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The Imitation Games That Authoritarians Play

The subtlest way to undermine democracy is to fake it.

Illustration by Peter Strain

In their book The Light That Failed, Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes tell a story that they attribute to Gleb Pavlovsky. He is a Russian “political technologist” who aided both Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin in achieving and holding on to political power. Pavlovsky recounts interviewing voters in the period leading up to the 1996 elections in Russia. One woman told him that she supported Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist Party candidate, but she was going to vote for Yeltsin. When Pavlovsky asked why, she replied, “When Zyuganov is president, I will vote for him.”

Pegasus Books, 256 pp., $26.95

Krastev and Holmes conclude from this that, in Russia, “popularity” of the kind Vladimir Putin enjoys “is a consequence, not a cause, of the power one wields,” and that elections there, “instead of representing people’s interests,” simply “register the willingness of voters to submit to incumbents.” Of course, it could be argued that this tendency is not unique to Russia. Incumbents in many countries start with an advantage. But the advantages of being in power and demonstrating that one is exercising power are especially great in Russia because of the country’s recent history. Until the collapse of its empire in Eastern Europe in 1989, followed two years later by the collapse of the Soviet Union itself and its division into some 15 countries, it was one of the world’s two superpowers. Today, Russia ranks far behind China as a power in every respect except in the quantity of nuclear weapons that it possesses. Its economy is only a little larger than that of Spain and is smaller than that of Italy. Yet Vladimir Putin has put up a very good show of exercising power.

He has intervened militarily in such countries as Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria, in the latter case with decisive and disastrous effect. He has also intervened in the electoral affairs of a number of countries, including the United States. Whether he was actually able to influence the outcome of any of these elections remains an open question. For many Russians, however, who were dismayed during Yeltsin’s tenure by their country’s loss of territory, population, status, and power, and by their president’s sometimes-clownish behavior, Vladimir Putin has seemed a savior. He may not have significantly improved the lives of large numbers of them. But he has restored their sense of being citizens of a powerful country that plays a major part in world affairs. Many welcome his bare-chested macho exploits, which contribute to the impression that he has restored the country’s standing.

Russia’s political development since the end of the Cold War is central to Krastev and Holmes’s insightful and important book, which examines the rise of authoritarianism and the decline of liberal democracy. Krastev, a Bulgarian political scientist, and Holmes, a professor of law at New York University, recall the widespread hope and expectation three decades ago that the fall of communism would lead to the global spread of liberal democracy and free-market capitalism. At that moment, the outlook for Russia, Hungary, and Poland seemed particularly promising. Yet today, they observe, those countries are leaders in the global rise of populist nationalism, largely eliminating the independence of the judiciary and undermining freedom of the press. What went wrong?

This has long been a familiar question, and Krastev and Holmes acknowledge many of the familiar answers to it. “By 2010,” they write, “the Central and East European versions of liberalism had been indelibly tainted” by deep inequality, the emergence of a superrich elite, and the economic crisis of 2008. But the thesis of this book stands out for its assertion that democracy did not so much fail as it never truly took hold in many post-Soviet countries. As in Pavlovsky’s anecdote, many institutions only outwardly appeared democratic, while giving a new sheen to authoritarian rule.

In the period since the collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire, the authors argue, the losers in the Cold War struggle have attempted to imitate the victors in that conflict. They wished to share in the material prosperity of the West and, at the outset, imagined that such prosperity would accompany a show of liberal democracy. Yet imitation has not produced a replica of the West. Far from it. As the authors point out, most Russians “found faking democracy perfectly natural since they had been faking communism for at least two decades before 1991.” Moreover, imitation was not always a benign exercise. At a certain point, it acquired an antagonistic aspect. It became, as they describe it, “imitation as retaliation.” Vladimir Putin is a leading practitioner of this form of imitation. He seems to see it as a means of exposing what he considers the hypocrisy of his Western antagonists.

It is often the case that the losers in a struggle subsequently attempt to imitate those who have vanquished them. The 1999 book Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II by historian John Dower is an account of the way that Japanese society was transformed after the war by the defeated country’s adoption of many of the institutions and the cultural practices of the victorious power that overcame it. Japan’s imitation of the United States seems especially remarkable in light of the extreme cruelty and bitterness with which the war in Asia was conducted, in which both countries demonized each other in explicitly racist terms. A significant portion of Japan’s population was wiped out during the war, including great numbers of civilians, through the firebombing of Tokyo and many other Japanese cities, and through the virtual obliteration of two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, by atomic bombs. Neither was a major military center. They were destroyed in America’s effort to end the war without expending the lives of large numbers of its own troops, who would have died if Japan’s surrender had to be secured through an invasion.

