On the tactics of modern strongmen

On the tactics of modern strongmen

By Daniel Treisman and Sergei Guriev

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Dictators have been changing. The classic tyrants of the twentieth century—think of Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, and Mao Zedong—were larger-than-life figures responsible for the deaths of millions. They set out to build new civilizations within their tightly guarded—and sometimes expanding—borders. That meant controlling not just people’s public behavior but also their private lives. To do that, each created a disciplined party and a brutal secret police. Not every old school dictator was a genocidal killer or the prophet of some utopian creed. But even the less bloodthirsty ones were expert at projecting fear. Terror was their all-purpose tool.

Yet, towards the end of the century something changed. Strongmen around the world started turning up to meetings in conservative suits instead of military uniforms. Most stopped executing their opponents in front of packed football stadiums. Many flew to the annual business conference in the Swiss resort of Davos to schmooze with the global elite. These new dictators hired pollsters and political consultants, staged citizen call-in shows, and sent their children to study at universities in the West. They did not loosen their grip over the population—far from it, they worked to design more effective instruments of control. But they did so while acting the part of democrats.

Not all autocrats have made this leap. North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad would fit well into a scrapbook of twentieth century despots. In China and Saudi Arabia, rulers have digitized the old fear-based model instead of replacing it. But the global balance has shifted. Among leaders of nondemocracies today, the representative figure is no longer a totalitarian tyrant like Josef Stalin, a sadistic butcher like Idi Amin, or even a reactionary general like Augusto Pinochet. He is a suave manipulator like Hungary’s Victor Orbán or Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong—a ruler who pretends to be a humble servant of the people.[i]

This new model is based on a brilliant insight. The central goal remains the same: to monopolize political power. But today’s strongmen realize that in current conditions violence is not always necessary or even helpful. Instead of terrorizing citizens, a skillful ruler can control them by reshaping their beliefs about the world. He can fool people into compliance and even enthusiastic approval. In place of harsh repression, the new dictators manipulate information. Like spin doctors in a democracy, they spin the news to engineer support. They are spin dictators.[ii]

The Putin puzzle

We came to this subject through a particular case. In March 2000, Russians elected a former KGB lieutenant colonel with little political experience as their president. Vladimir Putin claimed to accept the principles of democracy, although his instincts clearly pulled in a different direction. For some time, it was not obvious—perhaps even to him—where he would take his country. As the economy boomed, his ratings soared.

Putin preserved democratic appearances while emphasizing the need to build a cohesive, modern state. At first, centralizing control seemed reasonable after the turbulent 1990s. But he did not stop, and after a while the measures he was taking to strengthen executive power—his power—were visibly undermining checks and balances. The scope for political contestation narrowed.

The battering ram that broke through democratic constraints was Putin’s own popularity. He used it to get supporters elected to the parliament and to bully the country’s unruly regional governors. With a mix of law enforcement and business leverage, he tamed the previously tycoon-dominated but competitive media. Even as he kept the form of national elections, he and his aides left less and less to chance. Putin and his United Russia Party could almost always have won a free and fair vote. But they still used pressure and tricks to inflate their landslides. 

Democracies are never perfect. For a time, the flaws in Russia’s politics looked much like those in other middle income, semi-free countries such as Argentina, Mexico, and Romania. Almost all such states suffer from corruption, tainted elections, and insecure press freedom. Political leaders often abuse their authority over police and judges. Still, these flaws typically coexist with some popular accountability.

But by the time Putin returned to the presidency in 2012, after four years as prime minister, he was clearly operating from a different playbook. In late 2011, a wave of demonstrations had swept Moscow and other cities over fraud in that year’s parliamentary election. The sight of up to 100,000 people in the streets alarmed Putin and his advisors. They struck back, arresting peaceful protesters, squeezing disloyal politicians out of parliament, and harassing the remaining independent media.

