Константин Сонин (ksonin) wrote,
Константин Сонин

Authoritarian Politics 101: Examples and Exercises

Мир академических экономистов, оказывается, сравнительно невелик. Самые большие мировые конференции собирают по 1200-1500 выступлений; самые большие ежегодные (EEA/ESEM, NASM, AEA/ASSA) – от 700 до 1000. Мир учёных-политологов гораздо больше – на ежегодной конференции American Political Science Association – примерно 7000 участников (на второй по размеру, MPSA – 3500). У них и разнообразие гораздо больше, конечно – от «политических философов» (распространённый и в наших краях тип) до специалистов по современным методом моделирования и анализа данных (тип, занимающий примерно 20% американской политологии и примерно 0,02% нашей). Неудивительно при таком количестве, что APSA разделена на десятки практически несвязанных «секций», внутри которых организуются заседания на ежегодной конференции.

У одной такой секции, которая называется Political Economy (очень грубо, соответствует разделу rational choice в политологии – тому самому, в котором работает примерно 0,02% российских политологов), есть своя ежеквартальная стенгазета (newsletter), в которой публикуются не научные статьи и даже не обзор, а, скорее, неформальные обзоры-эссе. Январский выпуск стенгазеты посвящен исследованиям авторитарных режимов и открывается нашей статьёй с Егором – о самых базовых, на наш взгляд, свойствах современной авторитарной политики. Все предыдущие выпуски The Political Economist лежат в свободном доступе, но текущий – нет. Так что я выкладываю наше эссе Authoritarian Politics 101: Examples and Exercises – а то вдруг устареет! – ниже под катом.

Authoritarian Politics 101: Examples and Exercises

Georgy Egorov, Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University

Konstantin Sonin, New Economic School, Moscow

The “Arab Spring” of 2011 has (re)turned public interest to authoritarian regimes. Despite a recent surge in studies of non-democratic politics, both formal and empirical, the great bulk of political economists’ effort is devoted to the study of democratic politics. Still, at least a half of the world’s population lives under non-democratic regimes, and the beginning of the new century has witnessed the transformation of some previously weak democracies into partial or fully-blown dictatorships.

The recent economic crisis provides a second reason to focus now on non-democratic politics. The internal politics of large corporations are inherently non-democratic. The financial crisis of 2008-09 demonstrated all too well that models of a dictator’s relations with his subordinates are very helpful in studying intra-corporation organization. In both Bear Sterns and Lehman Brothers, the two major investment banks that failed during the crisis, the years preceding failure – the years of spectacular profit growth – where marked by the gradual replacement of competent deputies to the CEO with incompetent loyalists; loyalty to management rather than to corporate values also marred the last years of Arthur Andersen. Another salient feature of corporate politics is the succession problem, one of the most prominent issues of non-democratic politics.

Following the seminal work of Bueno de Mesquita et al (2003) and Acemoglu and Robinson (2006), there has been a surge of studies offering formal models of authoritarian politics.  What do these models tell us about recent events in the Arab world and what is coming in now-consolidated authoritarian regimes such as Belarus, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Venezuela, and Russia?

The Dictator’s Dilemma

A major prerequisite for efficient governance and ultimately for the dictator’s survival in power is his ability to gather and process information. To rule, even the most sultanistic of dictators need to know the ever-changing needs of their subjects. Quite a few dictators showed enough aptitude in this respect to survive for decades, far longer than the most successful democratic leaders. This makes it even more surprising that, almost as a rule, dictators end up in an informational vacuum.

The tape record of the last rally that Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu called in his support reveals that he seemed genuinely surprised to see the anger and frustration of ordinary people. In February 2011, Hosni Mubarak appeared unaware of his unpopularity – both among ordinary citizens and the elite – the day before he was ousted from power and put under arrest. Colonel Muammar Gaddafi apparently considered himself a popular figure among ordinary Libyans, yet he failed to master any show of mass support during months of infighting: both the near-absence of pro-Gaddafi mass demonstrations and his reliance on mercenaries provide convincing evidence. Not surprisingly, dictatorships tend to respond slowly to the new challenges that their regimes and their countries face, and the economic performance and quality of governance of autocracies tend to be more volatile than in democracies (Acemoglu, Egorov, and Sonin, 2010). In December 2011, the entourage of Vladimir Putin, the paramount leader of Russia, dismissed with disbelief the exit-polls showing a sharp drop in support to his party.

Some dictators come to realize the need for information, and some go as far as allowing for limited media freedom in the hope of increasing transparency and having better governance. More often than not, these are resource-poor dictators, who cannot rely on petrodollars to enjoy a lavish lifestyle for themselves and for the broad elite and who need to provide proper incentives to their subordinates and put at least some check on corruption. In Egorov, Guriev, and Sonin (2009) we confirmed empirically this relationship between oil wealth and media freedom: in dictatorships, more oil means less media freedom, whereas in democracies the effect disappears. An oil-rich dictator can afford to stay out of touch with reality and yet stay in power; an oil-poor dictator does not have this luxury.

