Understanding Authoritarian Regionalism

Issue Date October 2018
Volume 29
Issue 4
Page Numbers 151-165
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This article examines the goals, methods, and implications of regional organizations founded and dominated by autocracies—including the Commonwealth of Independent States (spearheaded by Russia), Shanghai Cooperation Organization (China), Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (Venezuela), and Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia). It shows the role that these organizations play in preserving and promoting autocracy and the different tools they use for this purpose: rhetorical endorsement; the redistribution of resources to support weaker authoritarian states; and even military interventions to suppress revolution. The existence of authoritarian regionalism poses an important challenge for Western states and institutions in democracy promotion around the world.


The ways in which international organizations can support the democratization process have been the subject of much scholarly attention. Regional organizations can create incentives for democratic reforms by offering membership and aid (as the EU did for Central European states in the early 2000s); by threatening nondemocratic members with expulsion (as the Organization of American States has done); or even by launching military interventions (a course taken by the Economic Community of West African States). By these and other means, regional organizations can become a force for ensuring the credibility of countries’ commitment to democratization. Existing theoretical arguments on the impact of regional groupings, however, rely almost exclusively on the experience of organizations that are composed of democracies (such as the EU) or created and led by democratic states (such as the United States).

About the Authors

Alexander Libman

Alexander Libman is professor of East European studies at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich.

View all work by Alexander Libman

Anastassia V. Obydenkova

Anastassia V. Obydenkova is codirector of the research project “Regionalism and Regional International Organizations in a Fragmented World,” funded by Princeton University; a leading research fellow at the National Research University Higher School of Economics (Moscow); and a research affiliate at the Institute for Economic Analysis of the Spanish Council for Scientific Research.

View all work by Anastassia V. Obydenkova

Yet regionalism can also take another, largely overlooked form—that of authoritarian regionalism, here meaning regional organizations founded and dominated by autocracies.1 There are in fact many regional associations established by nondemocratic nations or mostly consisting of non-democratic states. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), for instance, was founded by China in 2001, and all its members save two—Kyrgyzstan and new member India, which joined the grouping in 2017—are autocracies. This authoritarian subgroup of regional organizations plays an important role across several parts of the world. Our analysis shows that even if these nondemocratic regional organizations fail to contribute [End Page 151] significantly to economic cooperation among their members, they can be instrumental in stabilizing authoritarian rule in a variety of ways.

For decades, scholars and practitioners paid little attention to authoritarian regionalism. There were two primary reasons for this. First, if one thinks in terms of the traditional functions of regionalism (such as opening up borders for international trade and the movement of capital), authoritarian regional organizations are rarely as successful as those of democratic states.2 Second, while traditional regionalism relies on credible commitments by the democratic member states to uphold cooperation, authoritarian states find it difficult to provide such commitments.3

Yet when it comes to authoritarian regionalism, these arguments may be missing the point: This phenomenon entails a different type of regional organization, with different implications for world politics. Regional organizations created by powerful authoritarian states frequently pursue different goals than do their democratic counterparts. To achieve those goals, they may use tools such as redistributing resources and providing legitimacy to smaller and economically weaker autocracies. By so doing, they help to insulate these weaker members from domestic turmoil or discontent, as well as from the potentially threatening influence of international democratic actors.

Why do authoritarian states use regional organizations for this purpose? Hypothetically, powerful autocracies could provide resources to smaller states directly through bilateral relations. What, then, is the specific benefit offered by authoritarian regionalism? For decades, scholars have theorized that the spread of regional organizations with very similar designs or mandates across different parts of the world might reflect less a rational strategy for dealing with the particular challenges faced by the participating countries than the influence of a well-established international norm. The success of the EU created a powerful image of regional organizations as motors for economic growth, wellsprings of prosperity and peace. As a result, numerous countries have “downloaded the global script”4 and established regional organizations imitating the EU.

For autocracies, global acceptance of the idea of regionalism means that their efforts to support like-minded regimes enjoy extra legitimacy if these efforts take place within the framework of a regional organization. Most regional organizations created by autocrats follow an agenda that reflects a standard theory prescribing economic integration (based primarily on the evolution of the EU); this turns these clubs of autocracies into reputable international organizations. Beyond the façade of economic cooperation, however, there frequently lies a focus on assisting friendly autocratic regimes. Much like clauses in autocratic constitutions that purport to guarantee “free and fair elections” reflecting the will of the people, establishing regional organizations helps to legitimize authoritarian governments by invoking a domestically and internationally acknowledged standard.5 The fact that authoritarian regionalism is rarely perceived as a [End Page 152] phenomenon distinct from regionalism more broadly, with its own specific features and policy effects, works in this regard to the advantage of authoritarian regimes.