We both watched closely as this process unfolded. Sergei headed a Moscow university specialized in economics and advised the Russian government. Daniel was a professor in the West studying Russia’s post-communist politics. In the spring of 2013, Sergei received a visit from some of Putin’s security agents, who confiscated his emails and copied his computer hard drive. He had helped to write a critical analysis of the latest court verdict against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a billionaire who had been jailed on a dubious charge. Apparently, the Kremlin did not like this analysis. Soon after, Sergei moved to France.[iii]

The system Putin forged in Russia is distinctively authoritarian. But it is an authoritarianism of an unfamiliar type. Unlike Stalin, Putin has not murdered millions and imprisoned millions more. Even Leonid Brezhnev, who led the Soviet Union in its later, softer phase, from 1964 to 1982, locked thousands of dissidents in labor camps and psychiatric hospitals, banned all opposition parties, and held no elections that were even slightly competitive. Opposition rallies were out of the question. All media broadcast a mind-numbing ideological discourse. Foreign radio stations were jammed and most citizens were kept from international travel by a rusting iron curtain.

Putin’s regime—now more than 20 years old—is different. It does not run on Soviet-style censorship. One can publish newspapers or books that call the man in the Kremlin a dictator.[iv] The catch is that most people do not want to read them. Nor did the system run on fear, although that may now be changing. Occasional acts of political violence occurred, usually in murky circumstances. But the Kremlin always denied responsibility.[v] And, although Putin’s political opponents are increasingly anxious, most Russians have not seemed scared.[vi] Many have quite readily accepted a skewed vision of reality that Putin’s media helped to shape. The authorities under communism, with their Mayday parades and ritual elections, tried to create the illusion of consent. Under Putin, many Russians consented to illusions.[vii]

As we examined the system that was emerging, we realized Putin’s style of rule was not unique. From Hugo Chávez in Venezuela to Viktor Orbán in Hungary, nondemocratic leaders were using a common set of techniques.[viii] Quite a few drew inspiration from the pioneer of this new brand, Lee Kuan Yew. Starting in the 1960s, the long-serving leader of Singapore had shaped his country into a formidable model of political control. That might sound surprising. Singapore claims to be a democracy and is often taken for one. It holds regular elections. But a key innovation of the new autocrats is precisely to claim to be democratic. “You are entitled to call me whatever you like,” Lee once retorted to a critical journalist, “but… do I need to be a dictator when I can win, hands down?”[ix] He failed to add that always winning, hands down, was the calling card of a modern dictator.

This essay is an excerpt from Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century by Daniel Treisman and Sergei Guriev.

Sergei Guriev is professor of economics and provost at Sciences Po in Paris and former chief economist at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Twitter @sguriev

Daniel Treisman is professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of The Return: Russia’s Journey from Gorbachev to Medvedev. Twitter @dstreisman



[i] On how the ruling PAP dominates in Singapore, see, for instance, Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2021: “Singapore’s parliamentary political system has been dominated by the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) and the family of current prime minister Lee Hsien Loong since 1959. The electoral and legal framework that the PAP has constructed allows for some political pluralism, but it constrains the growth of credible opposition parties and limits freedoms of expression, assembly, and association.” In September 2020, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong seemed to cast doubt on the possibility of another party successfully governing the country: “Is it really true that one day if there is a change of government, a new party can run Singapore equally well… ? This is like saying anybody can be the conductor for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra” (Loong, “PM Lee Hsien Loong at the Debate”). For other characterizations of the system as less than democratic, see Morgenbesser (Behind the Façade, 146-7) and George (Singapore, Incomplete, 115-22). On Orbán’s dismantling of democracy, see Ash (“Europe Must Stop This Disgrace”), Beauchamp (“It Happened There”), and Economist (“How Viktor Orbán Hollowed out Hungary’s Democracy”). Among classifiers of political regimes, Varieties of Democracy (VDEM) rates both Singapore and Hungary as nondemocracies in recent years and Freedom House rates both as only “partly free.” Polity rates Singapore a nondemocracy but Hungary (in 2018) as still a democracy.

[ii] In earlier works (Guriev and Treisman, “Informational Autocrats,” “A Theory of Informational Autocracy,” and “The Popularity of Authoritarian Leaders”), we used the term “informational autocracy” for this model of rule. We refer to the same model as “spin dictatorship” here. For an excellent survey of some recent cases, see Dobson, The Dictator’s Learning Curve.

