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‘A very grim portrait’ Political scientist Erica Frantz on what Russia’s future holds after Putin
Political scientist Erica Frantz, an associate professor at Michigan State University, has been studying authoritarian regimes for more than 15 years and has written multiple books on the topic. She and her coauthors have compiled a database of nearly 300 authoritarian regimes that have existed around the globe since 1946. Using these data, the researchers have analyzed how and why various autocracies have come to an end, how often their leaders have fallen from power after starting wars, and what’s happened to their countries after their deaths. Meduza special correspondent Margarita Lyutova spoke to Frantz about what her research portends for the future of Russia.
This interview transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
How autocrats benefit from elections
How much can autocracies of the past tell us about countries in the present?
In general, there are some basic underlying features of dictatorships that can be a focal point for understanding them. If we have, say, a military junta that’s in power, we’re going to see a lot of similar outcomes whether that junta is in power in Asia or in Latin America.
I tend to look at two key structures: the incumbent party (including whether it exists or not and how institutionalized it is) and the role of the security forces. Is the security apparatus actually in the reins of government, or is it independent of the leader, or is it fully at the leader’s disposal? Those two dimensions tend to be pretty important.
A key dimension is whether there’s some sort of body that can constrain the leader, first of all. And then second of all, whether that body is militarized. Those two factors tend to lead to a lot of different outcomes that we might care about.
Why do modern autocrats hold elections?
The first reason is that there is international pressure to have elections. The consensus among both ordinary citizens (this is revealed in opinion polls) and among key political actors is that democracy is kind of the best form of government. That’s a normative discussion. But assuming that’s true, we do see that there’s a lot of foreign aid, for example, that is allocated to countries if they hold elections. So, countries have caught wind of this and most countries, even the authoritarian ones, hold regular elections.
There’s also a clear relationship between whether a dictatorship is receiving foreign aid and how frequently we see coups, for example. So, on the one hand, there’s international pressure and there’s incentives. But on the other hand, these elections also can communicate messages to domestic audiences.
Authoritarian regimes are very good at selling their elections as competitive even when they are not. And this communicates some message of legitimacy for the regime, that these groups actually have the people’s support and so forth, even if they are doing other things to cheat and win.
On top of this, there’s a large body of research showing that dictatorships with regular elections and multiple parties allowed to compete are actually longer-lasting. So, their survival benefits from doing this, too.
Why is this? Do elections convince citizens of their leaders’ legitimacy?
Authoritarian regimes usually also have a lot of resources at their disposal to ensure that they win. And a lot of times, they don’t even have to resort to too much overt fraud.
Scholars debate the precise mechanism through which having elections leads to longer lasting authoritarianism. Elections are an opportunity for the regime to mobilize supporters so they can really divvy out perks to the people who support them and really make sure they have a strong showing.
One function of elections for authoritarian leaders is to communicate that lots of people actually support the regime. In fact, in Egypt under Mubarak, there is research that shows that calorie consumption was actually higher prior to the election. More bread was distributed. There are all of these little things that regimes do to ensure a strong showing.
On top of that, elections also offer opportunities for lower-level regime actors to prove that they can deliver votes for the regime. They can give insight to the regime about where opposition strongholds are biggest. So, there’s an information component to elections, as well.
‘Not a recipe for democracy’
What do you think usually causes autocratic leaders to lose their hold on power? Based on your work, it seems important to note that the end of a leader’s reign doesn’t always portend the end of a regime.
Yes, we know that the leader’s survival and the regime’s survival are not necessarily one and the same. In the post-World War II period, about half of the time that leaders fall from power, they just have a replacement, and their regime goes on. The other half of the time, when the leader falls from power, the regime goes down with it. But we definitely can’t assume that a leadership turnover is necessarily going to lead to the downfall of the regime. There are also meaningful differences across regimes in terms of their type.
Their type can help inform how they fall from power. In general, military regimes, which were very common during the Cold War, are less common now; they tended to be the shortest of all dictatorships, but they’re most likely to end in a negotiation where they stepped out of power. And that negotiation creates an environment that’s very good for democracy. So, among all these dictatorships, military dictatorships are the most likely to democratize. And there’s a lot of examples of that from Latin America, for example.
