=> WP_Post Object
[ID] => 1534
[post_author] => 32
[post_date] => 2017-03-21 21:40:26
[post_date_gmt] => 2017-03-21 21:40:26
[post_content] => Authoritarian states have always sought to control information and manipulate the message. Historically, they relied on the blunt instruments of censorship and propaganda. Modern authoritarians still imprison journalists and close down newspapers, but they have also found more sophisticated ways to suppress criticism and skew narratives in their favour. Governments still need to control information at home, but they are also engaged in an information battle internationally. They use Western PR companies, government-backed NGOs and think-tanks, pliant or supportive academics and politicians, and interventions on social media to suppress critics and legitimise their regimes.
Russia has been most active in the information battle, and its goals and aims are far more ambitious than many other post-Soviet states. President Putin has called on staff in government-funded Russian media to “break the monopoly of the Anglo-Saxon media.”
Journalists are seen to be on the frontline of an ‘information war’, part of a broader pattern of geopolitical competition. The Russian government has funded an array of news agencies and NGOs that promote a Kremlin-funded line. The news agency Sputnik, launched in 2014, was designed, according to its head Dmitry Kiselev, to fight ‘against aggressive propaganda that is now being fed to the world and which forces a unipolar construction of the world’.
Information takes a prominent place in Russia’s National Security Strategy, in which Moscow outlines a struggle for global dominance, in which ‘information mechanisms’ play a central role.
Other authoritarian states in Eurasia use some of Russia’s templates for controlling information and promoting alternative narratives, but they are less concerned with global geopolitics and more worried about defending their own regimes from domestic and international criticism. Across Eurasia, nervous autocrats have cracked down hard on independent journalists, bloggers and media outlets over the last decade. Freedom House rates 10 of the 13 post-Soviet republics as ‘not free’ in terms of their media.
But it’s not just about censorship and repression. The smarter authoritarians understand the need to repackage official narratives in popular formats. News programmes aim for Western-style production values, and use discussion shows and talking heads. Only the most repressive states, such as Turkmenistan, still favour dreary, Soviet-style propaganda.
Internationally, this mimicry of genre is even more important. States use public relations experts to dress up their government narrative in language that will appeal to a Western audience. The Kazakh government has hired a string of public relations and strategic consultancy companies, including Portland Communications, Tony Blair Associates, BGR Gabara and Media Consulta, to promote its own narrative of economic progress and political stability and downplay criticism of its human rights record and lack of democratic progress.
PR companies place op-eds in leading Western newspapers, lobby parliamentarians and aim to influence government policies. Azerbaijan has also been an active user of Western PR companies, with ARCO, CSM Strategic and Burson Marsteller all reported to have signed contracts with the regime, despite the rapid worsening of government repression against political opponents in recent years.
One variation on the role of PR companies has been the use of private intelligence companies and legal consultancies. Arcanum, a Zurich-based company controlled by the US holding company RJI Capital Group, is a private intelligence group that employs many former senior intelligence officials as its consultants. According to opposition Kazakh newspapers, citing leaked emails, the Kazakh government employed Arcanum on a multi-million dollar contract as part of its campaign against exiled banker Mukhtyar Ablyazov.
Although it does not name its client, Arcanum outlines this type of contract on its website: ‘Arcanum has been retained in a major political dispute between a sovereign government and its political foes. Arcanum’s investigations have resulted in the tracing of illegal assets worth billions of dollars by one of our clients’ opponents. Arcanum also carried out a public relations and messaging campaign which resulted in front page media placements in major publications around the world. These included the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, New York Times, Washington Post, RIA-Novosti, Ynet (Israel), Associated Press, Agence France Presse, and Reuters.’
Although repackaged op-eds do ensure that a government’s views are disseminated, they gain more credibility if they can be backed by an independent source, such as a respected civil society or non-governmental organisation. Leaked emails published by the Le Temps
newspaper in Geneva appear to show a PR campaign proposed to the Kazakh Ministry of Justice, which involved funding an ‘independent’ report by a European anti-corruption NGO.
The Kazakh government has also funded Western think-tanks and universities. Via the lobbying firm APCO, it funded three reports on Kazakhstan by the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University. Although CACI insisted that they had full editorial control over the reports, the resulting papers appear likely to have been viewed positively in Astana.
Kazakhstan has also been active in funding its own civil-society type organisations abroad. Many governments do fund foreign policy research institutes, but reputable think-tanks offer the prospect of research and advocacy that has some independence from government views. For example, the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) is an independent -think-tank that embraces a plurality of opinions. The Brussels-based Eurasian Council on Foreign Affairs (ECFA) may sound similar, but it is a very different beast.
It mimics the form and activity of a think-tank – it publishes papers, hosts workshops and has a board of directors that includes senior European politicians such as former EU External Affairs Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner and former UK foreign minister Jack Straw. In reality, however, it is funded by the government of Kazakhstan, and the views and opinions expressed by its representatives hardly differ from the official views of the government in Astana.
The ECFA is just one of many mimicking civil society organisations that appear to have the form of think-tanks and civil society organisations, but are actually acting as conduits for the thinking of post-Soviet authoritarian governments. The European Azerbaijan Society (TEAS) plays a similar role. Although it appears to be an independent organisation, designed to promote good relations between Azerbaijan and Europe, in practice it is little more than a lobbying organisation, run by PR experts.
A similar mode of mimicry is at work around elections in post-Soviet autocracies. Legitimate international election monitoring bodies, such as the OSCE’s ODIHR, have strongly criticised elections in countries such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan. However, to try to reduce the influence of these critics, authoritarian governments have invited alternative election observers to legitimise their flawed polls. Some of these so called ‘zombie monitors’ come from the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) or similar organizations.