[iii] For details, see Barry, “Economist Who Fled.”

[iv] This might sound strange coming from someone who faced security service scrutiny for something he helped to write. But what got the Kremlin’s attention in Sergei’s case was not criticism of Russia’s authorities in the press—such criticism remains quite common—but that he had, in their eyes, interfered in a politically sensitive court case.

[v] In February 2015, a leader of the anti-Putin opposition, Boris Nemtsov, was assassinated outside the Kremlin. A Chechen former security officer was sentenced to prison for the murder, along with four accomplices. But who ordered the killing has never been proven (see Nechepurenko, “Five Who Killed”). The opposition politician and activist Vladimir Kara-Murza was twice poisoned while in Russia and almost died on both occasions (Eckel and Schreck, “FBI Silent on Lab Results in Kremlin Foe’s Suspected Poisoning”). Then, in 2020, the opposition leader Aleksei Navalny was also poisoned with a form of the rare nerve agent Novichok (Bennhold and Schwirtz, “Navalny Awake and Alert.”) In all these cases, the Kremlin denied any responsibility.

[vi] Attacks like those against Nemtsov, Kara-Murza, and Navalny send a clear message to anti-Kremlin activists. But do ordinary people feel fear? Of course, it is hard to be sure. Still, various evidence suggests not—at least until recently. Asked in 2019 by the independent and respected Levada Center which of a list of feelings they had experienced more strongly recently, only 7 percent of respondents included “fear.” Asked which they thought other people around them had experienced in the previous year—perhaps a less sensitive question—only 13 percent said “fear.” The most popular answer, chosen by 36 percent, was “weariness, indifference.” Polled repeatedly in 2003-2017 on whether they feared a “return to mass repression,” at most 30 percent said yes (in 2013), fewer than confessed that year to fear of world war, criminal attacks, natural disasters, unemployment, and AIDs. However, the percent fearing mass repression has risen since 2017, reaching 52 percent in 2021—quite possibly indicating the end of Putin’s experiment with spin (see Levada Center, “Kharakter i Struktura Massovoy Trevozhnosti v Rossii”). In Chapter 4, we provide evidence that in general in spin dictatorships most of the public is not afraid to express critical views when polled.

[vii] In 2020-21, as we were writing this book, the use of harsh measures against the anti-Putin opposition—and even some who just expressed opposition views—increased. The number of political prisoners rose from 45 at the end of 2014 to 61 in 2020, according to the human rights organization Memorial, and others were apparently imprisoned for their religious beliefs (Memorial, Annual Report 2013-14, 20; Memorial, Spisok Lits). Protests were suppressed, with thousands detained. As we discuss in Chapter 8, “spin dictatorships” like that of Putin in his early years may revert to violent repression when severe economic crisis or social modernization renders spin no longer viable. Such tactics are unlikely to work for long but may still be the ruler’s best bet at the time.

That may be what is happening now in Russia. However, although higher than before, the tally of political prisoners remains in the dozens, not the thousands. Political killings occur much more rarely than under most of the “fear dictators” we discuss throughout the book, and state involvement is concealed—albeit sometimes ineptly. The Kremlin continues to pretend the elections it holds are free and fair and that peaceful demonstrations are permitted. YouTube remains largely uncensored. Although increasingly embattled, independent media such as Novaya Gazeta and pollsters such as the Levada Center continue to publish. Those punished for political crimes are accused of extremism, terrorism, or non-political offenses. Navalny was finally jailed in 2021 over the alleged defrauding of a cosmetics company. In April 2021, the authorities labeled his political network “extremist-linked,” forcing it to disband (Sauer, “‘End of an Era’”; Roth, “Russian State Watchdog Adds Navalny”). We see Russia as of early 2021 as on the border between spin and fear, and moving in the direction of the latter.

[viii] As we discuss later in this chapter, there are some resemblances to populist politicians in democracies such as Silvio Berlusconi and Donald Trump.  

[ix] Safire, “Essay; The Dictator Speaks.”