to say that Russia's regime is inherently democratic, but it underlines that the Russian political elites have also agreed to the global dominance of the democratic script and have been paying it lip service. There are virtually no countries in the world that would refrain from styling themselves as some sort of democracy.
Second, while the debate in the 1990s and early 2000s was dominated by the understandings of democratic contagion or democratic learning, the 2010s are about authoritarian learning. The latter has come to attention specifically after the initial events of the Arab Spring: The experiences of toppled regimes in Tunisia and Egypt taught other authoritarian governments to become savvier in preventing similar outcomes. Moldova is usually considered a frontrunner in democratization among post-Soviet countries. But Chisinau followed Russia's example and passed anti-gay propaganda legislation, which it later overturned in anticipation of signing an Association Agreement with the European Union. EU member Lithuania has been considering a similar law, while Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is a known admirer of Russia's illiberal practices. Less surprisingly, Kyrgyzstan followed Russia's example and adopted the so-called foreign agent law. 
Third, democracy promoters prefer stability even if it often comes at the expense of democracy. This results in an absence of pressure on countries that fail to implement democratic reforms but remain strategically important. Differentiated treatment of Belarus and Azerbaijan by both the European Union and the United States is one of the most vivid examples of the unevenly applied pressure. This much-criticized preference further adds to the resilience to change of authoritarian regimes, and to their growing ability to adapt to the demands and interests of democracy promoters without tangible change.

(AP photo)