But others are Western politicians or academics, willing to whitewash accounts of elections, however undemocratic the polls may be. Most importantly, it is these voices that are quoted in local media to impress domestic audiences. For example, at parliamentary elections in Kazakhstan in 2015, where official observers from the OSCE/ODIHR team saw ‘serious procedural errors and irregularities’, observers invited by the government from Britain, Lithuania, Norway, Austria and Bosnia-Herzegovina gave positive accounts of the election at a press conference held even before the polls closed.
At parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan in November 2015, the OSCE/ODIHR cancelled its monitoring mission after the government imposed restrictions on the number of observers it could deploy. Instead, the regime drafted in its own selection of some 500 ‘monitors’, including foreign businesspeople and parliamentarians with favourable views of the government, and members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).
The conclusions of these observers were used in the domestic press to legitimise the election.
For example, under the headline, ‘UK House of Lords: Azerbaijan ensures transparent parliamentary election’ Azerbaijani media reported praise for the elections from British parliamentarians Lord Evans and Baroness O'Cathain.
Baroness O'Cathain’s visit was arranged through the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Azerbaijan, with air fares and hotel paid for by the Azerbaijan embassy in London.
Such an arrangement is not unusual: APPGs are useful mechanisms for lobbying; in a number of cases governments have provided administrative support to the groups and organised country visits.
The European Azerbaijan Society (TEAS) even acts as the secretariat for the APPG on Azerbaijan.
Even the most authoritarian regimes can find unofficial election observers to boost the government narrative in this way. In Uzbekistan, one of the most repressive states in the world, elections are notoriously undemocratic. The OSCE/ODIHR’s report on the 4 December 2016 presidential election concluded that ‘The legal framework is not conducive to holding democratic elections’ and noted that ‘limits on fundamental freedoms undermine political pluralism and led to a campaign devoid of genuine competition.’
However, the Uzbek government invited European politicians to monitor and report positively on the poll.
This has been the pattern at previous elections. Following parliamentary elections in April 2015, British academics and businesspeople who had acted as government-approved ‘observers’ provided positive accounts of the poll at an Uzbek embassy press conference.
The information battle has been particularly fraught over events of state violence and repression, such as the killing of hundreds of civilians in Andijan in May 2005. International organisations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, claimed that Uzbek government forces were involved in a massacre of civilians.
The Uzbek government described the events as an externally-backed terrorist attack, in which those who died were the victims of Islamist terrorists.
A government video of the events was presented at the Carnegie Center in Washington DC. Although the hosts attempted to be even-handed, the summary suggested that ‘The film…does not decisively answer whether the use of force, and more specifically its timing was justified’.
This ambivalent conclusion was at odds with the sharp condemnation of the Andijan violence by groups such as Amnesty International, which described the violence as ‘a mass killing of civilians’.
More than a decade later, the interpretation of the Andijan events remains contested. While human rights groups continue to call for accountability for the killings more than 10 years after the events, the Uzbek government has rejected any criticism. They have received partial support from sympathetic Western analysts, who have argued that the Andijan incident ‘was not a massacre’
and criticised Western media for ‘jumping to judgement’ against the Uzbek government.
Disputes over the nature of events and the appropriate responses are entirely legitimate. Yet, in cases such as Andijan, authoritarian governments have been able to use accounts by Western academics and analysts to discredit critical accounts of contested events and bolster support for government narratives.
The new battlefield for the modern authoritarian state is digital. Sites such as Facebook or its Russian equivalent Vkontakte are hugely popular across the former Soviet Union. Enthusiasm has waned for the idea of social media as a potentially revolutionary technology, which would challenge authoritarian control over the free flow of information. Although social media allows news and online discussions to circulate relatively freely, authoritarian states have become increasingly sophisticated in their responses. States still use so-called ‘first generation’ controls, such as blocking websites or closing down access to the Internet:
Azerbaijan has been particularly repressive in its response to bloggers.
But states have increasingly turned to new legislation and the courts to limit digital activism, both domestically and internationally. The Kazakh government attempted to use US courts to attack the opposition Respublika
website, after it published leaked emails.
In a series of court cases, Kazakhstan used the US Computer Fraud and Abuse Act to mount a campaign through international courts to close the newspaper’s website and harass its editors and contributors. Although Kazakhstan ultimately failed to win the case, the pressure group EFF argued that the US statute was ‘deeply flawed’ and highlighted the danger that repressive governments may use anti-hacking and computer fraud legislation to suppress legitimate journalism internationally.
Governments also use social media to track and control individual dissidents or to monitor possible anti-government protests or demonstrations.
In this way, social media offers a highly effective mechanism of mass surveillance. According to a report by Privacy International in 2014, ‘Central Asian governments use electronic surveillance technology to spy on activists and journalists in the country, and exiles abroad’. Israeli companies have reportedly provided extensive technological support.
A detailed report by EFF also claimed that the Kazakh authorities may have hacked accounts of political opponents in exile.
The next step for authoritarian regimes is to use social media as a platform for their own propaganda, using their own social media sites or – more effectively – encouraging independent bloggers and activists to support government policies. Sometimes, they are successful. A tour of popular bloggers in Kazakhstan to the town of Zhanaozen, immediately after 14 protestors were shot dead by police in December 2011, provided support for important parts of the government narrative.
