I. Concept

Automatization and its Pull and Push Factors - A Challenge for Comparative Research


Autocratization has moved to the center of political attention and scholarly debate in recent years. Beyond cases such as Russia, Venezuela, or Thailand, we have witnessed the erosion of democracy in EU member states like Hungary and Poland. Thirty years after the Cold War ended and the momentum of a new wave of democratization receded, we are confronted with an entirely different situation. While the euphoria over democratization of the 1990s had a strong impact on scholarly research and generated an enormous corpus of literature on democratization, the ebbing of the Third Wave of Democratization started to raise doubts about its sustainability (Diamond 1996). The resilience of pre-Cold War autocratic regimes, and especially the regression of young democracies that had been established after 1989, directed scholarly attention toward studying autocracies and phenomena like democratic backsliding (Erd- mann/Kneuer 2011; Bermeo 2016; Waldner/Lust 2015), de-consolidation (Foa/Mounk 2016), or the dying of democracies (Levitsky/Ziblatt 2018; Runciman 2018). The different labels for what appears to be a “development away from democracy” boldly indicate that this new thread of research is still at its beginning. Much research, theory-building, and conceptualization remain to be done. At the center stands a vibrant search for a common denominator in terms of terminology: For some time, scholars have struggled when using “autocratization” as a simple opposite of democratization. Much disagreement on how to interpret the trend of autocratization still exists. Some speak of a decline and crisis of democracy,1 while others question the assumption of a democratic rollback (Merkel 2010; Levitsky/Way 2015) or warn about alarmist tones and state that the current widespread pessimism presents an overly dramatic storyline (Carothers 2009; Skaaning/Jimenez 2017).

Indeed, the account of the global state of democracy shows a mixed balance: On the one hand, there is empirical evidence of a wave of autocratization. On the other hand, the number of electoral and liberal democracies in the world is still close to the highest recorded number. This may lead to the conclusion that the normative power of democracy remains high (Meckova et al. 2017; Liihrmann/Lindberg 2019; Mainwaring/Biz- zarro 2019). A closer look reveals that the dynamics of regression refer in particular to defective democracies that are backsliding to electoral autocracies or electoral autocracies backsliding to closed autocratic regimes (Cassani/Tomini 2019: 46). Those regimes at an intermediate position between fully consolidated democracies and fully consolidated autocracies - Carothers’ seminal “gray zone” (Carothers 2002: 9) - appear to be exceedingly vulnerable to autocratization.

These accounts provide important findings about the scope and direction of autocratization, but cannot answer the critical question of the causes and mechanisms of an obvious autocratic dynamic, which is antagonizing the liberal-democratic script. Confronted with the evidence of autocratization on a global scale, there is a need of conceptual work as well as of empirical studies. A significant part of the literature has focused on suggesting typologies to capture autocratic subtypes, such as electoral authoritarianism (Schedler 2006) and competitive authoritarianism (Levitsky/Way 2010), or conceptualized the additional variant of hybrid regimes (Diamond 2002; Morlino 2009). Another important thread addresses the causes for stability and durability of autocratic regimes, mostly examining the domestic dimension and internal mechanisms (e.g. Brownlee 2007; Ghandi/Przeworski 2007; Ghandi 2008; Magaloni 2006; Svolik 2012).

In this newly emerged field of research, the international dimension of autocratic resilience and autocratization was neglected for quite some time. A mere decade ago, individual scholars, some of whom were active in research on the international dimension of democratization, turned their attention to possible external influences on processes of autocratization (Bader et al. 2010; Burnell 2010; Jackson 2010; Burnell 2011a; Van- derhill 2012). But in these early works on the international dimension of authoritarianism, the regional environment was greatly underestimated.

Beyond the temporal clustering of autocratization (Liihrmann/Lind- berg 2019), there is empirical evidence of spatial clustering (i.e. autocratic clustering in geographical proximity). The empirical picture of the post- Cold War autocracies shows three different threads: [1] [2]

3 democratic erosion of consolidated regimes with an incremental process of hybridization and autocratization (like Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Honduras).

