Authoritarian rulers are not as powerful as they seem – OpEd – Eurasia Review
Take a look at some statistics: Contrary to popular belief, authoritarian regimes are neither infallible nor generous. Let us beware of falling into their propaganda; the future of our democratic systems depends on it.
A leak to the international press in July revealed a Kremlin document indicating that Russian President Vladimir Putin had personally called on Russian authorities to intervene in the 2016 US presidential election. In many ways, this taught us nothing again. This has already been established by the Mueller report and US intelligence agencies. However, something extremely unusual has come to light: a leak within the Kremlin. While no one knows who wrote the document, it is clear that the Kremlin used it to demonstrate – once again – how daring Putin was in attempting to influence the outcome of a presidential election in the one of the most developed democracies in the world.
Alexei Navalny, Russian political prisoner and opposition leader, is familiar with the Kremlin’s calculations. He joked to the Financial Times in 2019: âYou can spend $ 500,000 on Facebook ads andâ¦ the entire establishment in a large Western country will complain about interference, even if the effect is laughable. The investments are small, but they give you visibility and power on the front page. The Kremlin’s greatest success, he claimed, has been convincing people that it can manipulate the West – regardless of its actual ability to do so.
The global geopolitical order is clearly changing and perceptions are changing faster than reality. In recent years, authoritarian rulers have been able to exaggerate their influence over the affairs of other countries much more effectively than their liberal-democratic counterparts. It is often a by-product or component of “sharp power” (a way of projecting influence globally similar to “soft” and “hard” power), which permeates and distorts people. information environments in target countries, often to push authoritarianism forward. of democracy. These efforts give the impression of authoritarian omnipotence, despite the fact that these governments are far from omniscient.
How did the public’s perception become so distorted? Think about the Covid-19 pandemic. According to a report from the Global Engagement Center, China, Iran and Russia, three authoritarian states, have tried to persuade the international community that they have handled the pandemic more effectively than the democratic United States. However, it is important to note that Beijing withheld information in order to give the impression of success against the virus. Images of a Wuhan super hospital supposedly built in sixteen hours have gone viral online, but “fact-checkers” have denounced the story as a hoax. Likewise, Moscow propaganda praised Russia’s achievements, such as the Sputnik vaccine. As Russia presents itself as the savior of the world, its healthcare system is collapsing due to rising death rates. Authoritarian information policies are not all lies. Indeed, China has sent masks and respirators to other countries, and Russian doctors have visited Italy and the former Soviet republics. However, the impact has been grossly exaggerated by both authoritarian powers and the European public.
Recently, the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) polled nine countries, and relative majorities agreed the EU was “incompetent during the pandemic”. In Italy, 25% of those polled cited China as their most useful ally during the crisis, while only 4% cited the EU. However, the efforts of Beijing and Moscow are paltry compared to aid from Brussels: the EU’s Covid-19 stimulus fund has provided Italy with â¬ 27 billion.
Likewise, authoritarian countries inflate their economic importance while corroding the democratic institutional framework with modest investments in key sectors. In Serbia, for example, 40% of those polled in another survey said Beijing was their country’s main source of aid. The EU, the current largest donor, contributed 1.8 billion euros in 2020, while China contributed only 6.6 million euros of its 56 million pledged. Nonetheless, the Serbian president called Beijing âhis country’s most honest and trustworthy friendâ. And, at Beijing’s request, Serbian politicians have implemented policies that could undermine Serbia’s plans to join the EU.
Authoritarian states also distort the image of their power and influence on the military front: Russian propaganda claims a likely victory in a traditional military conflict with NATO. In Hungary, perceptions of Russian power are also exaggerated. A survey by the Political Capital Institute found that more than two-thirds of those polled overestimated Russia’s relative military spending. Many thought it was higher than U.S. military spending (which is actually ten times that of Russia), and the majority thought it was higher than China’s military spending (which is actually four times greater than China’s military spending). those of Russia).
Many EU countries are receptive to these messages. In democracies, dissenting and Eurosceptic politicians have become the national messengers of authoritarian propaganda, amplifying its inflationary effects. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has exaggerated the cost of EU sanctions against Russia for the Hungarian economy, contributing to an unrealistic perception of Moscow’s economic weight. Exaggerated perceptions of authoritarian power and influence can lead politicians to adopt pro-Beijing and pro-Moscow policies in the name of pragmatism, as well as welcome new authoritarian investments in their countries.
If Western democratic models were still as attractive as they once were, strengthening authoritarian regimes would be less effective. However, global approval of US leadership has fallen by more than 15% since 2016 and in 2019 it was almost tied with Russia and China at 33%, according to a Gallup poll. The storming of the United Capitol on January 6 weakened the image of the United States – and the West – as a “beacon of democracy.”
To compensate for this loss of appeal, supporters of freedom and basic human rights must speak out in favor of democratic forces. While it is essential to recognize the real threats to democracy posed by authoritarian influence, commentators should avoid sensationalism. The flaws of the autocratic models in Beijing and Moscow also deserve more attention. If the public loses confidence in liberal democracy, the attractiveness of alternative models of governance will grow, increasing the risk of authoritarian drift and even seizure of power. An effective response to authoritarianism requires a nuanced and careful message – one that addresses the challenges posed by autocracies without helping their propagandists.