By ensuring that ‘independent’ bloggers and activists circulate aspects of a government narrative, the message gains more credibility with a wider public. Government officials have even taken to Twitter and Facebook to plug their own policies. Sometimes this digital activism backfires: news reports linked the demotion of former Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Massimov to his over-active use of Twitter.
However, there is a gradual shift from governments simply trying to block social media to finding creative ways of using it to promote their own message and delegitimise opponents.
Post-Soviet states have sometimes rightly complained about biases and gaps in international reporting. However, in most cases, their intervention in the international information space has sought to suppress legitimate criticism, discredit political opponents, and boost their own propaganda. Too often, Western politicians, PR companies, analysts and academics have been only too willing to play along in this discursive game. As some PR professionals have argued, there needs to be far more caution about PR companies working for authoritarian governments.
Western parliamentarians and academics should think twice about becoming involved in election monitoring initiatives outside the agreed channels of the OSCE or signing up to support ‘think-tanks’ or other organisations funded by authoritarian regimes. Instead, more support should be offered for better media coverage and collaborative academic research on the region, together with genuine debates in civil society to both find common ground in the information battle and to maintain space for more critical views to flourish.
Cited in B. Bidder, ‘Putin’s Weapon in the War of Images’, Spiegel Online
, August 2013, http://www.spigel.de/international/business/putin-fights-war-of-images-and-propaganda-with-russia-today-channel-a-916162.html
‘Russia launches foreign news service to fight West's “propaganda”’, AFP, November 2014.
Olga Oliker, Unpacking Russia's New National Security Strategy’, January 2016, https://www.csis.org/analysis/unpacking-russias-new-national-security-strategy
Freedom House, The Battle for the Dominant Message: Freedom in the World 2016, April 2016, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-press/freedom-press-2016
Deirdre Tynan, Kazakhstan: Top-Notch PR Firms Help Brighten Astana’s Image, Eurasianet, January 2012, http://www.eurasianet.org/node/64860
For detailed case-studies, see Corporate Europe Observatory, Spin doctors to the autocrats: how European PR firms whitewash repressive regimes, January 2015, https://corporateeurope.org/pressreleases/2015/01/european-pr-firms-whitewashing-brutal-regimes-report
Super-Khan’s bodyguards - people who work for Akorda, Respublika
, September 2014, available at http://bit.ly/2mJh8Kn; Arcanum caught up in Kazakh intrigues, Intelligence Online
Arcanum Global Case Studies, http://arcanumglobal.com/about-arcanum-global/case-studies/
See Sylvain Besson, Le Kazakhstan enrôle un expert genevois dans sa campagne d’influence occulte, Le Temps
, June 2015, http://www.letemps.ch/Page/Uuid/eff006b2-1439-11e5-96f4-d5eb39d18cde/Le_Kazakhstan_enr%C3%B4le_un_expert_genevois_dans_sa_campagne_dinfluence_occulte
Ken Silverstein, Lobbyists and Fred Starr Team Up to Promote Kazakhstan, Harper’s Magazine
, 1 October 2008, , http://harpers.org/blog/2008/10/lobbyists-and-fred-starr-team-up-to-promote-kazakhstan/
‘ ECFA held its Third Annual Meeting of its Advisory Council on the 6-7 October 2016 at Cliveden House, Berkshire, in the presence of HRH the Duke of York.’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=05MCTMclorE
Corporate Europe Observatory, ‘Spin doctors to the autocrats: how European PR firms whitewash repressive regimes’, 20 January 2015, https://corporateeurope.org/pressreleases/2015/01/european-pr-firms-whitewashing-brutal-regimes-report
Alexander Cooley and Christopher Walker, Vote of the Living Dead, Foreign Policy
, October 2013, http://foreignpolicy.com/2013/10/31/vote-of-the-living-dead/
Kazakhstan: The Anatomy of a Pointless Election, Eurasianet
, March 2015, http://www.eurasianet.org/node/77881
For a detailed account of the Council of Europe’s relations with Azerbaijan, see the extensive reporting by the European Stability Initiative (http://www.esiweb.org
); also Gerald Knaus, 'Europe and Azerbaijan: The End of Shame', Journal of Democracy
, 26(3), July 2015.
Giorgi Lomsadze, Azerbaijan: Post-Election, No Regrets about Absence of OSCE Monitors, Eurasianet
, November 2015, http://www.eurasianet.org/node/75851
UK House of Lords: Azerbaijan ensures transparent parliamentary election, AzerTac News Agency
, November 2015, http://bit.ly/2l8sriF
Edward Malnick and Robert Mendick, Patrick Mercer investigation puts parliamentary groups under scrutiny, The Telegraph
, 1 June 2013, www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/conservative/10093648/Patrick-Mercer-investigation-puts-parliamentary-groups-under-scrutiny.html
UK Parliament, Register Of All-Party Groups-Azerbaijan, https://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm/cmallparty/register/azerbaijan.htm
Election Observation Mission, Republic of Uzbekistan – Early Presidential Election, December 2016, Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions, p. 1.
Casey Michel, Election Whitewashing, Uzbekistan Edition, The Diplomat
, December 2016, http://thediplomat.com/2016/12/election-whitewashing-uzbekistan-edition/
Briefing on results of the Elections of the President the Republic of Uzbekistan followed by celebration of Navruz Spring Festivity, Uzbek Embassy, 8 April 2015, http://uzbekembassy.org/e/press_releases/34853/
Amnesty International, Lifting the Siege on the Truth about Andizhan. Amnesty International, September 2005; ‘Bullets Were Falling Like Rain’: The Andijan Massacre, May 13, 2005. New York: Human Rights Watch, 2005. https://www.hrw.org/report/2005/06/06/bullets-were-falling-rain/andijan-massacre-may-13-2005
Nick Megoran, Framing Andijon, narrating the nation: Islam Karimov's account of the events of May 2005. Central Asian Survey
27 (1): 15-31, 2008.
