The Dark Secret of Dictators—They Learn From One Another

From a Washington Post editorial:

In the spring of 2012, Vladimir Putin was feeling the pressure.

For months, anti-Putin protests had surged through the streets of Moscow and other cities following fraudulent parliamentary elections the previous December. Mr. Putin, who was about to be sworn in for a third term as president, harbored a fear of “color” revolutions — the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia, the 2004-2005 Orange Revolution in Ukraine — as well as other popular revolts like the 2010-2012 Arab Spring, in which four dictators were overthrown.

Until his inauguration in May, Russian authorities had tolerated the demonstrations. But when street protests broke out again, some marred by violence, the police moved in aggressively and hundreds were arrested.

On July 20, Mr. Putin signed legislation — rushed through parliament in just two weeks — to give the government a strong hand over nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), which he suspected were behind the protests. He had long been apprehensive about independent activism, especially by groups that were financed from abroad. Under the new law, any group that received money from overseas and engaged in “political activity” was required to register as a “foreign agent” with the Justice Ministry or face heavy fines.

The law crippled these groups, the backbone of a nascent civil society that had blossomed in the 1990s in Russia after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Such organizations are the heartbeat of a healthy democracy, providing an independent and autonomous channel for people to voice their desires and aspirations. One of the first groups to be targeted was Memorial, founded during Mikhail Gorbachev’s years of reform to protect the historical record of Soviet repressions and to defend human rights in the current day. Mr. Putin was determined to squelch it and others like it.

Soon, similar laws began to crop up around the world. In the following years, at least 60 nations passed or drafted laws designed to restrict NGOs, and 96 carried out other policies curtailing them, imposing cumbersome registration requirements, intrusive monitoring, harassment and shutdowns. The wave of repressive measures offers a revealing look at the titanic struggle between democracy and authoritarianism.

In the past decade, dictators have forged transnational bonds, sharing methods, copying tactics and learning from one another. They are finding new ways to quash free speech and independent journalism, eradicate NGOs, silence dissent and suffocate criticism.

In previous editorials in this series, we examined how young people who posted freely on social media were wrongly imprisoned by authoritarian regimes. We also described how Russia created and exploited disinformation about biological weapons. This editorial looks at how autocracies are reinforcing themselves by swapping methods and tactics.

The dictators want most of all to survive. They are succeeding.

A cascade of restrictions

The Russian “foreign agent” law hung an albatross around the neck of NGOs and, later, independent journalists and bloggers — anyone who received any money from abroad, even payment for a single freelance article. All were required to post a label on their published material identifying it as the work of a “foreign agent,” which in Russia has traditionally been associated with spying. When many organizations refused to oblige, the law was amended so the Justice Ministry could put them in the registry without their consent.

Then in 2015, Russia added a new law designating any organization “undesirable” if the government deemed it a threat to national security — effectively a ban. One of the organizations so labeled was the Open Society Foundations established by financier George Soros, which had been, among other things, a lifeline of personal subsidies for Russian scientists in the lean years after the Soviet collapse.

Azerbaijan was the first among former Soviet republics to copy Russia’s 2012 law in 2013 and 2014. Then came Tajikistan in 2014 and Kazakhstan in 2015 with legislation directly limiting foreign funding to NGOs or sharply increasing bureaucratic burdens on them. The laws were largely borrowed from Russia. The cascade of laws has been documented in the Civic Freedom Monitor of the International Center for Not-for-profit Law.

Egypt also put NGOs in the crosshairs. In 2013, the courts convicted 43 NGO workers, including Americans, Egyptians and Europeans, many in absentia, on charges of operating without required government approval. The notorious criminal prosecution, Case 173, dragged on for years. Although the 43 were later acquitted in a retrial, the harassment continues.

Under President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi, Egyptian authorities have frozen the assets of human rights activists, banned them from traveling abroad and regularly called them in for questioning on suspicions of “foreign funding.” This included Hossam Bahgat, founder and director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, one of Egypt’s most well-known rights organizations. Egypt replaced a draconian 2017 law on NGOs with a new one in 2019 but retained many harsh restrictions. The new law banned activities under vaguely worded terms such as any “political” work or any activity that undermines “national security.”

Cambodia, ruled by strongman Hun Sen for decades, in 2015 imposed a law under which NGOs can be disbanded if their activities “jeopardize peace, stability, and public order or harm the national security, culture and traditions of Cambodian society.” Uganda, which has an active community of NGOs, imposed a restrictive law in 2016; the groups have faced suspensions, freezing of accounts, denial of funding and restrictions on freedom of expression, association and assembly.