This spatial clustering raises questions about possible origins, drivers, or interacting influences between these countries. In order to explain this autocratic clustering, we presume that neither hybridization nor autocratization takes place in an insulated way as a purely domestic development, but that there are external influences and interactions between the external and domestic level, shaping the domestic actors’ preferences and their policy choices. Thus, the main research interest of this book is to uncover the possible external push and pull factors that contribute to a converging trend of democratic regression and/or to an autocratization, but also facilitate the consolidation of existing autocracies. This includes the means by which autocratic protagonists thwart liberalization and dynamics of democratic transition, even in revolutionary moments like the early days of the Arab uprisings in the Middle East in 2011. There is much circumstantial evidence regarding interactive dynamics between neighboring countries in a regional or subregional setting, with significant impact on democratic regression and autocratic resilience. So far, this has not been researched in a systematic way.

The process of autocratization remains barely theorized. This implies a lack of conceptual work. Although this is not the subject of this book - we will not discuss autocratization itself - we give a working definition so that the notion is operable for our research. In this vein, we understand autocratization as an overarching concept, meaning the process of change from the regime-type democracy to the regime-type autocracy. This change comprehends the “rapid death” (like breakdown) as well as the “slow death” (erosion or the loss of democratic quality). While the first form of autocratization has become marginal after the end of the Cold War, more relevance has to be given to processes of incremental erosion of democracies and unfinished democratization processes stuck in a hybrid state, which can also be a trajectory toward autocratic rule.

Apart from the reality that a systematic conceptualization of autocratization does not yet exist, we witness a high level of uncertainty regarding why and under which circumstances and external factors autocracies increase regime strength or stability (Jackson 2010: 103), or influence autocratization. Moreover, it became obvious over the last decades that foreign policy has gained relevance as an additional instrument of authoritarian power consolidation. This is especially true for Russia and China (McFaul 2010; Bader 2014). In the Russian case, the assertive foreign policy under Putin - culminating in the military invasions of Georgia in 2008 and the Crimea annexation in 2014 - is closely linked to domestic regime transformation, flanked by the ideational dimension of national-patriotic mobilization. Putin’s millennium manifesto from

1999 is already indicative as it sets the fundament for the “strong state” approach as well as for the idea of the Russian renewal as a great global power. This mission for a “new Russia” reflects the interdependent relation between the installation of an alternative model of rule and the re-emergence as a regional or even global power (Mankoff 2009). It is important to note that this foreign policy assertiveness goes beyond military occupation and territorial control (McFaul/Spector 2010). It comprehends measures such as (a) preventing democratic liberalization in the neighboring countries, (b) influencing elections, (c) exporting alternative election monitoring rules, and (d) installing regional cooperation schemes for strengthening ties with government actors as well as non-governmental actors (McFaul/Spector 2010; Tolstrup 2015). Moreover, Russia is not only supporting undemocratic governments in the geopolitical proximity, but is also trying to destabilize democratic countries (see the case of the Baltic states). In the Chinese case, the foreign policy assertiveness increased after Xi Jinping ascended to presidency. The “Chinese Dream” - similar to the mission “New Russia”- aims at “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” At the same time it pursues a much more proactive foreign policy in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) through new instruments such as the Silk Road Initiative (One Road, One Belt), which does not limit itself to a regional sphere, but reaches out to Europe (Noesselt 2019).

Against the background of the multipolar and more fluid post-Cold War world order, authoritarian states are seeking cooperation and legitimation, which facilitate the maintenance and survival of their regimes. Fueled by the global financial and debt crisis of Western democracies that led to a broader debate on the crisis of democratic capitalism (Streeck 2013), self-assertive and economically successful authoritarian leaders began to antagonize the democratic model and democratic values, and nurtured an attractive ideological alternative (Carothers 2009). Gradated forms of resistance to the global spread of democracy exist: [3]