Martha Brill Olcott, Marina Barnett, The Andijan Uprising, Akramiya and Akram Yuldashev, June 2006, http://carnegieendowment.org/2006/06/22/andijan-uprising-akramiya-and-akram-yuldashev/1gi
Amnesty International, Lifting the Siege on the Truth about Andizhan. Amnesty International, September 2005.
Jeffrey W. Harman, The May 2005 Andijan Uprising: What We Know, Silk Road Paper, May 2016. Washington, DC: Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, p. 64.
John C Daly, Rush to Judgment: Western Media and the 2005 Andijan Violence, Silk Road Paper, May 2016. Washington, DC: Central Asia-Caucasus Institute.
Deibert, R., Palfrey, J., Rohozinski, R., Zittrain, J., & Haraszti, M. 2010. Access Controlled: The Shaping of Power, Rights, and Rule in Cyberspace
. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
For details, see ‘A Unified List of Political Prisoners in Azerbaijan’, available at http://www.esiweb.org
Judge Rules Kazakhstan Can't Force Facebook to Turn Over Respublika's IP Addresses in Another Win for Free Speech, EFF, https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2016/03/another-ruling-against-kazakhstan-its-attempt-use-us-courts-censorship
David Greene and Karen Gullo, Kazakhstan’s Exploitation of Flawed U.S. Law To Censor Respublika Finally Ends, In Cautionary Tale About CFAA Abuse, EFF, 19 January 2017.
MacKinnon, Rebecca. 2011. Networked authoritarianism in China and beyond: Implications for global internet freedom.Journal of Democracy
Privacy International, Private Interests: Monitoring Central Asia, November 2014, https://www.privacyinternational.org/node/429
See Catherine Putz, Kazakhstan Hacks Back: Operation Manul and Astana’s Pursuit of Dissidents, The Diplomat, 8 August 2016, http://thediplomat.com/2016/08/kazakhstan-hacks-back-operation-manul-and-astanas-pursuit-of-dissidents/
David Lewis. 2016. ‘Blogging Zhanaozen”: Hegemonic Discourse and Authoritarian Resilience in Kazakhstan’, Central Asian Survey
35 (3), 421-438 .
Kazakh Prime Minister Demoted After Social-Media Activity, RFE/RL, December 2016, http://www.rferl.org/a/kazakhstan-prime-minister-sacked/27975194.html
Ross Torossian, PR Firms Ought To Say ‘No’ Once In a While, Observer.com, January 2015, http://observer.com/2015/01/even-pr-firms-ought-to-say-no-once-in-a-while/
[post_title] => Dictators of discourse: Eurasian autocracies and the international battle of ideas
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[post_date] => 2016-05-24 10:45:54
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[post_content] => For the past decade, the annual report from Freedom House on political and civil liberties has made for sombre reading. Every year for the past 12 years it has marked an annual decline in political and civic freedoms in Eastern Europe and Eurasia. In much of the former Soviet Union authoritarianism has become the default political system, informed by a remarkably unified set of ideas about the world, the state, and about politics and society, that resonate among elites in much of the post-Soviet space. This ‘Moscow consensus’ over norms and values poses a significant challenge to liberal ideas and practices across the region.
Authoritarian rule has multiple causes, most of them related to domestic politics, and historical and cultural factors. But the international and regional environment probably plays a role. Across the Eurasian region, authoritarian states increasingly band together to resist liberal values and pro-democracy initiatives. Groups such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) or the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) increasingly resemble what Alex Cooley calls a ‘League of Authoritarian Gentlemen’.
Regional organisations and institutions such as the SCO play an important role in supporting non-democratic governments in the region, through legal agreements such as multilateral counter-terrorism mechanisms or extradition procedures such as the Minsk Treaty.
Yet these bodies are often not very effective in formal terms. They mostly exist as virtual bodies, marked by high-flown rhetoric and grandiose summits. They are more influential as mechanisms that help to diffuse non-liberal ideas and norms and help to develop a common worldview among their members. Alongside these multilateral organisations, a range of other channels, such as Russian media, education and training initiatives, social media and multiple, informal links among ordinary people, all contribute to a shared conversation about the world and politics that has profound ramifications for political developments in the region.
Despite many political differences among post-Soviet states, common ideas about political order can be identified across the region. In many states these underpin a new type of authoritarian regime that craves international status and mimics some liberal ideas, but is at heart a ruthless consolidation of political and economic power. States such as Azerbaijan, Russia and Kazakhstan are the most advanced versions of this political model, but regimes in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Belarus all share some of their common features.
The ‘Moscow Consensus’
Although regional powers such as Russia and China are often accused of ‘exporting’ their ideas and values,
it is misleading to suggest that Russia or China export a political model in the way that Western states promote democracy. In a critique of the idea, Oisín Tansey concludes that ‘there is in fact little evidence of ideologically driven autocracy promotion since the end of the Cold War’.
Rather, we see authoritarian states pursuing their strategic objectives in ways that support allied regimes, which often happen to be authoritarian, and spaces and networks have emerged in which illiberal ideas, strategies and tactics circulate freely. As a result, in the post-Soviet world it is more accurate to talk about a kind of ‘Moscow Consensus,’ a shared view among elites of how post-Soviet states should be governed and what a modern state should look like. This gives leaders in the region a common language and a common worldview that makes it difficult for outsiders – particularly those with liberal ideas – to gain much traction.
