Why is it so difficult to fight autocratic regimes?

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko in Sochi, Russia May 28, 2021. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS

The democratic peace theory assumes that democratic countries do not fight against each other. The main area of confrontation is between autocracies. Theoretically, this is indeed the case, or we can say that it was so, although the nature of modern autocracies is changing. Nothing is so contagious as the idea and therefore the idea of democracy. That is why we have historically seen waves of democracies – as soon as democratic rule prevailed in one state it became contagious to the whole region, indicating a rapid, surging increase in the number of democracies in the world. After almost every global upheaval, democracy began to spread rapidly. This could have been the post-World War I or post-World War II period or even the collapse of the Soviet Union. But the issue with this theory is that every wave has a backslide. which is manifested in the replacement of democratic regimes by autocratic governments. Backsliding is the biggest challenge for transitional regimes, where the democratic traditions are weak. These types of regimes are the most vulnerable to the rise of autocracies. Even consolidated democracies have a hard time dealing with this process.

The democratization of autocracy or the success of transitional regimes is a very dangerous precedent for autocratic governments. They try their best to hinder this process. This could mean interfering with the democratization process by all means possible, including funding anti-democratic forces, attempting military coups, and even launching military aggression. Ukraine and Georgia are great examples of how the Kremlin tried to stop the process of democratisation in both countries. This was a show of force and an attempt to punish the two states for initiating a process of democratic transition and moving closer to the West. This is the first challenge on the way to fight against autocracies. If autocracies can use force to stop the democratic process, what can democracies do to protect aspiring communities? Sanctions and embargoes sometimes are an effective means of punishing aggressive autocracies. Though often completely in vain. To understand why is that so, it is necessary to mention the second and biggest challenge in the fight against autocracies – Autocracies do not exist or operate alone.  The pressure from the democratic world and internal support of the democratic idea by some citizen groups is a huge challenge for them and they alone will not survive. That is why autocracies act together. If one autocracy is in trouble, the other autocracies are ready to lend a helping hand. Moreover, in the modern world, autocracies are not as vulnerable to Western interventions as they were in the 1990s. Now China and Russia are not only helping the rest of the undemocratic regimes economically but are even ready to provide military assistance. They portray themselves as pillars of an undemocratic world. By doing so, they ensure their security, because, as mentioned above, even the fall of one autocracy can have a domino effect on other undemocratic regimes.

Most autocracies are resource-rich states. This is the third problem, which is why democracies cannot fight them effectively. Resource-rich autocracies can make most democracies dependent on their resources. The perfect example is Russia who is the main provider of natural gas to the EU. Beyond that, even poor but resource-rich undemocratic regimes have the opportunity to divert their crude resources to other, undemocratic regimes, as Venezuela and Iran do. In return, they receive aid from their partners. All of this means that undemocratic regimes can withstand the economic pressures from the democratic world, thereby guaranteeing potential security for undecided transitional governments if they too choose an autocratic bloc.

What should democracies do to effectively contain autocratic regimes? The precondition for democratic waves was the demonstration of not only the economic but also the military superiority of the democratic world. From all the major international crises or upheaval, democracies have emerged victorious. Consequently, being in the camp of the victorious states was desirable and profitable for every transitional or even autocratic regime. In the modern world, the positions of liberal interventionism are dwindling and isolationism is gradually becoming more and more attractive, especially for democracies. This leads to the strengthening of undemocratic regimes who are feeling more secure and integrated into the big autocratic bloc.

Each successful example of autocracy is a dangerous precedent for transitional regimes and flawed democracies. The overthrow of democratic traditions indeed takes time, but because democracy is also a process, the gradual shift of democratic governance towards autocracy will be the result of the erosion of the democratic institutions. Consequently, autocracy is a dangerous example even for consolidated democracies. The passivity of democratic regimes only strengthens autocracies. To hinder non-democratic regimes to rise such as Belarus or Venezuela, the democratic world have to take a more active role, which, in addition to sanctions, may also involve the show of force. It is also important to protect young democracies from non-democratic regimes that threaten or carry out military interventions against them. If the citizens start to speak out against autocracies, they should be intensively supported by the democratic powers to give momentum to other democratic movements. Otherwise, all democratic movements will be crushed by autocratic forces and make a dangerous example for democratic aspiring citizens. If autocratic regimes remain completely unpunished this will lead them to use more brute force indiscriminately. In that case, autocracies cannot be defeated.

Giorgi Koberidze
Senior Fellow

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