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The international dimensions of authoritarian regime survival: comparing “dictaplomatic” strategies in post-Soviet Eurasia

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - DICTAPLOMACY (The international dimensions of authoritarian regime survival: comparing “dictaplomatic” strategies in post-Soviet Eurasia)

Reporting period: 2015-09-15 to 2017-09-14

DICTAPLOMACY investigated an understudied dimension of authoritarianism – the use autocrats make of diplomacy for regime-survival. The project analysed the foreign policy strategies and “dictaplomatic” tactics of authoritarian regimes in post-Soviet Eurasia with the aim of modelling the mechanisms whereby diplomacy helped them consolidate and survive.
This is an important issue for European society in the sense that “dictaplomats” internationally challenge democratic values, threaten democratic peace, and hamper the EU’s efforts at promoting a rule-based order in its Eastern neighbourhood. DICTAPLOMACY is a multidisciplinary project that combines insights and methods from comparative politics, international relations (IR) theories and foreign policy-making analysis. Its main objective was to elaborate an innovative framework for analysing rogue behaviour in contemporary IR. In identifying the international components of authoritarian resilience, DICTAPLOMACY also highlighted which incentives and coercive means could limit the resilience and contain the diffusion of authoritarian governance. This is a timely endeavour, given the growing assertiveness of Russia in world affairs, and the renewed “nuisance” capacity of its “sharp power” projection, as exemplified by its reliance on hybrid warfare, including disinformation. As a policy-relevant project, DICTAPLOMACY entailed cross-disciplinary fertilisation between scientific research and policy-advocacy work.
Research proceeded following a detailed plan organised in 3 work packages. WP1 focused on collecting data necessary for clarifying the concept of dictaplomacy and its operationalization from an interdisciplinary perspective (at the crossroads of comparative politics and IR theory). The fellow also developed and taught a seminar course on “Dictaplomacy in post-Soviet Eurasia”, which constitutes the backbone for a future handbook on the topic (as part of her habilitation thesis). WP2 led to elaborating an analytical framework and comprehensive methodology for measuring the impact of dictaplomacy on authoritarian regime-survival (dictaplomatic tools of resilience). Hypotheses were confronted with empirical data gathered on the field (Belarus) and through participant observation of elections (Russia 2016). Synthesising research findings, WP3 disseminated results with a view at theory-building and enhancing policy-relevant knowledge on the ways to deter the impact of dictaplomacy.
The following international dimensions of authoritarian regime-consolidation were analysed, and results disseminated through participating in international conferences, workshops and experts’ meetings, and publishing academic and policy papers.
- Conflict-proneness. Some authoritarian regimes in our sample (Russia, Azerbaijan) have a higher propensity than others (Belarus, Kazakhstan) to start or escalate militarized interstate disputes and wars. Hence the level of repression “at home” does not fully correlate with the level of aggressiveness of an authoritarian regime’s foreign policy. This was evidenced in a conference paper (EISA conference in Catania, September 2015), an edited version of which was later published in a peer-reviewed journal (Journal of Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society, vol. 2, issue 2, 2016).
- Geopolitical blackmail is an efficient dictaplomatic tool. This was exemplified and theorised based on a thorough analysis of president Lukashenka’s “geopolitical shopping” and skillful blackmailing – balancing the West against Russia, distributing promises of liberalisation for increasing the price that Russia has to pay (in the form of subsidies) for his volatile loyalty, and ultimately consolidating his autocratic power. The fellow published several academic articles on Belarus’s relations with Russia, on the Eurasian Economic Union (published in French journals Revue d’Études Comparatives Est-Ouest, n° 48, 2017; and RDN-La Revue du Débat Stratégique, n° 802, 2017), and investigated how Minsk tried to counterbalance its dependence on Russia by developing relations with “third players” (EUISS Chaillot Papers n° 144, 2018), notably China (IFRI Russie.NEI.Visions paper, n° 102, 2017). In addition, she delivered communications at experts’ panels and workshops on Belarus’ foreign policy (Belarus Reality Check), the Eastern Partnership and EU-Belarus/EU-Russia relations (EUISS Russia Task Force), including as a contributor to the drafting of the EU’s Global Strategy (2016).
- The strategic manipulation of international election monitoring amounts to autocracy-promotion. Electoral authoritarian regimes consolidate precisely by mimicking “elections”. The fact that international observers (such as those from the OSCE) are invited to monitor “managed elections” in post-Soviet Eurasia grants the regimes that stage them undue external legitimacy. The very institution of international election observation has been misused by Putin’s Russia, which is delegating “zombie” observers to endorse fraudulent elections in friendly neighbouring countries. Findings on this trend were presented at an international academic conference (IPSA Congress, Poznan, July 2016) and at an international Colloquium on authoritarianism (ENS Lyons, November 2017), the proceedings of which are about to be published in the format of a collective book (ed. Karthala, 2019).
The new knowledge generated by the project has been used for: 1. (re-)establishing the fellow as an IR scholar within epistemic networks in the EU and beyond, thereby enhancing her career advancement within this disciplinary field; 2. establishing lasting collaborations with foreign academic institutions and researchers involved in studying the international dimensions of authoritarianism; 3. advancing Polish applied research on authoritarian governance and informing professionals, notably diplomats, on the mechanisms of dictaplomatic behaviour in Post-Soviet Eurasia; and 4) advising European democracies on how to contain the geographical dissemination of authoritarianism and its increasing “nuisance power” in the EU’s Eastern neighbourhood, if not inside the EU proper. An additional impact in terms of re-enforcing a position of maturity for the Marie Curie fellow is her appointment, in November 2018, as UN Special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus.
Apart from the improvement of the fellow’s research and teaching skills, the DICTAPLOMACY project has had a wider societal impact beyond the state of the art. It contributed to raising awareness about the factors that can aggravate the ongoing backlash on democracy worldwide, and notably in Europe. The project produced and disseminated policy-relevant knowledge of use for European decision-makers. In fostering a better understanding of the dictaplomatic tactics mobilised by authoritarian regimes for expanding their lifespan, the project advocated implementable counter-measures, thereby helping democracies to better tailor coercive measures (sanctions) for deterring the threat of autocracy-promotion. In addition, the project resulted in producing knowledge on the rationale of the Eurasian Economic Union and a series of other institutions (such as CIS Election Observation Missions) as instruments for consolidating the role of Russia as a gravity centre of authoritarianism in post-Soviet Eurasia.