This is a very different process from the active promotion of an ideology, such as Moscow’s one-time sponsorship of Marxism-Leninism or Western promotion of democracy. Russian leaders have promoted the idea of a new ideological campaign, with Russia as the centre of a new ‘Conservative International’. But so far these efforts have been marginal and have limited resonance in other post-Soviet states. What Alexander Morozov calls the ‘maximum Putinization of the surrounding world’– the export of conservative social and political values through events such as the organising of the International Russian Conservative Forum in 2015 – has so far not developed into a coherent ideological campaign, but remains a rather ad hoc
and inchoate critique by Russian politicians of ‘multiculturalism’, LGBT rights and ‘political correctness’ in Europe.
Much more significant has been the resonance of often unspoken assumptions and rules that inform Russia’s contemporary political system and have resonance – again, sometimes unrecognised – across the region. The ‘Moscow Consensus’ combines:
- a view of political order that is essentially Hobbesian, promoting a strong state and hierarchical political elite as a bulwark against chaos, and subordinating all other actors to the political regime;
- a profound suspicion of Western influence, combined with a constant search for international respect, status and acceptance;
- a view – shared with Machiavelli – of the masses, as ‘ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous’, prone to manipulation by Western intelligence agencies or unscrupulous opposition leaders;
- a commitment to the mantras of economic growth and structural reform, and full integration into a global financial elite, while refusing to allow a genuine market economy to develop at home.
This often contradictory worldview has produced a particular model of authoritarianism that has wider, global resonance and poses a major challenge to liberal democracy. Here, I highlight six key features of the model that are shared throughout the region. Some of these are common to many authoritarian regimes, such as a visible and often populist leader, control of media and information, or a reliance on intelligence services. But others are more innovative, such as the active use of technology and PR to produce their own legitimising narratives, the management and construction of civil society in ways that support the political status quo, the fusion of business with political power and the use of international spaces and mechanisms – offshore zones, courts, Interpol – to maintain their regimes in power.
In all these areas, states and elites have influenced and learned from each other, and in doing so have produced a new type of post-Soviet autocracy.
Six pillars of post-Soviet autocracy
1) The sovereign leader
When Vladimir Putin came to power in Russia in 2000, he was the embodiment of an old-fashioned, mythical idea – the effective, energetic leader who can cut through the malaise of bureaucracy and political infighting to resolve deep-seated social and economic problems. Fragmented parliaments and weak presidents had proved incapable of managing post-Soviet chaos. Not surprisingly, there was popular support for an updated version of a notion of the ideal leader that had deep cultural and historical roots in the region.
These leaders have become such fundamental elements of the political system that they now are considered indispensable. Since May 2010 Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev has enjoyed the title of Elbasy
, or Leader of the Nation, and enjoys lifelong immunity from prosecution and protection for his family property. A new law also prohibits insults against the president.
This fashion has begun to spread. In December 2015 President Emomali Rahmon of Tajikistan received the title of Father of the Nation, and essentially was made president for life.
In Russia, President Putin prefers to follow the letter of the Constitution, and his personality cult has a sense of irony absent in, say, Uzbekistan. But the construction of his image through television has been relentless and remarkably successful. His opinion poll ratings rarely fall below 80 per cent inside Russia. In Kyrgyzstan 90 per cent of the population say they admire him. He has achieved what Machiavelli once said was a rare combination – being both loved and feared. Other authoritarian leaders also like to think that they have popular appeal. Hence Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s enormously popular Instagram account or the construction of President Nazarbayev as an avuncular national patriarch.
Although they are presented as decisive implementers of much-needed decisions, in practice this style of leadership is often ineffective. Even in Russia’s much–vaunted ‘Power vertical’, many presidential decrees go unfulfilled. In 2010, only one-fifth of presidential decrees were implemented on time; many were not implemented at all.
Lower-level officials fail to pass information up the chain, leaving political leaders struggling to know what is going on. Although autocratic leaders seek political sovereignty, they instead become bound by gatekeepers, advisers, oligarchs, family members and an unwieldy bureaucracy.
Former Kremlin insider Gleb Pavlovsky argues that ‘despite his image as an all-powerful tsar, Putin has never managed to build a bureaucratically effective state’.
Instead, Richard Sakwa describes a Dual State, in which the formal, constitutional state works alongside informal mechanisms of power: real power resides in this parallel world. The same duality is evident in Central Asian states, where it is often termed neopatrimonial, combining a formal state with extensive patron-client networks. The ineffective formal system of power requires constant intervention – what in Russia is called ‘manual control’. Presidents appoint special envoys or unofficial ‘curators’, fixers who will bang heads together to get a result.
These authoritarian systems can be good at managing political crises, building new capital cities or managing foreign policy. They are less good at achieving the kind of mundane socio-economic development, based on rule-based institutions, that determines long-term stability. And they are very poor at managing political change. While they are alive, leaders become the embodiment of the political system, even of the country. Deputy Chief of Staff Vyacheslav Volodin proclaimed in 2015 that “there is no Russia today if there is no Putin”.
Yet such a situation has obvious implications for any succession process. There is no succession plan in place for leaders such as Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan (78) or Nursultan Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan (75).
2) A discursive dictatorship
Autocratic leaders need not be born great, because in post-Soviet reality, greatness can be created through smart television coverage and public relations initiatives. This postmodern reality redoubles the importance of information and media for these new autocrats. Not only do they wish to suppress critics, they also wish to produce a positive narrative that is not simply government propaganda, but is shared by much of the population. Russia has led the way in media production, using television to create a new reality, where – as Peter Pomerantsev puts it – ‘nothing is true and everything is possible’.