In the Japanese case, the defeated power that imitated its American conqueror has become one of the staunchest allies of the United States in the three-quarters of a century since the end of World War II. One might point to important shortcomings in Japan’s development, such as the hostility to immigration that has been a factor in the country’s decline in population in recent years and the weakening of its economy; and its failure to acknowledge many of the crimes committed by Japanese forces during World War II that particularly victimized some of its Asian neighbors. Even so, it is appropriate for Americans to regard Japan as a friendly power and ally that is a crucial supporter of a peaceful world order; and one with a distinctive cultural heritage that greatly enriches global society. That heritage has not disappeared as a consequence of imitation, which has been a benign phenomenon.

An example of hostile imitation cited by Krastev and Holmes is the Islamic State’s practice of dressing its captives in orange jumpsuits, like those worn by prisoners at Guantánamo, before executing them. As the authors contend, the jihadists “obviously believed that this cruelly scornful mimicry exposed the hollowness of the West’s claims to moral superiority.” They also discuss Vladimir Putin’s hostile imitation of NATO, when he justified Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014 by comparing it to NATO’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999. What Putin fails to acknowledge is that the overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian population of Kosovo had been severely persecuted during Slobodan Milosevic’s rule. I traveled to Kosovo a number of times in the period leading up to the war in which NATO intervened. Albanian-speaking families were boycotting the public schools because the Milosevic regime in Serbia had banned teaching in the Albanian language. The Albanian speakers had established their own schools at their own expense. The classes I visited were conducted in the dank basements of private homes and lacked textbooks. A rebellion that resulted from persecution led to military massacres by Milosevic’s forces and caused hundreds of thousands to flee the territory, precipitating the intervention by NATO. There had not been any history of Ukrainian persecution of the predominantly ethnic Russian population in Crimea prior to Russia’s seizure of the territory.

Krastev and Holmes do not discuss at length the part that antagonistic imitation played in Russia’s interference in the U.S. elections in 2016. It is likely that a factor in the extensive meddling that took place was Putin’s hostility to Hillary Clinton, based on her activities as secretary of state: She had criticized Putin for voter fraud in the Russian elections and denounced his support for Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad. It is also possible that intervention reflected a belief that Donald Trump would serve Russian interests through policies based on views he had expressed while a candidate, such as his disparagement of NATO. He had called NATO “obsolete” and denounced its cost to the United States. Yet the decision by Russia to intervene at a significant level was probably made before it was clear that Trump would emerge as the Republican candidate. Very likely, Putin’s initial decision to intervene in the elections was intended primarily as payback for what was seen as American interference in elections in countries of the former Soviet Union.

For more than a decade, Putin had frequently denounced what he referred to as “color revolutions.” He had in mind the “Rose Revolution” in Georgia in 2003, which toppled the government of Eduard Shevardnadze, former foreign minister of the Soviet Union; the “Tulip Revolution” two years later in Kyrgyzstan, which produced the fall from power of another holdover from Soviet times, Askar Akayev; and, most significant to Putin because of Ukraine’s importance, the “Orange Revolution” of 2004–2005. Putin’s candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, was declared the winner in Ukraine and then had his victory nullified due to electoral fraud. He was then defeated in a rerun of the election. Yanukovych was subsequently elected president of Ukraine in 2010, but then ousted in 2014 in circumstances that exposed the extreme corruption that he had practiced during his tenure in office.

Russian officials often attributed major responsibility for color revolutions in countries of the former Soviet Union to U.S.-government–funded institutions such as the National Endowment for Democracy, the National Democratic Institute, and the International Republican Institute. (He also blamed my institution, the Open Society Foundations, for contributing to these developments.) Putin saw support that these bodies had provided to like-minded organizations in these countries as thwarting his efforts to reconstitute the Soviet Union, at least as a unified bloc under Kremlin leadership. Russian legislation adopted in 2012 required nongovernmental organizations that accepted foreign funds to declare themselves to be “foreign agents,” delegitimizing them. Additional legislation adopted subsequently imposed further restrictions on Russian organizations conducting “political activities”—broadly defined—that received funds from the United States and other foreign donors. Putin has called the collapse of the Soviet Union the greatest catastrophe of the twentieth century. As he believed that American institutions played a part in frustrating his efforts to reverse that catastrophe, he had ample incentive to engage in imitative reprisals.