In Nicaragua, the dictatorship led by former Sandinista guerrilla Daniel Ortega adopted a “foreign agent” law in 2020 and a law restricting NGOs in 2022. It has canceled the legal registration of more than 950 civil society organizations since 2018.

China, which originally permitted NGOs to exist in a legal gray zone, took a harder line after Xi Jinping came to power in 2012. A new NGO law went into effect in 2017, increasing state control over foreign and domestic funding to civil society groups. While Russia operated with blacklists, China created a whitelist, rewarding some NGOs whose interests it approved, as it sought to punish those in sensitive areas such as media, human rights and religion. Lu Jun, co-founder of one of the early successful NGOs, the Beijing Yirenping Center, which fought discrimination, recalled the ways in which the state turned against his group. For seven years, it was allowed to grow. But then, he recalled, “Between 2014 and 2019, in four separate crackdowns, nine of my colleagues were jailed and five of our offices were repeatedly searched until they were shut down.”

A secret school — or ‘mad scientists’?

How did so many countries come to do the same thing in the same decade? The answers are difficult to find — dictatorships are shrouded in secrecy. But Stephen G.F. Hall, a professor at the University of Bath, in Britain, uncovered evidence that the dictators copy, share and learn from one another. His new book, “The Authoritarian International,” looks at how this works.

According to Mr. Hall, authoritarian regimes must constantly maintain the illusion of steadfast control. Relax for a minute, and the illusion could vanish. “Protest is like a run on the bank,” Mr. Hall told us. “The protesters only have to get it right once.” For autocracies, protest and dissent are an existential threat.

“They’ve all seen what happens to autocrats generally — the Gaddafi moment, being dragged through the streets and beaten to death with a lead pipe. … They seem to know that if one country becomes democratic in a region, the rest will almost certainly follow. … And the best way to ensure that survival is to learn, to cooperate and to share best practices because you constantly have to stay one step ahead.”

Mr. Hall says much “authoritarian learning” is indirect, diffused through like-minded networks and emulation. When he began his research, he thought he might find an actual school of dictatorship, with Mr. Putin or other despots as “either star pupils or teachers telling other autocrats how to establish best survival practices.” But Mr. Hall did not find contemporary evidence of such a school. “I think it is primarily a case of trial and error,” he said, with the dictators more like “mad scientists” who run experiments and then share the results. which are passed around in the shadows, through security services and old-boy networks.

And there are traces of collaboration. According to Mr. Hall, Russia has frequently looked to Belarus as a proving ground and source of authoritarian methods. In 2002, Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko created the Belarusian Republican Youth Union, a pro-regime, patriotic organization that could take control of the streets in Minsk in the event of an attempted color revolution.

After the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the Kremlin quickly created its own groups of “patriotic youths.” Years later, when Mr. Lukashenko was facing massive protests after stealing the 2020 presidential election, Mr. Putin came to his rescue. For instance, when Belarusian television workers quit their jobs in protest of the election fraud, Mr. Putin sent in Russians to keep the broadcasts going. (For Russia, the help is also driven by security concerns, given Belarus’s proximity to NATO.) Belarus also cooperates with China, which has long provided it with facial recognition technology. China’s telecommunications giant Huawei set up research centers in Belarus and brought Belarusian students to China for training.

Some authoritarian learning has its origin in history books. Magnus Fiskesjö, a professor at Cornell University, has shown how China in the past decade or so has brought back show trials, with staged, coerced confessions, borrowing both from the Mao era and reaching back to Joseph Stalin’s show trials of the 1930s. The extrajudicial show trials have been used against journalists, bloggers, academics, lawyers and entertainers, among others. The forced confessions go a step further than just silencing dissent; they are used to “shape reality” and create a more “predictably obedient society.”

The digital censors

In the world of authoritarian tactics, Russia and China are the center of gravity. They share know-how for policing the internet and generate sheaves of propaganda and disinformation, sometimes broadcasting identical sets of lies at the same time. Mr. Putin and Mr. Xi declared a “no limits” partnership in February 2022, but closer cooperation to squelch free speech on the internet was already well underway.

A glimpse of how it works was provided recently in a trove of internal documents, emails and audio recordings disclosed by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in an April 5 report by Daniil Belovodyev, Andrei Soshnikov and Reid Standish. The materials depict Russia and China working closely to help each other more tightly control the internet in two high-level meetings in 2017 and 2019.