High production values, strong narratives and powerful presentation have turned Russian television into a major asset of the regime.
Control of the means of production is a first step. In Russia, this involved a gradual process whereby owners were forced to sell television stations to pro-regime businesspeople or to state enterprises. In Kazakhstan by 2015 Freedom House could report that ‘Major broadcast media, especially national television networks, are partly or wholly owned by the state or by members or associates of the president’s family’.
A similar situation holds across the region, where private ownership in media is only permitted to close allies of the ruling family.
The second, all-too familiar step involved harassment and prosecution of journalists, on a variety of trumped-up charges. The Azerbaijani authorities regularly imprison journalists, including Khadija Ismayilova, imprisoned for 7 and a half years in Azerbaijan for her reporting on allegations of elite corruption. It has encouraged the burning of books by Akram Aylisli, a novelist who rejects the government’s hyper-nationalist narrative of the conflict with Armenia. Uzbekistan holds the grim record for the longest imprisoned journalists in the world: Muhammad Bekzhanov and Yusuf Ruzimuradov have both been incarcerated since 1999.
But at their most effective, the new authoritarians can marginalise alternative views without resorting to violence. This involves a careful shaping of the agenda, influencing discourse and creating a pro-regime narrative that resonates with a broad majority of the population. The hashtag #Krymnash
[Crimea is ours] in Russia in 2014 is the most successful example of the circulation of these kind of tropes in social media in ways that support the regime. Kazakhstan has been very effective at making sure its government narrative circulates in social media in ways that make it much harder to promote any alternatives.
These discourses share some important tropes. Anti-Westernism is one of them, fuelling paranoia and creating the kind of sharp distinction between ‘Friend’ and ‘Enemy’ promoted by Nazi political theorist Carl Schmitt.
In Azerbaijan, a state with close security and commercial ties with the West and often troubled relations with Moscow, the basic concepts of the ‘Moscow Consensus’ on world order are nevertheless present. In December 2014 the powerful presidential chief of staff in Azerbaijan, Ramiz Mehdiyev, published a dossier that claimed the US was plotting a revolution in Baku aided by an internal fifth-column of liberals and NGOs.
Similar worldviews can be found among officials and society across the region, from Minsk to Dushanbe, with Moscow fuelling the discourse through its official media.
These views are not solely the work of Russian media, but it does contribute to a collective worldview, particularly on international affairs. Russian television is particularly influential in Central Asia, where its news coverage and entertainment are often preferred to local channels. Russia has also established well-funded outlets of its news agency Sputnik in former Soviet states, developing local language content that reflects an official Russian point of view. Alongside these deliberate efforts has been a less obvious dominance of Russian-language content in cyberspace.
3) Managed civil society
The anti-Western narrative that is ubiquitous across Eurasia reserves a special place for NGOs. The idea of civil society played a central role in Western models of political transition for the post-Soviet republics. This policy was only partially successful: many NGOs failed to put down roots in society, and a lack of local funding ensured that they became dependent on external donors. Nevertheless, NGOs filled important gaps left by the state and highlighted human rights and other abuses. However, Russian officials blamed Western-funded NGOs for fomenting the ‘colour revolutions’ in Georgia (2003) and Ukraine (2004), leading to a clampdown on NGO activities across the region. In countries like Uzbekistan almost all independent associations were closed and many activists were prosecuted or fled the country. The Russian government introduced new laws constraining NGO activities in 2006, and developed further legislation in 2012, following major protests in Moscow in 2011 and the revolutions of the Arab Spring. The new law, adopted in July 2012, forced foreign-funded NGOs to register as ‘foreign agents’.
Kazakhstan and Tajikistan followed suit in 2015 with new laws increasing government scrutiny over NGO funding.
Yet the suppression of NGOs was only part of the story. In parallel with these repressive measures, Russian political technologists – led by uber-technologist Vladislav Surkov – developed what was termed a ‘Counter-Revolutionary Technology’ to fill the gap left by civil society with patriotic, pro-government groups. Surkov established youth groups, such as ‘Nashi’, a right-wing activist group for young Russians that stressed patriotism, anti-Western propaganda and anti-liberalism. In Azerbaijan, youth movements such as Ireli and the National Assembly of Youth Organization of Republic Azerbaijan (NAYORA) spawned pro-government demonstrations and active campaigns on social media.
These groups took on much of the form of Western NGOS, organising summer camps, music festivals, fashion shows and small grants competitions, but with content dominated by narrow, nationalist slogans and anti-liberal rhetoric.
The concept of political technologist is unfamiliar in the West, but it is part of the shared political experience across the post-Soviet space. Political technologists manage elections, create virtual parties, plant PR stories and organise fake demonstrations of support.
They subvert all forms of autonomous social and political activity – civil society – until they become meaningless. According to Peter Pomerantsev, ‘The brilliance of this new type of authoritarianism is that instead of simply oppressing opposition, as had been the case with 20th-century strains, it climbs inside all ideologies and movements, exploiting and rendering them absurd.’
This virtualisation of politics has profound long-term consequences. Politics is viewed with profound cynicism, as a fake activity, a front for oligarchic manoeuvring and geopolitical clashes.
These tactics of the political technologists are no longer confined to specialists from Moscow, but have moved into the international arena, organised by Western PR companies and consultancies, who offer much the same mix of media manipulation, planted op-eds, lobbying of political leaders and discreditation of political opponents. One company even organised a fake demonstration in favour of the Kazakh regime in London, employing actors to play the role of demonstrators, a move straight out of the Moscow playbook.
