Mutual assistance and learning among authoritarian regimes is a growing and worrying phenomenon for democracies today. The present book offers a timely contextualisation of the topic. It urges us to pay more attention to how authoritarian regimes communicate, collaborate and learn from each other’s successes and failures. The Authoritarian International is an extremely well-researched study that offers many insights into the intricate government structures and personal networks of four post-Soviet polities: Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova. It shows just how close elite ties and networks are within and between these states. The author has done the bulk of his research and writing before 2022. Thus, the need to take account of the momentous changes following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine rendered many of his previous premises obsolete. Russia is simply no longer the same hegemon and role model from which it is appropriate to take advice, let alone learn lessons.
Ukraine and Moldova have, for obvious reasons, turned their backs on Russia and capped all communication channels with it. And although Russia has greater leverage over Belarus than ever before, it remains questionable whether the two countries are still engaged in the same learning processes as in the past. Another not insignificant issue is that Hall effectively classifies Moldova and Ukraine as authoritarian regimes. Even considering the periods before 2019/2020 (prior to Selensky and Sandu having been elected presidents) changes of governments had generally been result of free elections. Having said that, the book outlines general mechanisms and provides many entry points for extrapolating from its findings to other regions and settings, which makes it a valuable contribution to the relevant literature on authoritarianism, authoritarian learning and regime change in the post-Soviet space, a region that is not immune to the risk of further democratic backsliding.
The book is structured around different learning arenas and occasions for learning, some of the most important being siloviki structures (state power structures, such as police or military) and regional organisations, such as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). The latter is not covered by the book, which is a shame. The argument that this regional forum is primarily used to “bolster” members economically, but “does not provide avenues for learning” (p. 131) is not very convincing, since it is the forum in which post-Soviet member states convene most frequently. Another important occasion for learning, according to the author, are elite interlinkages at the intra-state level, which notably come to bear during changes of government or regime transitions. Hall could have paid more attention to the fact that, at least in Moldova and Ukraine, many efforts have been made to initiate lustration processes since 2019 and 2021 respectively. In both countries, political developments are no longer determined by the same elites as in the past. Authoritarian learning, as described in the book, involves various processes, such as diffusion, emulation, adaptation, as well as linkages. Ultimately, the author argues, it is about the ambitions of authoritarian leaders “to develop best survival practices” (p. 197). One of the major findings of the book is that authoritarian learning is a cooperative process, not necessarily hierarchical, with the hegemon diffusing best practices, but rather horizontal, with Russia itself learning lessons from others.
The monograph relies on one-to-one expert interviews (unfortunately, the anonymised interview codes do not reveal the place and time of the interview), secondary literature and media sources. The selection of cases is reasonably justified, but four cases are a lot to deal with and this makes for a very cursory analysis of the individual country cases in each chapter. The introduction sets the scene for a spatial and temporal contextualisation and outlines the theoretical framework. The second methodological chapter broaches the well-known “black box problem” (p. 33) in research dealing with authoritarian regimes. It is difficult to obtain verifiable data, because autocracies simply do not act in a transparent manner and fail to publish reliable information. In addition, state officials are often reluctant to be interviewed by Western social scientists. This chapter also provides an overview of the methods chosen. Using the “Varieties of Democracy” index1, the author presents the degree of authoritarianism or the democracy scores for each of the four cases between 2000 and 2021 (the timeframe of the study). That it is dubious to subsume both Ukraine and Moldova under the authoritarian tag, thus placing them on the same level as Belarus and Russia, has been addressed earlier already. The concluding chapter not only summarises the main findings, but also points to avenues for future research and makes policy recommendations for Western policymakers.
The Authoritarian International has many strengths, most notably the meticulous way in which the book has been researched. The theoretical framework and general approach to the topic is original and closes a gap in the existing research literature, which has focused more on learning from democracies than on mutual learning processes among authoritarian elites. The prime example of policy transfer in the post-Soviet region is the Russian NGO legislation, which supports the main argument of the book that diffusion and emulation, for example of such an allegedly succesful piece of legislation, is common practice in the region. There are also interesting comparisons, such as the analysis of the learning that occurred as a result of the Orange Revolution, Euromaidan and the Arab Spring. Regrettably, the author stops short of an in-depth analysis of how the lessons drawn from these events were reflected in government action and policies. In general, the study does not devote much attention to the question of ‘when’ it is possible for authoritarian elites to actually learn from each other.
Ultimately, it cannot be denied that The Authoritarian International has also considerable weaknesses. The monograph, based on a PhD thesis, displays astonishing methodological flaws. On many occasions, the author lacks evidence in support of his far-reaching assumptions. “It is likely that” (for example on p. 67) is a phrase he frequently uses when presenting arguments based mostly on anecdotal evidence. I have some doubts that we can automatically deduce that “learning” is taking place from the simple fact that regimes have occasions and arenas for discussion and collaboration. Part of the problem lies in the inadequate justification of the use of research methods. For instance, I am not convinced that the author actually engaged in a process-tracing analysis (there is no indication of a structured causal search for evidence or temporal sequencing of observations or events in the individual chapters).
At times there is a mixture of facts and speculation. For example, the claim that the 2005 Andijan massacre in Uzbekistan was “the first successful effort at countering Colour Revolutions” (p. 1) appears to be quite bold, given that the very nature and motives of the protests continue to be highly disputed among experts.2 Another aspect that detracts from the book were the many redundancies. Certain illustrative examples kept recurring (for example descriptions of the fatal end of certain authoritarian leaders like Gaddafi or Hussein or political biographies of the post-Soviet leaders Kuchma and Voronin). There are also minor editorial problems (sources quoted in the text that do not figure in the bibliography, inconsistencies with regard to transliteration etc.), which overshadow the impression of an otherwise well-written book. In sum, the topic of the book has a lot of potential and would have offered the opportunity to provide even more far-reaching insights into the stability of authoritarian systems in the post-Soviet space.
1 See Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem), in: https://v-dem.net/ (05.10.2023).
2 Donnacha Ó Beacháin / Abel Polese (eds.), The Colour Revolutions in the Former Soviet Republics. Successes and Failures, London 2010. This is a collected volume that centres on authoritarian learning from colour revolutions in the post-Soviet space. It is, however, not referenced in the bibliography of the present book.