Second, authoritarian regional organizations are commonly seen as signs of high status and global power for the countries that launch these projects. Within Russia, for instance, the creation of the Eurasian Economic Union (inaugurated in 2015) is often presented as the ultimate confirmation of the country’s status as a global power, supposedly representing the achievement of a “global political balance, whereby Grand Eurasia is a backbone of world politics in the twenty-first century.”6 This idea is based on a fundamental perception, shared by Russian elites and promoted by Russian propaganda, of the world as split between competing blocs fighting for dominance and control. Under these conditions, powerful states need their own regional organizations to prevent foreign powers from encroaching on their spheres of influence, as well as to ensure that they have a shot at taking part in the global struggle for the shaping of the world order. The same logic that in the 1880s led European nations to create vast colonial empires as a means of reaffirming their place among the great powers compels autocracies in the 2010s to establish regional organizations. As a result, regimes expect to win stronger support from domestic populations mesmerized by the vision of their countries gaining (or regaining) their “rightful place in the world.”

Finally, regional organizations foster mutual support among autocracies by another, more technical, but nonetheless extremely important means: They form a helpful “focal point” where authoritarian leaders can regularly meet and learn from one another. In the modern world, autocratic regimes watch one another carefully, trying to find the best strategies for responding to the challenges they face—from democratic uprisings and the emergence of opposition movements to the flow of information across national borders and the emigration of citizens. Yet observation alone may not be enough, especially in the world of nontransparent authoritarian politics. Frequent direct information exchange, as occurs at international forums and summits, makes it easier for authoritarian leaders to find the best ways of preventing and suppressing threats to their rule. Regional organizations institutionalize this kind of information exchange by bringing national leaders together on a regular basis, in settings that lend themselves to both formal and informal dialogue and thus allow authoritarian learning to flourish.

Economic Benefits and Legitimacy

In addition to mutual learning, there are a number of other strategies that fellow autocrats may use to support one another under the auspices of regional organizations. These include providing economic benefits through redistribution; offering rhetorical support; and conferring legitimacy. [End Page 153]

Redistribution and Economic Benefits

How does the redistribution of resources from the leading autocracies to economically weaker and smaller states within a regional organization work in practice? Ultimately, it depends on the design of the regional organization and the level of cooperation among the member states (see the Table for an overview). One organization in which redistributive mechanisms play a particularly prominent role is the Venezuela-led Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), created in 2004. This is one of the few authoritarian regional organizations based on a clear ideology: Bolivarian socialism. In its design, this organization seems to reject each and every element of what typically constitutes a regional-integration initiative.

The Alliance’s common economic space—the People’s Trade Agreement (Tratado de Comercio de los Pueblos), established by ALBA members in 2006—is set up in many ways as the opposite of a free-trade area. The Agreement calls on member countries to provide specific support to their domestic companies, to limit dependence on food supply from other countries, to protect their key economic sectors, to promote state-led national projects as an alternative to doing business with multinational corporations, and so forth. Yet unlike the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON), which was established by the countries of the communist bloc during the Cold War era (1949–91) and created a mechanism for coordination among centrally planned economies, ALBA does not offer any practical tools for cooperation. Instead, it serves as a smokescreen for a system of privileged oil exports from Venezuela to ideologically friendly regimes.

The most important tool for redistribution is the PetroCaribe oil alliance (legally distinct from but operating in coordination with ALBA), which came into being in 2005. Essentially, PetroCaribe is a lending mechanism: It allows the countries buying oil from Venezuela to pay in some cases only a fraction of the price immediately after [End Page 154] the oil is delivered, with the remaining part to be repaid over a period of 17 or 25 years. If participating countries choose to postpone the payment, they must pay only a small interest rate of 1 or 2 percent. Each country receives a quota for oil to be supplied through PetroCaribe, but some countries have systematically exceeded this quota. Thus, in 2015 El Salvador’s quota was set at 7,000 barrels per day, but the country actually imported 12,900 barrels per day. PetroCaribe plays a key role in matters of oil supply: Nicaragua, for instance, received more than 60 percent of its oil under this framework in the period from 2005 to 2014. Participating countries also have the option of using barter to cover their oil invoice (for instance by supplying agricultural products to Venezuela as repayment).7

Between 2005 and 2014, the financing received by smaller countries from Venezuela via PetroCaribe amounted to nearly US$28 billion.8 In addition, using money mostly provided by Venezuela, ALBA established a number of funds to support the economic development of member countries (such as the ALBA Caribbean Fund, to which Venezuela has contributed $100 million) or strengthen their agriculture (such as the ALBA Food Fund). While the deep economic crisis currently faced by Venezuela has called into question the sustainability of PetroCaribe and other redistribution mechanisms,9 the program has for a decade been an important tool allowing Venezuela to support friendly regimes and protect them from economic turbulence or political unrest.