4) The sistema: Fusing business and politics
Unlike their Soviet predecessors, the new autocrats are not opposed to business, just as long as they control it. One of the fundamental pillars of the Moscow Consensus is the amalgamation of money and power into a single system – or what Alena Ledeneva has dubbed the sistema
. In the sistema
, there is no outside, no autonomous institutions such as courts or regulators, and no real division between the private and public sector.
There is no space in the sistema
for powerful independent entrepreneurs. Putin’s first major step as president was to act against independent oligarchs, the group that in the 1990s had been dubbed the semibankirschina
– the rule of the seven bankers. Unpopular oligarchs such as Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky fled the country, while Mikhail Khodorkovsky lost his Yukos oil company and spent 10 years in prison. Other business leaders quickly stepped into line.
Other countries followed this model closely. The Kazakh authorities went after Mukhtar Ablyazov, also an oligarch-oppositionist, who fled the country amid charges of bank fraud in 2009. Businesspeople close to the Nazarbayev family came to control all the most lucrative sectors of the economy, starting with energy and mining, and culminating in a takeover of the banking sector.
In Uzbekistan, after President Karimov declared in 2010 that there would be no oligarchs in Uzbekistan, the authorities pursued a campaign against prominent business figures.
In Azerbaijan the presidential family has consolidated both political and economic power into an all-embracing system of control.
Since political loyalty is the main criterion for commercial success, in many post-Soviet states business is a family affair. The lists of oligarchs and emerging businesspeople in Eurasia is replete with the nephews, sons-in-law and daughters of presidents and ministers. This new generation includes many successful, well-educated potential leaders. They enjoy extensive international connections and a foreign education. But at home they exploit local economic and political monopolies to produce a powerful new class, often characterised by wealth, cynicism and indifference.
In this system of fused politics and business, entrepreneurs with suspect loyalties are quickly replaced with figures close to the regime. The circle of wealth and power gradually tightens into a remarkable concentration of money and power. According to the 2015 Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report, in Russia the top 10 per cent of wealth-owners own 87 per cent of all household wealth. This is much more than in other major economies, such as the US (76 per cent) or China (66 per cent).
Although the data are not always available, patterns of wealth concentration are probably even greater in Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and other Eurasian autocracies.
Despite these shortcomings, post-modern autocracies following the Moscow model promote themselves as attractive destinations for investors. Kazakhstan is much more concerned about its rating in the World Bank’s Doing Business
rankings than in Freedom House’s democracy league. Some of this reflects real improvement, but as Charles Hecker has pointed out, Eurasian states have also become adept at gaming the system.
Fundamental structural problems in the model came to the fore as commodity prices slumped in 2014-15. In 2016 the IMF predicts a 1.8 per cent fall in Russian GDP, almost zero growth in Kazakhstan, and a 3 per cent decline in Azerbaijan.
5) Policing money & knowledge: The intelligence services
Information and money are the key currencies in Moscow’s model of political power. Excessive, visible violence is eschewed, at least by its more sophisticated practitioners. The high priest of the new authoritarianism, Vladislav Surkov, once said that he “categorically rejected all forms of tyranny and violence – from the aesthetic point of view of course”.
Hence the reliance on intelligence services, with their ability – as Putin once put it – to ‘work with people'.
In reality, this aversion to violent repression is more myth than reality. But it is the various successor forces to the Soviet KGB that play the key security role in all these regimes, rather than the military. These agencies collate compromising information (kompromat
) on opponents, track financial and business deals, surveil and detain dissidents, and harass and prosecute journalists, NGO activists and political opponents. Although these services now answer to their national governments, not to Moscow, they retain many elements of the ethos, worldview and functions of their common predecessor.
They also continue to maintain close relations with their counterpart institutions in other CIS states. Formal, multilateral links within the CIS have not always been successful.
And intelligence services cooperation within the framework of the SCO Regional Anti-Terrorist Secretariat (RATS), based in Tashkent, also appears to have been rather ineffective. But informal and bilateral links are important. Despite sometimes difficult political relations, Uzbek security services appear to operate quite freely in the Russian Federation, policing their extensive diaspora and sometimes participating in forced renditions back to Uzbekistan.
Russia provides training and support for intelligence agencies in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and cooperates closely with counterparts in Kazakhstan.
There is increasing cooperation in cybercrime and internet monitoring. At an SCO summit in 2011 President Nazarbayev called for the concept of electronic sovereignty, in which states could control information and websites across their territories.
Most post-Soviet states have implemented increasing controls on internet access, although cooperation in this area is still developing.
6) The extraterritorial State
A fundamental principle of the Moscow Consensus is an aversion to external – i.e. Western – interference in domestic affairs. Eurasian states increasingly resist any intrusive monitoring mechanisms, whether OSCE election monitoring or UN Special Rapporteurs on human rights. Yet the same states are willing to use international organisations and the courts and institutions in foreign jurisdictions to bolster their regime at home.
- They use offshore zones and foreign jurisdictions to store their funds and invest their profits. Oliver Bullough has termed Russian elites ‘offshore bandits’, extracting resources from rents, not to invest at home, but to stash overseas. Western lawyers and bankers have been only too willing to lend a hand. Not surprisingly, officials and businesspeople from the region have featured heavily in recent revelations from the so-called ‘Panama Papers’.