The first meeting, on July 4, 2017, was a two-hour session in Moscow between Ren Xianling, who was then-deputy minister of the Cyberspace Administration of China, and Aleksandr Zharov, then-head of Roskomnadzor, the Russian government agency that censors the internet. According to the documents and other materials, the Russians wanted expertise from China about “mechanisms for permitting and controlling” mass media, online media and “individual bloggers,” as well as China’s experience regulating messenger apps, encryption services and virtual private networks.

The Russians asked to send a delegation to China to study its vast domestic surveillance system and the “Great Firewall” that blocks unwanted overseas information. The Chinese visitors were particularly interested in methods used by the Russian agency to control the media coverage of public protest. The Chinese visitors’ questions were prompted by public demonstrations just a few months before, organized by opposition leader Alexei Navalny in March 2017. Mr. Zharov reportedly responded that the Kremlin wasn’t worried because the protests were small-scale and Mr. Putin’s public support was at a “very high level.”

The discussion came just as Russia was looking at how to install more sophisticated controls over the internet. The government attempted in 2018 to block the popular messaging platform Telegram but failed to do so. In May 2019, Mr. Putin signed new legislation requiring that Russian companies install more intrusive controls, and also envisioning the creation of an entirely isolated Russian internet. Outside researchers have found that the new controls gave the Kremlin “fine-grained information control” over internet traffic.

In July 2019, the Russian and Chinese teams met again in Moscow, according to the RFE/RL report. Mr. Zharov asked the Chinese for advice about how to deal with platforms that successfully evade Russia’s blocking. The failure with Telegram was brought up as an example. The Russians also asked the Chinese how they used artificial intelligence to identify and block “prohibited content.” RFE/RL disclosed this year that Roskomnadzor has been using sophisticated techniques to track Russians online, searching for posts that insult Mr. Putin or call for protests.

Then in October 2019, on the sidelines of the World Internet Conference in China, Russia and China signed a cooperation agreement on counteracting the spread of “forbidden information.” In December 2019, China sent requests to Russia, in three separate letters, with censorship requests to block articles and sites, such as the Epoch Times, a newspaper with ties to the Falun Gong movement that is persecuted in China, and links on GitHub, the software development website, that describe ways to bypass China’s firewall inside the country.

The dictators have clung to power

Of course, the United States and other democracies also cooperate and spend billions of dollars annually promoting the values of open societies and rule of law around the world. Like the dictators, the democracies share tactics and methods with one another. But there is one important difference: Diffusion of democracy appeals to — and relies upon — individuals and free thinking, while autocrats pursue their own survival by suffocating individual voices.

The latest Freedom in the World report shows a decline in freedom for the 17th year in a row. Many autocrats are proving resilient. In the nearly 11 years since Mr. Putin signed the “foreign agent” law, most of the world’s leading dictators have held on. Rarely have they been toppled by popular protests. They are building new means of repression along with the old. In China, tech companies have invented an electronic surveillance system that can automatically recognize a protest banner and demonstrators’ faces — and alert the police.

In Russia, Mr. Putin is unrestrained. The “foreign agent” and “undesirable” laws were revised again in 2022, making them significantly more draconian. While the earlier version singled out those who received money from abroad, now a “foreign agent” can be anyone who receives any kind of support from overseas or comes “under foreign influence in other forms.” New names are added every Friday to the registry compiled by the Justice Ministry.

As of June 16, the registry listed 621 groups and people.

At the same time, autocracies are racked with challenges and setbacks. Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine might yet doom his rule. In China, Mr. Xi demands obedience, but protesters defy him, as they did last winter over “zero covid” restrictions. And one example of successful protest came recently in Georgia. The ruling Georgian Dream party advanced yet another “foreign agent” bill to require any organization receiving more than 20 percent of its funds from foreign sources to register as “agents of foreign influence.” But the bill was widely criticized, and after mass protests around the Parliament building in March, it was dropped.

All who believe in democracy must find new ways to advance it. This is especially important now, when democracy has lost luster around the globe.

Democracy’s greatest strength is openness. It should be harnessed to tell the truth loudly and widely.

Editorials represent the views of The Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Opinion Editor David Shipley; Deputy Opinion Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (national politics and policy); Lee Hockstader (European affairs, based in Paris); David E. Hoffman (global public health); James Hohmann (domestic policy and electoral politics, including the White House, Congress and governors); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; Mili Mitra (public policy solutions and audience development); Keith B. Richburg (foreign affairs); and Molly Roberts (technology and society).

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