Ivan Krastev is a Bulgarian political scientist and a leading scholar on authoritarianism. In a conversation with the Journal's Rebecca Chao, Mr. Krastev challenged the assumptions that underpin popular theories of authoritarianism and discussed how the very elements that undermined these regimes in 1989, precipitating the collapse of the Soviet Union, contribute to their durability today. (1)
Journal of International Affairs: There is much debate on how to define authoritarianism today, and whether this concept subsumes all nondemocratic political environments or merely describes a stage in the progression toward democracy. How do you define it?
Ivan Krastev: It may be seductive and morally satisfying to view authoritarian regimes as following the same course as the Titanic, but the reality is more complex. In my point of view, a rigid distinction between democracy and authoritarianism creates a big trap--namely, that everything which is not democratic must be authoritarian, and that any time an authoritarian regime is toppled, what must follow it is democracy. For better or worse, most political action takes place in a gray no-man's-land between democracy and authoritarianism. Authoritarian regimes today do not insist on being authoritarian, which was the case decades ago. You are not going to hear many criticisms of democracy in modern authoritarian regimes. These regimes position themselves either as a particular type of democracy, as with Russia's insistence on being a sovereign democracy, or as a country in a transitional stage toward democracy, as is the case with China. Some of the traditional agents of change in past authoritarian regimes are no longer in fashion. Take for example the striking decline of the political role of the army. For scholars of authoritarianism in the 1960s and 1970s who became accustomed to expecting almost weekly coups d'etat, the current authoritarian scene looks quite uneventful.
It is important to understand that today, even authoritarian states recognize that the only source of legitimacy is the will of the people expressed through elections. With the exception of some radical Islamist or ideology-based regimes, most believe that no other form of legitimacy can replace the popular vote. Some authoritarian governments recognize this and are very keen on getting popular support. We used to talk about opinion-poll-addicted democracy, but my feeling is that Russia, for example, is a case of opinion-poll-addicted autocracy.
Journal: How has authoritarianism evolved since 1989, particularly with regard to the gray area between democracy and authoritarianism that you speak of?
Krastev: Before 1989, there was a great ideological confrontation in which most of these authoritarian regimes defined themselves as ideological alternatives to democracy and capitalism or as the last defense against communist takeover. This ideological confrontation collapsed in 1989. Now we have mostly nonideological authoritarian regimes. The Communist Party is still strong in China, but no one continues to believe that its objective is to build a communist society.
A second major change in authoritarianism is the introduction of certain democratic elements, such as elections. Before 1989, authoritarian regimes were usually one-party systems. Now these regimes push for fake or controlled elections; they recognize the fact that elections are very important for legitimizing their rule.
When looking at how authoritarianism has changed, we must also look at the people who are now governed by these regimes: consumers. The global democratic revolution may not have reached every part of the world, but the capitalist revolution has. Only a few authoritarian regimes are still based on traditional societies that completely exclude themselves from the global economy and the globalized world. But for the rest, it is quite important to deliver to these consumers and to convince people that what matters most is that they are delivering economically. …