Of course, the manner in which Russia intervened in U.S. elections in 2016 differed from the role played by bodies such as the National Endowment for Democracy in elections in the former Soviet Union. It is one thing to fund a program for the training of election observers; it is quite another to hack the files of the Democratic National Committee or to establish fake social media accounts to disseminate false rumors and smear particular candidates. Yet it seems likely that Putin’s fury over what he considered to be America’s role in color revolutions was a main reason for Russia’s adoption of elaborate measures to try to cause havoc in American elections. Moreover, given his background as a Soviet KGB officer, Putin was undoubtedly aware that before establishing the National Endowment for Democracy in the 1980s, the United States regularly intervened covertly in elections in other countries, often to thwart leftist candidates sympathetic to the Soviet Union. Intervening in the U.S. election was a means of hostile imitation.

President Donald Trump, another leader who derives some of his support from his demonstrative exercise of power, is very focused on the issue of imitation, though apparently not with respect to Russia. Rather, he has been concerned with the development of export-based industry in the defeated Axis powers, Germany and Japan, following World War II, and in China following the end of the Cold War. The United States had been the world’s principal industrial power in the period leading up to World War II and for a substantial period following the war. In time, however, it had been overtaken by the defeated powers, seemingly in imitation of the United States. They became major exporters of industrial goods, especially automobiles, to the United States. China’s dramatic economic rise during the past three decades, and its emergence as the world’s principal manufacturing center and leading exporter, is also seen by Trump as imitation. In the Chinese case, Trump’s concern, widely shared by Americans of varied political views, is greatly exacerbated by belief that China’s success would not have come about without extensive theft of American intellectual property.

The concentration of industrial strength and export power in Germany, Japan, and China has become the basis of much of Trump’s appeal to Americans who have suffered losses in economic well-being and status because of the disappearance of manufacturing jobs. He has persuaded many Americans that they have been victimized by imitation and theft. Krastev and Holmes write that Trump considers that “America won the wars but lost the post-wars by exporting its capacity to export to foreign competitors. It is ridiculous to see the economic miracles in post-fascist Germany and Japan and post-communist China as victories for America, he contends, because ‘to the victor belongs the spoils.’” When Trump proclaims “America First” and “Make America Great Again,” and announces that he will impose steep tariffs on imports, he appeals to millions of Americans who resent the export-driven economic success of the losers of World War II, and of the Chinese who stole America’s manufacturing know-how.

The loss of good jobs to Germany, Japan, and China also contributes to hostility to immigration. Yet, as Krastev and Holmes recognize, “hatred and fear of immigrants” also “represents the most salient point of convergence between American and Central European populisms.” Indeed, Trump’s policies on the treatment of migrants have not only helped to legitimize analogous measures in countries such as Hungary and Poland. They have also helped to legitimize governments from India to Australia in adopting racially and religiously discriminatory immigration practices. Like the United States, these were countries that had been seen as exemplars of democracy. Their treatment of migrants has badly tarnished their reputations, contributing to the sense that liberal democracy is in global retreat.

Perhaps the most damaging aspect of Trump’s influence on the world is his contribution to the success of his imitators in several countries. They are not imitators in the sense that the example of Trump has influenced their policies. Heads of government such as Duterte in the Philippines, Modi in India, Orban in Hungary, and Bolsonaro in Brazil had identified themselves with distinctive political platforms before Trump emerged as a contender for the American presidency. Among them, only Bolsonaro was elected to lead his country after Trump became president. Yet they may be considered imitators of Trump in the sense that, with him as the American president, their illiberalism has become an ascendant political force.

As Krastev and Holmes write, “Brazil’s right-wing president does not imitate Trump because he wants to be Trump. He does it because Trump has made it possible for Bolsonaro to be himself.” Trump’s example may also have eased the rise to high office of a less malign figure, such as Britain’s new prime minister, Boris Johnson, who has long been known for his bluster and disregard for norms. With Trump as president, especially if he secures reelection, illiberalism could become an increasingly important force in countries that had previously been numbered among the world’s liberal democracies.