Authoritarian Cooperation & Learning

To maintain power, authoritarian regimes must constantly revise and adapt their playbooks to find new ways to repress, subvert, and co-opt threats to their rule. In the era of globalization, authoritarian sharing of information and methods occur more rapidly, allowing repressive regimes to quickly adopt the latest tools for repressing dissent, especially in the online realm. This sharing of “worst practices” enables these regimes to manage dissent at home; it also enables learning that can serve to to prevent democratic demonstration effects in the immediate neighborhoods of the leading anti-democratic regimes. Through cooperation and learning, the world’s leading authoritarian governments are building their capacity to hinder democratic development at home and abroad.





Following the “color revolutions” in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, authoritarian regimes around the world began to upgrade their methods of limiting space for civil society. These efforts include new legal barriers against NGO activities, such as targeting NGO funding: thirty-nine countries now restrict foreign funding and twelve bar it completely. Other barriers include onerous inspection regimes and registration requirements. China has proposed regulations which will force foreign NGOs to find a government “sponsor” or risk shutdown. Russian legislation passed in 2012 enabled the Ministry of Justice to declare NGOs receiving funding from abroad as “foreign agents.” In a clear case of authoritarian learning, the Russian “foreign agent” law has been adopted by Kyrgyzstan and other post-Soviet states.

A 2014 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report noted that “governments pursuing pushback are clearly learning from and copying each other,” and legislative restrictions enacted by one country are often shared with or emulated by others. Indeed, such restrictions on civil society activity can now be found in Africa, Asia, Eurasia, Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East.

Efforts to restrict civil society are not limited to legislation. In many countries, authoritarian state media vilify civil society activists in print, on the airwaves, and online. In Russia, a pseudo-documentary titled Anatomy of a Protest viciously attacked Russian civil society and opposition figures. In Egypt, a smear campaign against foreign-funded NGOs was used to poison the atmosphere and prepare for the arrest of 43 NGO workers. In China, Chinese state media routinely accuse protesters in Hong Kong of being guided by a “foreign hand.” When legislative and media attacks fall short, authoritarian regimes are still willing to resort to more brutal methods to repress civil society.


In the age of the Internet, illiberal regimes emulate and cooperate with each other to restrict access to online information and influence norms of Internet governance. China and Russia are among the world’s most vocal advocates for the concept of “Internet sovereignty,” which calls for state control of the Internet—an approach that is at odds with current conceptions of an open, global network.

Regional inter-governmental organizations have been key incubators of this approach. In January 2015, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) cited “Internet sovereignty” in a document submitted to the United Nations. Along with the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the SCO has facilitated collaborative strategies to repress online freedom, such as the spread of Russia’s online surveillance apparatus across the post-Soviet space. At the global level, China, Russia, Iran, and other authoritarian states work through the International Telecommunications Union to gain increased control over the Internet’s basic infrastructure.

Authoritarian regimes also cooperate bilaterally to subvert Internet freedom more directly. Russia, Venezuela, and many other regimes have learned from China’s example by requiring domestic Internet Service Providers to monitor Internet usage and restrict content. With hundreds of millions of dollars in telecommunications development aid flowing from China to African nations, evidence is mounting that Chinese technologies allow African governments in Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Ethiopia to restrict the flow of information and monitor citizens’ communications. Iran, which plans to build a “Halal Internet” by restricting the free flow of information while allowing online commerce to continue, has also received Chinese technical assistance.

Promoting Worst Practices

Leading autocrats support authoritarian allies economically, militarily, and diplomatically. Iran has provided military training and supplies to Syria’s embattled Assad regime; Saudi Arabia monetarily supports Egypt’s military regime and has sent troops to protect the government in Bahrain. China provides economic aid and diplomatic cover for North Korea’s brutal dictatorship, and Russia has extended lifelines to pro-Moscow leaders in Eastern Europe, including Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus and Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine. Venezuela, meanwhile, provides economic support to the Castro regime in Cuba in exchange for intelligence expertise.

Less overt forms of authoritarian support include sharing “worst practices.” In Eurasia, the spread of legislation closely mirroring Russia’s “Foreign Agents” law and its anti-LGBT “propaganda” law suggests that these regimes share with and copy from each other. China holds trainings for foreign officials: since 2005, over 4,000 officials from foreign countries (including Venezuela and Russia) have received training in media relations at a Chinese Communist Party training school in Shanghai, and China has conducted judicial and law enforcement training for officials from many Asian nations. In 2014, it was reported that videos promoting the ‘China model’ were shared with officials in Laos and Cambodia as part of a Chinese “soft power” campaign.

Authoritarians also undermine democracy by funding illiberal actors in democratic societies. Russia’s support on behalf of far-right political parties across the European Union, including Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France and the Jobbik party in Hungary, has been of particular concern.


The spread of new authoritarian methods of influence is a major feature of the global assault on democracy. Some techniques proliferate through copycat actions, while others are seemingly purposefully shared. Sometimes the purpose of this sharing stems from economic or security concerns, but in other cases, authoritarian governments may consider the demonstration effect of neighboring countries’ democratic aspirations to be the greatest threat to authoritarian regime security. In all cases, cooperation and learning among illiberal regimes serves to safeguard repressive rule.

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