We may conclude that democratic pessimism (Carothers 2009) as well as pressure for autocratization goes hand in hand on a global level. Do the growing attitude of democratic pessimism and the growing affirmative attitude of autocratic rulers correlate? Certainly, to some extent, authoritarian-minded rulers reacted to the previously prevailing democracy promotion agenda (Whitehead 2014: 23). They did so because they perceived that the “picture of democracy in retreat” (Carothers 2009: 3) created an opportunity structure for selling their own “brand of politics” (Burnell 2010: 9). In this sense, the increasingly loud debate on the crisis of representative democracy and democratic pessimism, and the increasingly open confrontation of liberal democratic procedures and the branding of “alternative models,” seem to be two sides of the same medal.

Assessing the impact of autocratic pressure is a moving target. Whitehead’s argument against autocracy promotion as mirror image of democracy promotion, that is, that “the overall international system is still fairly rule-based and dominated by liberalizing norms” (Whitehead 2014: 24), is weighty and still valid (especially for the second part). But we cannot ignore that the rule-based international system has been questioned and damaged in the past years (e.g. through the ignorance of multilateral governance by the Trump administration). Dynamics of pressure for autocratization, however, remain vague. More conceptual work, more empirical analysis, and more comparative work need to be done.

This book makes a conceptual contribution on how to better understand, assess, and explain possible mechanisms of autocratic pressure and clustering and to empirically test this concept in a comparative, inter-regional way. We set out to detect explanations for the empirical evidence of autocratic pressure and the interaction between sources and addressees of this pressure. This encompasses (a) the identification of sources that disseminate autocratic elements, namely, ideas, institutions, processes, models, and techniques, (b) the conceptualization of the mechanisms with which these authoritarian sources gain influence, and (c) the tracing of their possible motives or intentions. In a nutshell, it is the attempt to understand the what, how, and why of autocratic influence.

The contributions of this book come from different fields of research. They offer insights for the explanations of autocratic resilience as well as for democratic erosion. All contributions relate to the debate on the international dimension of autocracy, especially the one on autocracy promotion, and expand the knowledge on external influences that hollow out existing democratic institutions and processes, the installation of autocratic leaders, or the consolidation of existing of autocratic regimes. The underlying concept and analytical framework we suggest is the notion of “authoritarian gravity centers” (AGCs) that represent regional protagonists with the willingness and ability to influence their regional neighborhood. We define an AGC as a regime that constitutes a direct lever or an indirect force of attraction for countries in its (geopolitical) proximity. This concept, which will be elaborated in detail in Chapter 2, builds on various theoretical arguments with conceptual and methodological implications that will be presented in the next section. Thereafter, we will discuss in more detail the external factors in autocratization processes and present our understanding of autocracy promotion and autocracy diffusion. Finally, we close this introductory chapter with remarks on the design of the cross-regional comparison and the structure of the book.

  • [1] Autocratic resilience in reformed or non-reformed post-socialistregimes that remained in place after 1989 (China and Vietnam asrepresentatives of illiberal capitalist autocracies; North Korea, Cambodia, and Laos as examples of non-reformed socialist regimes) andpersisting theocratic republics or autocratic monarchies (e.g. Arabpeninsula and Iran),
  • [2] unsuccessful consolidation of countries that initiated democratization in the 1990s but got stuck in a hybrid status and then experienced backsliding toward an authoritarian status quo ante (Russiaand numerous countries of the former Soviet Union), and
  • [3] A defensive form of growing reluctance toward the global euphoria for the democratic script and a resistance of autocratic regimesagainst democracy promotion activities in their countries (see thescholarly debate in the first half of the 2000s, e.g. Carothers 2006;Gershman/Allen 2006), 2 open opposition to Western democracy promotion, the “counterpromotion” (Burnell 2011a: 7), “anti-democracy promotion” (White-head 2014), or prevention of democracy (von Soest 2015) whichpartially overlaps with 3 open antagonization of democracy by offering alternative models inan affirmative way and exporting authoritarian norms, ideas, andpractices to countries in the geopolitical proximity (Kneuer/Dem-melhuber 2016: 775-776).
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