European Security and Autocratic Consolidation

Supreme Eurasian Economic Council Meeting

European Security and Autocratic Consolidation

Tobias Lechner
Freie Universität Berlin

To start the new year, we'll be sharing a selection of thought pieces from Consortium Fellows who participated in our most recent Consortium Module, hosted by St Antony's College, University of Oxford.

We should not conceal the problems we face today: The last decade was a decade of autocratic consolidation. After the end of the Cold War, most autocratic regimes struggled with the new global power structure. More recently, however, they are as self-confident as never before and enjoy a weak community of liberal-democratic states, most of them in the region we define as 'West'.

To see the 'West' and the 'East' (Eurasia, Asia) as two distinct cultural-political spheres, is, in my opinion, a major problem of many analyses today. Hegemonic attitudes of autocratic states are often explained as some cultural-historic 'path': Crimea (as 'historic' part of Russia) and Taiwan (as 'historic' part of the PR of China) are such examples. This completely contradicts the idea of self-determination and self-ownership of citizens. This second argument is often heard in the Crimea discussion. But do, for example, the people of Siberia (living in the area where most natural resources in Russia come from) have the same right of political self-determination?

There is no conflict between the West and the East today, but there is a conflict between increasingly weak liberal-democratic states and increasingly strong autocratic states. The security of Europe (especially Eastern Europe) is not a cultural problem. We have to be aware of the fact that the global 'system competition' (a concept often used in Chinese context) really exists. I would make two observations: Firstly, autocracies are much more unstable than they look. It is very difficult for an authoritarian leadership to find the right balance between repression / liberalization and re-distribution of material resources. A second observation is that 'globalization' (defined as increasing interconnectedness) also established an internationalization of crime and criminal activities. As Alex Cooley showed, Central Asian elites misuse the 'safe havens' of Europe and the U.S. for partly illegal activities (money laundering, lobbyism, PR companies for image, etc.). Though many autocrats face increasing difficulties though internal 'modernization' / 'globalization', which is very often a threat to the regime, they use the international 'modernization'/ 'globalization' for their own benefits and flee the country with as much money as they can bring with them. Kleptocracy, especially but not only in resource-rich countries, is the major obstacle for good governance in many countries.

Back to the key concern: There is somewhat of a Russia-Western 'disagreement', and we should be very honest about it. Security, not culture, is at the core of this disagreement. And it is both about the security of the population and about the security of the elites. The basic differences in the political system and the different interests of the elites are the main problem we face: Many autocrats use external adventures for distracting from domestic problems. This is what we need to discuss.