Venezuela’s largesse offers a particularly prominent example of redistribution within an authoritarian regional grouping, but this case is not unique. In 2004, China declared its willingness to provide $900 million in loans to SCO member states. Even more impressively, during the SCO’s Yekaterinburg summit in 2009 China offered the organization’s Central Asian members the chance to participate in a $10 billion support program.10 This generous financial offer occurred amid the global economic crisis that began in 2008, which deeply affected both European and Central Asian states. Primarily because of the rivalry between China and Russia, which has blocked the creation of an SCO bank, the organization has no joint institutions that could be used to channel Chinese funding; this money is thus provided at the bilateral level. Nonetheless, SCO summits are still used as platforms for declaring large Chinese lending programs, mostly as a means of boosting their legitimacy.

In addition to direct redistribution of funds or the supply of cheap resources, authoritarian regionalism may offer several other benefits for small member states. Broad economic cooperation within a regional grouping can serve as an indirect and subtle mechanism of redistribution. For example, since the early 1990s the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in Eurasia has maintained a liberal migration regime, allowing hundreds of thousands of workers from Armenia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan to seek employment in Russia. This creates a double [End Page 155] benefit for the leaders of the authoritarian countries from which these migrants hail. First, migration generates a flow of remittances, which improves the quality of life for those who stay home and prevents popular grievances from growing into a reason for mass uprisings (in Tajikistan, remittances from abroad supply close to 50 percent of GDP). Second, receiving remittances specifically from workers based in other authoritarian countries helps recipient regimes to limit the problem of “political remittances”—a situation in which migration from authoritarian countries to developed democratic countries leads to a spillover effect in the countries of origin, with migrants supporting democratization processes there. If migrants are instead moving within the integrated labor market of a nondemocratic regional organization, autocrats have no reason to be concerned. Indeed, cooperation among the security agencies of source and destination countries may yield excellent opportunities to keep political sentiments in the diaspora under control.11

Legitimacy and Rhetorical Support

Even if a regional organization is very weak and limits itself merely to declaring high-level goals and ambitious programs rather than pursuing any actual cooperation, it can still serve the interests of small authoritarian countries by increasing their legitimacy. National-level political leaders eagerly present themselves as supporters of regional integration; the most successful of them manage to profit economically and politically both from the existence of the regional organization (which they claim to endorse) and from shortcomings in its actual performance (which they blame on their political opponents or on foreign partners).

Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s regime in Belarus, for example, has made regional integration in Eurasia one of the main pillars of its ideology. From the very start of his ascent to power, Lukashenka relied on Soviet nostalgia to gain the support of Belarusians. Claiming to be the only member of the last Supreme Soviet of the USSR who refused to vote in 1991 for the dissolution of the Soviet Union, he presented economic integration with Russia as the key to ensuring Belarusian prosperity, and himself as the only supporter of this path in Belarus. The prodemocratic opposition leaders were regularly accused of jeopardizing the integration process, which remains vastly popular among the Belarusian public. At the same time, Lukashenka did not hesitate to accuse Russia’s own elites of being unwilling to go as far in terms of regional integration as the people of both countries wanted.

Over time, Lukashenka’s argument became more complex: While in the 1990s he called for the highest possible level of political and economic integration with Russia, in the 2000s he began to stress ensuring Belarusian sovereignty while pursuing integration. His emphasis on regional integration as the regime’s main achievement, however, did not disappear. Since 1991, Belarus has participated in numerous regional [End Page 156] organizations with Russia: the CIS; the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO); the Union State of Russia and Belarus; the Eurasian Economic Community; the Eurasian Development Bank; and the Eurasian Economic Union. While there are limits to the potency of Lukashenka’s approach (it cannot, for instance, stifle protests by those unhappy with specific measures implemented by the regional organizations), it has on the whole served as an effective tool for ensuring the population’s loyalty over prolonged periods of time.

The CIS was originally created in 1991 as a way of softening the negative economic consequences of the USSR’s collapse. Over time, however, as authoritarianism consolidated in Russia, the organization’s cornerstone state, the CIS took on roles connected with strengthening autocratic regimes. Election monitoring has been the most conspicuous instrument in the CIS toolbox for supporting authoritarianism. Dispatching teams of pliable election observers fits in with a broader authoritarian strategy of seeking to confuse the public by spreading disinformation concerning elections, but sending these observers under the auspices of an international organization is likely to strengthen the impact.12 The CIS dispatched its first observer missions in 2001 and 2002, and these have increased in scope and number over time.

