Why authoritarian rulers are worried

Chinese Paramilitary police officers stand guard near Tiananmen Square on June 4, 2014 in Beijing, China.

Story highlights

  • Tyler Roylance: Authoritarian regimes rely on economic development, aggressive nationalism
  • Democracies have demonstrated ability to endure, adapt, recover, writer says

Tyler Roylance is a senior editor at Freedom House, a non-government research and advocacy organization dedicated to "the expansion of freedom and democracy around the world." The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)Falling oil prices, pitiless civil wars, and the rapidly growing number of refugees have put much of the world in crisis mode, but authoritarian states are being hit especially hard.

This is no coincidence. As recently as a year ago, the autocratic rulers of China, Russia, Egypt, and other countries were often portrayed as bold, decisive, and defiant, outfoxing or overpowering their opponents at home and abroad, and delivering rapid economic growth as more democratic countries stumbled.
But it is now increasingly clear that those days are over as a combination of economic and political forces expose the inherent weaknesses of authoritarian states and their leaders.
    Rock bottom oil prices and China's slowing economy have shaken democracies and authoritarian states alike. But since the 2008-09 financial crisis, democracies have repeatedly demonstrated an ability to endure, adapt, and recover. Their free media help identify economic weaknesses early, their electoral mechanisms allow voters to replace failed leaders and policies, and their impartial courts ensure an orderly adjudication of disputes over debts and assets. Most important, they can accommodate enormous levels of public frustration by allowing peaceful dissent and regular changes of government. True, the system is sometimes strained to breaking point, as in Greece, but it is typically flexible enough to survive.
    Autocrats, who naturally look good in boom times, lack all of these advantages when a bust inevitably arrives. Rulers, investors, and citizens understand that an economic crash could also bring political instability, leading to rash decisions that exacerbate the problem.
    For example, the Chinese Communist Party, which has not hesitated to engage in large-scale social engineering to achieve rapid industrialization, is justifiably terrified by mass unemployment, and unwilling to face the consequences of industrial overcapacity and bloated state enterprises. As wealthy democracies went through bank failures, foreclosures, corporate overhauls, and austerity measures after 2009, China pumped up its economy with a balloon of opaquely allocated, debt-fueled infrastructure spending, and helped inflate a stock market bubble.
    Since that bubble began deflating in June, the Communist Party has made panicky, confidence-killing blunders: essentially buying stocks and restricting sales in a futile bid to fight the downswing, abruptly devaluing its currency to boost exports, censoring media reports on the situation, arresting brokerage executives, even parading a financial journalist on state television for a "confession" of his supposedly irresponsible reporting.
    Meanwhile, China's drooping demand for commodities, plus the steeply lower price of oil, are threatening other regimes that depend on growth for political survival, including the governments of Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Venezuela, Angola, the Persian Gulf monarchies, and many more. Smaller dictatorships that rely on subsidies and worker remittances from these countries, such as Tajikistan, Cuba, and North Korea, could also be in trouble.
    Of course, democracies have engaged in their share of military misadventures, but as with economic policies, those countries benefit from open and rigorous decision-making systems, and have the means to change course -- and leaders -- when faced with failure. A dictator tends to make decisions with little consultation, and if he admits defeat or error, it can be fatal to his regime.
    Russia's economic woes are partly a result of sanctions imposed in response to Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine. Yet the Kremlin has continued to pour resources into Crimea and the Donbas, along with its earlier conquests in separatist pockets of Georgia, for example, partly because it sees the development of democracy in these countries as threats to authoritarian rule in Russia itself. Russia is now apparently increasing its material support of Syria as well.
    Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, meanwhile, are similarly bogged down in several conflicts, most prominently in Yemen's civil war, but also in their financial support for Egyptian coup leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and his ham-fisted, self-defeating battle against both Islamist militancy and peaceful dissent. The Gulf monarchies' ability to sustain these commitments despite plunging energy prices, which they have encouraged through stepped-up production, is increasingly in doubt.
    Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has for his part been accused of reigniting his country's Kurdish insurgency in order to discredit Kurdish political opponents, drum up nationalist support, and restore his party's grip on Parliament in the November rerun elections. Turkey is not yet a dictatorship, but the apparent willingness to let one's country burn rather than give up political power is the classic mark of a tyrant. There is no better example of this than in neighboring Syria.
    Indeed, this is one of the qualities that makes authoritarian regimes so dangerous -- they rely on the twin pillars of economic development and aggressive nationalism, but if the economy slips or proves insufficient as a political prop, they lean more heavily on the second pillar, which often completes the destruction of the first.
    Ultimately, though, authoritarian regimes do not have to collapse into war and poverty. Some, often in the wake of economic trouble or military reversals, have succumbed to popular pressure for reform and undergone successful transitions to democracy. And there are signs today that people are willing to push for better governance in the most unlikely places.
    Protesters in Iraq and Lebanon, shrugging off dire security threats, are protesting to demand the delivery of basic services like garbage removal and electricity, as well as an end to corruption and sectarian cronyism. Iran's regime may benefit from the recent nuclear deal, but it is also under tremendous domestic pressure to follow through on promises of greater social and personal freedoms. In semi-democratic settings from Guatemala to Malaysia, corrupt elected leaders are reeling in the face of public calls for accountability, suggesting that the tide is turning after nearly a decade of annual setbacks to global democracy.
    But none of these crises and confrontations offer any guarantee of a positive outcome. They merely present opportunities for change -- for good or for bad. It's up to the world's democracies to recognize and seize the opportunities.