When asked not long ago about the effectiveness of the European Union’s posture toward an increasingly assertive and illiberal Russia, former Czech president and communist-era dissident Vaclav Havel argued that the European democracies had lost their voice and needed to take a firmer, more open stand against abuses by their large and strategically important neighbor to the east.*
He warned that today’s Russia is advancing a new form of authoritarianism, with methods of control that are significantly more sophisticated than the classic totalitarian techniques of the Soviet Union.
Finally, the former Czech leader lamented that as democratic states increasingly gave primacy to economic ties in their relations with Russia, the promotion of human rights was being shunted to the margins. The Kremlin was intensifying its repression of the political opposition, independent journalists, and civil society organizations, but the response from established democracies had softened to the point of inaudibility.
Havel was referring only to Russia, but he could just as easily have been speaking of China, another authoritarian country whose high rates of economic growth and rapid integration into the global trading system have had the effect of pushing the issues of democratic governance and human rights to a back burner. China, like Russia, has modernized and adapted its authoritarianism, forging a system that combines impressive economic development with an equally impressive apparatus of political control.
As in Russia, political dissidents and human rights defenders in China continue to challenge the regime. Chinese activists recently published “Charter 08,” a human rights and democracy manifesto that draws its inspiration from Charter 77, the Czechoslovak human rights movement of which Havel himself was a founder.
But while Europe’s anticommunist dissidents were the focus and beneficiaries of a worldwide protest movement, the Chinese intellectuals who endorsed Charter 08 labor in virtual anonymity. Few in the United States and Europe are familiar with the name of Liu Xiaobo, a respected literary figure and leader of Charter 08, who has been imprisoned by the Chinese authorities since December 8, 2008, for his advocacy of democracy and the rule of law in China. Havel too spent years in jail during the Soviet period for questioning the communist authorities’ monopoly on power and their denial of basic human and democratic rights. But the world paid attention to his plight; even government leaders raised his case in meetings with communist officials. In China, Liu remains in detention and effectively incommunicado, and democratic leaders rarely speak out publicly on his behalf.
Today’s advocates for freedom may be receiving less attention, and less assistance, from their natural allies in the democratic world because the systems that persecute them are poorly understood in comparison with the communist regimes and military juntas of the Cold War era. As a result, policymakers do not appear to appreciate the dangers these 21stcentury authoritarian models pose to democracy and rule of law around the world.
It is within this context of shifting and often confused perceptions of threats and priorities that Freedom House, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and Radio Free Asia undertook an examination of five pivotal states—Russia, China, Iran, Venezuela, and Pakistan—to advance our common understanding of the strategies and methods these regimes are employing, both within and beyond their borders, to impede human rights and democratic development.
The countries assessed in Undermining Democracy were selected because of their fundamental geopolitical importance. They are integrated into larger economic, political, and security networks and exert a powerful influence on international policy at the regional and global levels.
However, they are also geographically, economically, ideologically, and politically diverse. Iran, a unique authoritarian polity ruled by Shiite Muslim clerics, looms over the Middle East. The governing cliques in Russia cloak their kleptocracy in a contradictory blend of Soviet nostalgia and right-wing nationalism. Venezuela is ruled by a novel type of Latin American caudillo who holds up Fidel Castro as his mentor. China sets the standard for authoritarian capitalism, with rapid economic growth sustaining a single-party political system. Pakistan, a South Asian linchpin, is faltering under the legacy of military rule and an extremist insurgency. Three of these countries—Iran, Russia, and Venezuela—are heavily dependent on oil and gas exports, and exhibit all of the peculiar distortions of so-called petrostates.
The present analysis comes at a time of global “political recession.” According to recent findings from Freedom in the World, Freedom House’s annual survey, political rights and civil liberties have suffered a net global decline for three successive years, the first such deterioration since the survey’s inception in 1972. Freedom House’s global analysis of media independence, Freedom of the Press, has shown a more prolonged, multiyear decline. While the consolidated authoritarian systems of China, Russia, and Iran are rated Not Free in Freedom in the World, and the rapidly evolving, semi-authoritarian states of Pakistan and Venezuela are currently rated Partly Free, all five have played an important role in contributing to the global setbacks for democracy.
It is incumbent on the established democracies and human rights campaigners around the world to both understand the methods of the antidemocratic forces in these countries and actively counter their stratagems. Failure to do so can only grant them victory by default.