(Journal Article) The recent diffusion of mass protests across the Arab world has become the second most important external challenge to the leaders of post-Soviet autocracies since the spread of ‘color revolutions’ in the early 2000s. It signifies the new empowerment of societal actors and inherent vulnerabilities of seemingly durable autocratic regimes. In contrast to most post-Soviet electoral revolutions, the Arab uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya ended tragically for the incumbent leaders; Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had to flee, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak received a life sentence, and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi was killed. Against this backdrop, the ruling Slavic autocrats—Vladimir Putin, Viktor Yanukovych, and Aliaksandr Lukashenka—are now likely to view any confrontation with outside challengers as an existential zero-sum conflict.
For over a decade, autocratic regimes in Russia and Belarus managed to fend off any serious challenges to their rule. They achieved this by keeping a tight grip over their inner circle, using selective repression against their main political opponents, and manipulating public opinion through censorship and fear mongering. Putin and Lukashenka also reshaped the country’s institutional design to favor their political allies, eliminate any accountability mechanisms, and maximize their own personal control over the political process on all levels. The electoral autocracies that consolidated in Russia and Belarus, and those that are now taking shape in Ukraine, bear little resemblance to the democratic systems to which they publicly pay homage. While dissimilar from classic autocratic regimes of Latin America or the Middle East, they share some of the characteristics that triggered the recent collapse of sultanistic Arab autocracies.
SAIS Review, Vol. XXXII No. 2, Summer-Fall 2012
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