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Welcome to the freedom recession

Opinion: Authoritarian states' knack for capitalism has let them buy credibility while reducing political freedoms.

A woman dressed in traditional Tibetan costume walks with visitors to a government-organized exhibition called the "50th Anniversary of Democratic Reforms in Tibet" in Beijing, March 18, 2009. They are in front of a photograph showing Tibetan farmers carrying a portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong. (David Gray/Reuters)

NEW YORK — The reemergence of authoritarian powers has been a hot topic among foreign policy thinkers in the past few years. These states find capitalism perfectly acceptable — a few are even getting quite good at it — even as they despise and restrict the freedoms taken for granted by citizens in liberal democracies.

China’s economic power, and to a lesser extent, the cash reserves that similarly authoritarian regimes in Russia, Venezuela and Iran have accrued selling oil and natural gas, have given them new credibility in the world. While these countries are vastly different, they are playing a similar game. If they were boxers, they would be counter-punchers, exploiting openings in the defenses of the lumbering heavyweight champ.

These counter-punches come in different forms. For Iran, it is aid for Hezbollah and Hamas. China sends money abroad in the form of sweetheart, no-questions-asked contracts signed with dictatorial regimes for natural gas in Myanmar or oil in Sudan. Russia and Venezuela spread their largesse “in kind,” offering cheap energy in exchange for influence.

These trends have attracted media and academic attention, but little from official Washington. Now, a new report from Freedom House, in conjunction with two U.S. government broadcasters, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia, examines the long term implications of this trend, both in terms of basic political freedoms in the countries involved, and more seriously, the risk that emerging nations will emulate this new “authoritarian model.”

Undermining Democracy, as the report is titled, looks at the practice of authoritarianism in five countries: China, Russia, Venezuela, Pakistan and Iran. It is published, its authors say, in the midst of a “political recession” — that is, three years in a row in which Freedom House’s index of political freedoms shows a decline across the world — the first time that has happened since the index began in 1972.

While Iran’s Shiite theocracy, Russia’s kleptocracy and China’s communist state would seem to have little in common, there are actually striking similarities with regard to some aspects of government behavior.

  • Each exercises considerable influence in its region, intervening covertly and overtly in the affairs of its neighbors. Russia, for instance, used a $180 million debt write-off and a $2 billion loan to convince Kyrgyzstan to eject U.S. and NATO forces from a vital airfield used to supply the Afghan war.
  • All these countries, to varying degrees, play lip service to some version of “democracy,” as Iran’s upcoming elections attest. Even China uses the term to describe reforms within its ruling Communist Party, as if the definition of the term can be stretched to mean “a vote among career bureaucrats.”
  • All, too, struggle with the paradoxical problems that grow out of their efforts to meld capitalism and authoritarianism. Pakistan’s democracy, for instance, is now threatened by cynical deals cut with extremists that have spun out of control; Venezuela is saddled with a president bent on usurping constitutional rules and spending the national wealth abroad on ideological projects; and Russia’s “largely decorative elected institutions,” as the report memorably puts it, are really just a convenient way to mediate the division of spoils.