For any dictator there is therefore a trade-off, the “dictator’s dilemma”. Allow media freedom, and you may be brought down when evidence of your hard ways and your corruption mounts in the public mind. Repress the media and other information-gathering channels, and you are likely to stay in power for a longer time but then face an abrupt and brutal end. With less repression, the expected tenure is shorter, but in the end you may merely have to go into exile or even be allowed to stay as a citizen (often a very rich and privileged one) in the country you once ruled. Robert Mugabe’s power-sharing agreement with the opposition in Zimbabwe might have reduced his power, yet it made death at the hands of his successors or the mob less likely.

Succession and Other Issues for a Practical Autocrat

Very much like politicians in democratic countries, autocratic leaders need to build coalitions of supporters and position themselves in the policy space to keep these coalitions together. Other issues are more pertinent to autocracies. Dictators need to ensure loyalty; it is important that a close associate not betray you. It is critical that the appointed successor remain loyal; in a democracy, personal loyalty to the previous leader would not play as large a role.

The loyalty aspect of the dictator’s informational dilemma is studied in the “dictators and viziers” model (Egorov and Sonin, 2011). A competent subordinate is more likely to side with the dictator’s enemies when the dictator is vulnerable, i.e., when his loyalty is most critical. An insecure or cautious dictator will therefore choose incompetent loyalists as ministers because he fears that a competent minister will betray him more easily than an incapable one, and this cripples his control over the country he rules even further. In the corporate world, it might be the fate of Jon Corzine, Goldman’s CEO, ousted in a “palace” coup by the firm’s board members, that made Richard Fuld, the CEO of Lehman Brothers, surround himself with incompetent cronies.

The power that an appointed successor will possess over the dictator’s fate makes his loyalty most important. Not surprisingly, few dictators have truly solved the succession problem. The aging leaders of Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and Libya for years failed to delegate any power to designated successors. In Egypt and Libya, rumors of possible succession by a son had long circulated, yet no real power was ever transferred.  Similarly, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s choice of a placeholder from 2007 until his eventual return to the presidency in 2012 is best understood using the dictators-and-viziers model of non-democratic politics. The model suggests that if a successor has the qualities to consolidate power after the autocrat’s voluntary departure, he is most likely able to speed this departure up, and Putin’s choice of a successor lacking leadership and wit is most certainly a manifestation of this reasoning.

Ultimately, the practical validity of any theory rests upon its ability to generate verifiable predictions. In 2006, we made a first attempt to generate specific predictions about the fate of the world’s worst dictators, as ranked by Parade in 2005; three of these have since ended their tenure. We listed Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan (age in 2005: 64; rank: 8) as “the most likely to be killed or executed once overthrown”; he died of a sudden heart attack. For us, Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan (age in 2005: 61, rank: 9) was “the safest of the personalized dictators in the list”; he is now in exile. We suggested that “the main risk factor for Libyan Muammar Gaddafi (age in 2005: 62, rank: 6) is the degree of personalization of his power.”

Who is next? Currently, Kim Jong Il of North Korea is perhaps the most likely to be killed or executed once overthrown. (Still, North Korea represents an almost unique non-royal example in recent years of a successful transfer of power from father to son.) Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan (80) could be spared because of his age (he is less of a comeback threat!), but the high degree of personalization increases the threat to his life. By the same token, Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov of Turkmenistan (53), who is approaching Niyazov's god-like status at an astonishing speed, is going to be a lasting threat to any successful challenger, which makes him an unlikely survivor in the hands of the eventual new leader.  Leaders of more institutionalized regimes, e.g., mature party dictatorships or military juntas, where authority is spread over a group of individuals, are much more likely to survive their removal from power, as did Khrushchev in the Soviet Union, multiple leaders of Communist China, or the military dictators of Argentina of the 1970-80s.

Ultimately, a leader who is smart enough to care about his final days at the helm would opt to share power with the opposition and appoint a successor well in advance of his last day in power. Unfortunately, this topic is typically not covered in Authoritarian Politics 101, and few dictators have mastered the advanced technique.


Acemoglu, Daron, Georgy Egorov, and Konstantin Sonin (2010) Political Selection and Persistence of Bad Governments, Quarterly Journal of Economics, 125(4), 1511-1575.

Acemoglu, Daron and James Robinson (2006) Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, Cambridge University Press.

Bueno de Mesquita, Bruce, Smith, Alastair, Silverson, Randolph, and Morrow, James (2003) The Logic of Political Survival, MIT Press, Cambridge.

Egorov, Georgy, Sergei Guriev, and Konstantin Sonin (2009) Why Resource-Poor Dictators Allow Freer Media: A Theory and Evidence from Panel Data, American Political Science Review, Vol. 103, No. 4, pp. 645-668.

Egorov, Georgy and Konstantin Sonin (2011) Dictators and Their Viziers: Endogenizing the Loyalty vs. Competence Trade-off , Journal of European Economic Association, 9 (5), pages 903–930.


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