- Despite the dominant anti-Western discourse that forms such a central element of the Moscow Consensus, the children of post-Soviet elites are still predominantly educated in Western schools and universities. Their cultural and leisure activities take place primarily outside their own borders, in the clichéd spaces of the global rich. This new privileged elite is more at home in Geneva, London and New York than in their own countries.
- Having suppressed political opposition at home, post-Soviet regimes have been targeting opponents outside the country.
- The Russian government has been accused of complicity in the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in London, and of misusing the Interpol system to target dissidents;
- Swedish prosecutors have accused the Uzbek regime of involvement in an assassination attempt against Uzbek cleric Obidkhon Nazarov in Sweden;
- Tajikistan has been accused of pursuing political opponents in exile, including forced renditions and alleged physical attacks and assassinations.
- Authoritarian regimes regularly misuse Interpol and other criminal cooperation mechanisms to target political opponents. Kazakhstan is reported to have used private intelligence companies to track and surveil opponents and to have relied on diplomatic and political pressure to accelerate extradition claims.
Russian and Chinese-led organisations in Eurasia, such as the SCO or the CSTO are often dismissed as ineffective talking shops. Yet the shared conversations in these forums have an important political impact. Ideas and norms that circulate in the post-Soviet space – among political leaders, opinion-formers, businesspeople or in cyberspace – all inform new forms of authoritarianism across the region.
Although post-Soviet autocracies have very diverse histories, cultures and political challenges, there are common features in their political development that owe much to Russian political debate and innovation over the last decade. Ideas and norms that contributed to the Russian political order often dubbed ‘Putinism’ are at the heart of a ‘Moscow Consensus’ that has resonance across the post-Soviet space. These shared ideas produce some common ideas about a new authoritarianism that mimics some formal attributes of a liberal state – civil society, market economy and multiple media outlets – combines them with a highly controlling system of political and economic power.
This model of post-Soviet autocracy is resilient, and poses a major challenge to liberal democracies. Its ideas have global resonance: many of its features can be seen in African developmental states, such as Ethiopia or Rwanda, or in the neoliberal electoral autocracies of Turkey or Algeria. For sure, China’s influence – and the notion of a ‘Beijing Consensus’ comprising a hierarchical, developmental state – remains a fundamental marker. But in many places, it is a combination of Moscow’s anti-Western discourse, post-Soviet media manipulation, a managed civil society and the oligarchic fusion of money and power that lays the basis for contemporary authoritarianism.
In the long term this model will fail to manage adequately the complex social and political challenges of globalisation and rapid technological change. But in the short term, this authoritarian model remains a temptation for societies undergoing rapid change. Western states and international civil society needs to do better at demonstrating alternatives to the Moscow Consensus that might begin to challenge the default authoritarianism of post-Soviet Eurasia.
Alex Cooley, “The League of Authoritarian Gentlemen”, Foreign Affairs
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Freedom House, Exporting Repression, March 2013, https://freedomhouse.org/blog/exporting-repression
Oisín Tansey, The problem with autocracy promotion, Democratization
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Brian Whitmore, Vladimir Putin, Conservative Icon, The Atlantic, 20 December 2013;
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Nikolai Machiavelli, The Prince, Ch. 17
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Peter Pomerantsev, Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New
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US Dept of State, GOAJ: The Next Generation, 10 September 2009, published by Wikileaks, Cable 09BAKU722_a, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/09BAKU722_a.html
Many of the leaders of such groups have studied or worked abroad. Former chairman or Ireli Ceyhun Osmanli worked for three years at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg.
Andrew Wilson, Virtual Politics.
Peter Pomerantsev, The Hidden Author of Putinism: How Vladislav Surkov invented the new Russia, The Atlantic, 7 November 2014, http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/11/hidden-author-putinism-russia-vladislav-surkov/382489/
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Alena Ledeneva, Can Russia modernise?: Sistema, power networks and informal governance (Cambridge University Press, 2013).
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, 20(4) (2012), pp. 345-370.
Maxim Baileys, Loss of time, business and freedom: that’s all foreign investors get in Uzbekistan, Fergana.ru, 23 May 2012, http://enews.fergananews.com/article.php?id=2757
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During Putin’s professional career, an important instrument in the work of the post-Stalinist KGB was the notion of the beseda
, a chat or conversation; operatives prided themselves on their powers of persuasion. As Julie Fedor describes it, the chat – as depicted in popular culture - involved “cosy heart-to-hearts with chekists at once paternal and erudite, with twinkling eyes, which left one feeling relieved, unburdened, reassured and enlightened”. Fedor, Julie, Russia and the Cult of State Security: The Chekist Tradition, From Lenin to Putin (Routledge, 2011), p. 51.
The Council of the Leaders of CIS Security Organs and Special Services (Sovet rukovoditelei organov bezopasnosti I spetsialnikh sluzhb
– SORB), which was set up in March 1997, continues to meet on an annual basis, but mutual suspicions probably restrict formal intelligence sharing.
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; David Lewis, Exporting repression: Extraterritorial practices and Central Asian authoritarianism, in Adam Hug (ed), Shelter from the Storm: The Asylum, Refuge and Extradition Situation facing Activists from the former Soviet Union in the CIS and Europe
, Foreign Policy Centre, April 2014, http://fpc.org.uk/fsblob/1630.pdf
; Guy Adams, Baroness Hypocrite: How the Blairite law chief with an illegal immigrant cleaner has cosy links to two vile despots that raise grave questions about her suitability to be new boss of the Commonwealth, Daily Mail
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[post_title] => The ‘Moscow Consensus’: Constructing autocracy in post-Soviet Eurasia
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