In 2012 during the height of the Arab Spring Head of the Russian Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, flew to Algiers to meet with his Algerian counterpart, Rachid Lallali, to discuss ‘the developments of the situation in the Middle East’. This vague phrasing provided on the Security Council website masks the real purpose of the visit. The Algerian regime had been quick to react to protests in Algeria linked to the Arab Spring and protests in Algeria had not had the same conclusion as protests in Egypt or Tunisia, or sparked a civil war as in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Patrushev was on a fact-finding mission to determine how the Algerian regime had stopped protests and not experienced the same problems as other North African and Middle Eastern autocracies.
This example highlights the role learning plays in enhancing the development of practices among autocracies to better ensure their own survival. Few autocrats want to end up like Muammar Gaddafi, being dragged through the streets and beaten to death gruesomely. They would much rather die in their beds at a ripe old age, like Francisco Franco. Therefore, autocrats – and authoritarian-minded leaders – want to have an effective palette of survival practices to fall back on when times get tough.
Modern authoritarian regimes have developed ‘spin’ techniques, becoming media savvy manipulating the media and websites to better control the narrative, without having to rely on naked repression to maintain power. Of course, having a large coercive capacity is crucial, but it is expensive and to constantly repress and needs a group of particularly sadistic personnel to accomplish on a regular basis. Therefore, authoritarian regimes develop other strategies from legitimation – say pseudo-free elections – and co-optation strategies to increase the numbers of the winning coalition to support the regime when times get tough.
Yet, these practices are not developed in a vacuum. Rather personnel in authoritarian regimes look at pertinent examples used by other autocracies or from previous domestic regimes to develop best survival practices. Thus, authoritarian regimes are constantly learning and adapting – think of it as a group of mad scientists meeting at an annual conference and swapping notes. While it is plausible that much that is needed can be found on Google the nuance can be missed and that needs dialogue with other practitioners. One could learn the techniques of swimming on Google, but the environment of the pool is very different to what one reads online.
Therefore, cooperation between authoritarian regimes is more than reading or occasional engagement, it is regular and comprehensive. Personnel in authoritarian regimes are constantly meeting and exchanging ideas, and it is not just the case that the top echelons in regimes meet. This is happening at all levels, as regime personnel look for best practices. Authoritarian regimes are collaborating with one another to ensure survival. These regimes are aware that the collapse of one weakens other authoritarian regimes in the neighbourhood and can spark a wave of autocratic collapse across a region, like with the Arab Spring.
Consequently, authoritarian regimes cooperate to reduce the possibility of one collapsing and sparking a domino effect. Some authoritarian regimes do serve as models for others with China, Russia, and Singapore having a certain pull of attraction. This is especially the case for leaders with authoritarian tendencies in weak democracies – or autocracies – and looking for examples on how to effectively consolidate power.
However, learning is more of a team effort. Authoritarian regimes must get the tactics right every time whereas protesters – as an example – only must get it right once. No authoritarian leader wants to be murdered but would rather die at a ripe old age. Consequently, authoritarian regimes take lessons from each other and it more horizontal then vertical in terms of autocracies cooperating to develop an effective palette of survival practices. Regional hegemons – like Russia in the post-Soviet space – will take examples from other authoritarian regimes, particularly if they are established autocracies.
Another aspect of cooperation between authoritarian regimes is at the regional level. This is the case in the post-Soviet space with regional organisations acting as learning rooms for authoritarian regimes. These organisations provide spaces for regular meetings across many ministerial levels. Similarly, these organisations provide institutions to collect the legislation of all members, allowing others to see what the legislation of Kazakhstan is on Internet restrictions. A final practice of regional organisations regarding learning is to provide opportunities to test best practices with training exercises. The definition of terrorism is broad in these regional organisations, and there are examples of these organisations developing best practices against terrorists who take to the streets with banners – otherwise known as protesters.
While authoritarian regimes are constantly collaborating with one another, learning also occurs at a domestic level. This has been an understudied aspect of authoritarian learning. Elites in established authoritarian regimes will analyse previous policies used domestically and ascertain if the same policy can be used again. In states with weaker regime longevity elites have often been in several governments and so will bring ideas from previous governments into their present role.
So, what does this all mean for authoritarian regimes? Through learning and regular cooperation these regimes are increasing their chances of developing best survival practices. Therefore, authoritarian longevity is increased, and this endurance makes these regimes attractive, thereby acting as models to copy for authoritarian minded elites and offer competition to the perception that democracy is the only model in town. The increased survival chances of authoritarian regimes and their serving as an alternative political model to democracy increases their longevity and multiplies the number of authoritarian regimes. This has spillover effects in the competition for shaping the international values and norms that shape the international global order.
Authoritarian regimes are susceptible to collapse as they must be right all the time, and they run the risk of learning the wrong lessons or remaining in power too long and lose the capacity to learn and adapt. However, this can take a long time and lead to a highly dangerous authoritarian regime unable to learn and adapt but still having sufficient repressive capacity to cause mayhem and mischief at home and abroad. Therefore, democracies should maintain support for democracy activists, supporting civil society, offering easy access visas for those facing persecution and supporting independent media. We cannot stop authoritarian regimes from learning but we can maintain constant pressure, forcing them into making mistakes, thereby initiating their own demise.