How “black knights” such as Vladimir Putin’s Russia help dictators survive elections

Democracy is facing challenging times due to a number of factors which span national, religious, and political divides. Jakob Tolstrup argues that “black knights” such as Vladimir Putin’s Russia have played a large role in subverting the democratic process in neighbouring states in pursuit of their own geopolitical goals. 

Though democracy has spread widely in recent decades, it has not swiped away authoritarianism. Even if one applies a minimalist yardstick of democracy, around forty percent of the countries in the world remain autocratic today. What may come as a surprise though is that most of these do actually hold regular elections. But why take such a risk? Why jeopardise power by allowing people to speak up? The obvious answer is that simply refusing to hold elections is no longer a viable option in the globalized world of today – not even for the direst autocrat. More surprisingly, they may also be a tool in the authoritarian toolbox that, if used in the right way, can help dictators accrue popular legitimacy, manage elite conflicts and effectively split opposition groups. Most non-democratic leaders therefore commit themselves to national elections in some form as they expect to be able to control the process, and perhaps even capitalise on it.

Just think of the numerous votes won by President Teodoro Mbasogo in Equatorial Guinea, by President Aleksandr Lukashenka in Belarus or by the UMNO in Malaysia. This tactic doesn’t always go according to plan. Sometimes election processes spin out of control. We saw this in Iran in 2009 and in Serbia in 2000 where Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Slobodan Milošević claimed to have secured re-election. In both cases, the results were contested by swaths of people demanding the resignation of the incumbent, defection of regime elites was accelerating, and the West added to the crisis by pushing even harder for a democratic opening. In the former case, Ahmadinejad rode out the storm. In the latter, Milošević was forced from power, and Serbia embarked on the road to democracy.

Clearly, authoritarian elections can be risky endeavours as they open a window of opportunity for the transfer of political power. Elite insiders, opposition groups, the electorate, and even external democracy promoters naturally try to use this clearly marked point in time to focus, and perhaps coordinate, their efforts to challenge the status quo. The wise dictator therefore needs to make sure that every aspect of the election process is effectively controlled. This means paying attention to at least five potential pitfalls: 1) elections must signal invincibility, meaning that the vote must be won with a comfortable margin and the result must be perceived as fairly legitimate, or at least irreversible; 2) high-positioned elites must be deterred from defection; 3) the opposition must be kept fragmented and weak; 4) voter protests must be effectively dealt with; and 5) Western criticism and/or financial pressure must be waved off.

So how do dictators around the world cope with these challenges? Much is decided by the resources available to the dictator in the period preceding the elections as well as by the strategies previously employed to maintain power. But even in consolidated autocracies, unforeseen events can set in motion negative spirals of increasing instability and regime dysfunctionality. A helping hand from the outside can make a real difference in determining whether dictators lose control of elections and whether they survive the crisis or not. I call this deliberately targeted external support meant to help authoritarian rulers maintain control

‘Black knight election bolstering’.

Black knights are normally states or international organisations, and one prime example today is Russia. In a recent academic article, I show how how Russia has interfered on the side of authoritarian rulers in elections in three of its neighbour countries – Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova. However, Russia is not the only bad boy in international politics. Think about the silent approval and tacit support of the US administration for Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s victory in the flawed Egyptian presidential elections of 2014, or the attempts of South American states and organisations to legitimise Nicola’s Maduro’s highly questionable election victory in Venezuela in 2013. No matter who the black knights are, the major problem is that black knight election bolstering seems to be an important stumbling block on the road to political openings. But we need only little about it, and even less about what to do to counter it.

Black knights can improve the odds of authoritarian survival in two ways: by boosting the resources available to the autocrat, or by solidifying regime legitimacy. Both are crucial if the dictators are to meet the five challenges discussed earlier. For instance, with regards to the threat of elite defection, black knights can help the incumbent make it less attractive to break ranks. One strategy is to provide cash-strapped autocrats with the finances necessary for cooptation. This is what Russia has more or less consistently been doing towards neighbouring Belarus throughout the last two decades, in effect helping President Lukashenka buy loyalty. Another is to send a clear signal that only the incumbent will be accepted as the leader of the country – what could be termed a ‘no alternative to the incumbent’ policy. Even in cases of highly contested elections, such external support is likely to reduce the fear among regime supporters that the incumbent will not be able to withstand pressure. South Africa’s consistent backing of Zimbabwe’s long-time dictator, Robert Mugabe, during the contested and violence-ridden 2008 elections indeed seems to have had this effect.

If popular protests erupt black knights can dampen frustration by providing financial resources to boost social spending. Alternatively, they can help make violent crack-downs successful either by providing the necessary security-related personnel and equipment to carry out such an operation or by reproducing the regime’s framing of events – for example, by discrediting the unruly demonstrators and supporting the firm hand that effectively disperses the crowds. When the Arab Spring was at its high point, Saudi Arabia provided both financial and coercive support to its Bahrain ally, effectively insulating the monarchy against protestors. And when the so-calledTwitter Revolution in Moldova in 2009 threatened to topple the communist regime under Vladimir Voronin, Russian state-controlled media, widely available in the country, supported the regime’s framing of the revolutionary events as a coup d’état instigated by neighbouring Romania, effectively legitimizing the violent crackdown that followed.

So even though Russia’s aggressive and blunt policy of supporting autocracy and fighting democracy in its own neighbourhood stands out as the most obvious expression of black knight support, the international dimension of authoritarianism is actually a global phenomenon that we should not underestimate. Future efforts to promote democracy (not only during election periods) must be tailored in a way that can offset, or at least counterbalance, black knight activities. How to do this without sacrificing objectivity and non-interference is tremendously difficult. But if democracy promotion is to succeed, we need to start thinking seriously about such challenges.

Note: this post represents the views of the author and not those of Democratic Audit UK or the LSE. Please read our comments policy before posting. It originally appeared on the PSA blog.

Jakob Tolstrup is Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science at Aarhus University, Denmark. His article “Black Knights and Elections in Authoritarian Regimes: Why and How Russia Supports Authoritarian Incumbents in Post-Soviet States” was published in European Journal of Political Research in late 2014. Find out more about him here.

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