Why do the leaders of personalist autocracies cling to power so tightly? Is it because of the risks they might face if they lose it?
Yes. Because they have usually created a lot of enemies while governing and purging rivals, getting rid of everybody whom they dislike, they become very fearful that they could be either exiled or imprisoned or killed when they leave power. And indeed, the data show that they are more likely to be exiled, killed, or imprisoned. So, that fear of what we call bad fate can lead them really to dig in their heels and try to do whatever they can to stay in power.
We’re going to be more likely to see violence when these leaders and their regimes leave power. And that sort of violence, whether it’s through a revolt, a foreign invasion, or a civil war, for example, is not a good breeding ground for democracy.
Because violence leaves society fragmented?
I don’t have a strong answer for why, but we do know that when there are these high levels of violence, whether due to violent protest movements or some other reason, we’re less likely to see democracy. If civil war is the mode of transition, we’re less likely to see democracy. Usually if there isn’t violence, then it’s a lot easier to facilitate this democratic transition.
With Russia in mind, I wanted to talk about how some of these longstanding personalist dictators can be a little bit different. The early years of personalist rule can be kind of uncertain and unstable.
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Sometimes, they might be overthrown in a coup early on, for example, because they haven’t quite settled in and really effectively purged their rivals and coup-proofed all these things. But lately we’ve been looking at what happens once these personalist leaders have been in office for 20 years, like Putin has. And in that situation, what we find is, it actually gets very different.
We’re more likely to see death in office as the main way that these leaders leave power. And death in office happens to be pretty inconsequential for the regime in that, when leaders die in office, the regime usually survives. It’s most likely to be somewhat destabilized in a personalist dictatorship. But even there, like 80 percent of the time, the regime survives the leader's death.
Is that because the elites have a strong incentive not to change anything?
Yes. They end up kind of rallying around somebody to take over after the leader dies. And that’s because, if the regime were to collapse because they can’t figure out who the successor is, they are often going to be unlikely to have a job in the new regime. And this is particularly true when things have been very personalized.
So, these individuals are aware of this and they’re better off with the status quo than with the uncertainty that comes with a regime change.
Many Russian readers are probably thinking of the death of Stalin. The Soviet regime remained after him, but changed significantly, softening. Does the leader’s death usually lead to liberalization? Or is it possible for it to lead to further repressions?
You can get both, unfortunately. So, you can get a situation like where Stalin died, and things got better in terms of repression. But there are also situations like in North Korea where Kim Jong Un, since his father died, has really carried out a lot of purges. And I think most impressions are that the repressive situation is actually worse there. It really depends on a number of things, such as how insecure the leader feels in their tenure.
In general, in personalist dictatorships, successors seem to have a little bit more challenges conveying their legitimacy, for lack of a better way of communicating that, they might govern for a while, but they often face more challenges than the original leader did.
‘Gambling for resurrection’
In your recent article in Foreign Affairs, you mentioned a striking fact: “Since the end of World War II, only seven percent of personalist authoritarians have been unseated while an interstate conflict that began under their watch was ongoing.” Why is this so rare?
My co-author Andrea Kendell Taylor (a Russia specialist) and I were interested in what happens when dictators go to war. And there’s a lot of research to draw from. And I was surprised, actually, that these leaders can, in some instances, benefit from war.
So early on, right when the war starts, that first year or so is pretty important. And if the leader is going to be overthrown, it's going to happen at the start. And Saddam Hussein would be a good example: he was ousted fairly soon into that war effort. But after about a year or so, it seems like war actually helps dictators.
There is research that shows that dictators of all stripes are going to be more likely to initiate war when they fear a bad fate. There’s a large literature on diversionary war and whether, when things are bad at home, leaders are going to start a conflict overseas.
And this research shows that in many instances, no, we’re not going to be more likely to see diversion, except when leaders fear that they are going to be killed, imprisoned, or exiled.
So, these leaders believe the risks linked to waging a war, and the possibility of defeat, are lower than the risks of it ending poorly?
Yes. And they refer to it as gambling for resurrection. But initially, scholars thought that all leaders, even democratic leaders, would be more likely to try to use war as a diversionary tactic. And instead, it looks like it’s really just this subset of leaders who think that things are going to be really bad for them if they don’t do something.
So, they take the risk, and they start a war. And then, the more that we looked into it, there is research that shows that when leaders go to war (and not just autocratic leaders), their risk of a coup declines, which contributes to this message that it can work and help protect leaders. And here the idea is that the traditional military is going to be occupied through the war effort.
Do you mean while the war is going on, not when it’s over and lost?
Yes, while the war is ongoing. Because the way the war plays out also influences things. That’s a separate question. If we look at whether there is a win, draw, or defeat, that’s also an important dimension. Obviously, if a leader wins a war, they’re not likely to be punished for that at home.
Draws are also unlikely to lead to many consequences. Defeats, however, are different. And the risks of an authoritarian leader being overthrown are often higher if they lose a war. However, they are least high for personalist dictators because it simply is more difficult to punish these leaders for bad choices.
But defeat in war, even though it doesn’t guarantee that these leaders are going to be overthrown, at least increases the opportunities for political change.
By what mechanism?
I don’t know off the top of my head what the causal pathway is. I can, however, talk about what pathways are most likely for these longtime leaders if they don’t die in office. I recently looked into the question of whether being at war changes their trajectories. And overwhelmingly, the answer was no, their trajectories remain the same. You know, the chance of dying in office was the same for personalist, longtime leaders who were at war as for those who were not. The chance of revolt was the same as for those who were not.
The first year can be kind of consequential and then things just settle into business as usual. So, what the data show is that for these longtime personalist leaders, they’re most likely to die in office. But the second most common route is through revolt. By revolt I mean protest.
The positive there is that protests are also the pathway that’s most likely to lead to democratization. It’s not guaranteed. But the best odds for democratization with these longtime leaders is when they are overthrown through revolt, through popular movements. So, on some levels, that is kind of a glimmer of positivity.
Among experts and political commentators in Russia, there’s a fairly widespread idea that Putin will wage this war for as long as he’s alive, since, presumably, he sees it as his only means of maintaining power. What do you think about that?
I agree. I don't think that that was the goal initially. I think there's quite a bit of evidence that he was surprised about how difficult it was. He thought he was going to go in, accomplish his goals, and then be done with it. And instead, the Ukrainian response took him by surprise — in many ways because he had such poor information in this personalist environment that he lives in.
So, his decision to wage war, and the fact that the war didn’t go very well, is all consistent with what research says about dictators, unfortunately. I do think that initially the goal was to accomplish these short-term goals and then get out of there.
But now that things have dragged on, he has so tied his legacy with this war and its outcome that he almost has to go on in order to have any political future, or he needs a decisive victory, which doesn’t seem like it’s on the horizon either. So, given the fact that he can’t easily win, his best bet is just to continue. He doesn’t really get much out of negotiating, given that he’s able to target specific groups of Russians to go and fight the war, and that he’s able to make sure the people whom he cares about are okay while putting the costs on other people whose support he’s less reliant on.
It’s actually a very grim picture.
Yes, it’s horrible. You can talk about these things casually, but then when you think about the reality of what’s happening, the fact that repression has gone up so much since the war started, how it’s no longer a safe place for journalism at all, as recent arrests have indicated, it is a very grim portrait.
And for that reason, there aren’t that many ways for something to get shaken up here. Everything is pretty hardened. The war could continue for a very long time. It’s not that defeat is something that would guarantee X, Y, or Z, but at least it would create some opportunity for disruption of this really repressive authoritarian system that is now in place in Russia. And the other reality is that if Putin continues this war and dies in office, it’s very likely, according to the research, that the successor would continue the war. And that we wouldn’t see any large policy shifts. So, for that reason, one of the messages of our Foreign Affairs article was that defeat, forcing some sort of defeat, is really the best option for some sort of change in this scenario. But that’s not easy and would require significant international resources to help Ukraine.
That was one of the messages that we were trying to convey here, that the reality is that this war could go on forever, and you’re better off investing a lot of resources now to win the war and make Putin deal with the consequences at home and figure out how to sell what happened. And in some way, that’s favorable. But it, too, might not work well.
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