Since the 1990s, the CIS has developed several election-monitoring branches. Observers are now dispatched both from the CIS proper and from the organization’s Interparliamentary Assembly. In 2004, the CIS passed a special Statute of the Mission of Observers of the CIS, and in 2006 it set up an International Institute for Monitoring Democracy Development, Parliamentarianism and Suffrage Protection of Citizens. The CIS observers frequently use the same language as their counterparts from the OSCE (for example, calling for more transparency and openness in elections), but they assign very different meanings to these concepts. For example, in the eyes of CIS representatives the main risk to free and fair elections is intervention by the Western powers, rather than manipulation by the incumbent rulers of the states themselves.

Monitors from the CIS have actually condemned elections in only one case: during the rerun of the second round of Ukraine’s 2004 presidential elections, which followed the mass protests of the Orange Revolution. These protests had been triggered by the falsified victory of pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovych over pro-Western candidate Viktor Yushchenko in the initial second round—a vote that received the full approval of the CIS. As a result, some CIS countries where prodemocratic sentiments are more prevalent (Ukraine and Moldova) have increasingly refused to extend to CIS observers an invitation to monitor their elections. Such refusals, however, can actually end up strengthening the regional organizations: Authoritarian members can capitalize on these decisions to suggest that the elections to which they were denied access were nondemocratic and that the incumbents fear international [End Page 157] monitoring, thus confusing the public and discrediting democratic institutions. These episodes are eagerly embraced by Russian propaganda and highlighted by organs of the CIS itself.

Both ALBA and the SCO, in addition to being tools of redistribution, also serve as important mechanisms for legitimizing authoritarian regimes. ALBA’s contribution to the survival of autocracies in Latin America is twofold. For Nicolás Maduro’s regime in Venezuela, it offers a politically useful proof of the attractiveness of Bolivarian socialism to other countries (although today, with Venezuela mired in a state of permanent economic crisis, this may no longer make much of a difference for the regime’s survival). For other member countries, ALBA provides backing for various measures that enable the consolidation of authoritarianism, such as limitations on media freedom.13

In the same way, the SCO systematically supports and justifies actions taken by member countries to strengthen authoritarian rule. While ALBA relies on populist, anti-American rhetoric, the SCO presents the measures taken by its members as efforts to combat what the Chinese leadership refers to as the “Three Evils”: terrorism, separatism, and extremism. When selectively applied and broadly interpreted, this vocabulary can be effectively used against any form of domestic opposition, justifying not only restrictive internal-policy measures but also information exchange and other forms of cooperation across countries. For example, the countries of the SCO rely on the principle of mutual recognition of terrorism charges, which allows each state to bring prosecutions against domestic opponents located anywhere in SCO territory. In fact, there is ample evidence that the way the SCO organizes its counterterrorist activities has contributed to a worsening of the human-rights situation in member countries.14

Hard Strategy: Military Interventions

Although examples of authoritarian regionalism exist across several parts of the world, the specific mechanisms of autocracy promotion employed by each organization are very different. They range from generous loans and rhetorical support (favored by the SCO), to liberal migration regimes and election-monitoring efforts (CIS), to economic protectionism and ideological support (ALBA). In addition to the “soft” mechanisms of influence discussed above—redistribution and legitimization—there is one additional form of influence that stands out: the strategy of military intervention used by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a six-country regional organization in the Middle East.

Relative to other authoritarian regional organizations, the GCC, founded in 1981, has taken on a much more explicit security agenda. Although the Council’s official mandate is primarily economic, it has been repeatedly used for joint military operations. In the 1980s, the [End Page 158] GCC created the Peninsula Shield Joint Forces, which commanded approximately 40,000 troops by the early 2010s.15 In 2011, Saudi Arabia spearheaded an intervention to suppress an antigovernment uprising in Bahrain and to support the incumbent ruler, King Hamad. The protests, which featured calls for democratization and greater respect for human rights, had started in February 2011, inspired by the Arab Spring. In March 2011, the king declared a state of emergency, and the GCC dispatched approximately 1,500 troops and military-police personnel (from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) to protect key elements of Bahrain’s infrastructure. While the Saudi forces were not directly involved in cracking down on the protests, their presence allowed the king to pursue a much harsher course of action that ultimately ended in the suppression of the democratic movement.16

In other cases, the GCC has applied economic incentives to help sustain member autocracies. In 2011, the Council offered membership to Jordan and Morocco (two Arab monarchies without substantial hydro-carbon resources and with lower per capita GDPs than the neighboring petrostates). It did so in the name of regime stability, hoping thereby to help prevent the spread of Arab Spring uprisings in these fellow monarchies. Being part of the GCC would mean access to development financing from the organization’s richer members: The Council announced the establishment of a development fund (with $5 billion in capital) to support projects in Morocco and Jordan while preparing these countries for accession. Furthermore, GCC membership would result in reduced energy prices for both countries—a significant benefit, especially for Jordan, which imports 95 percent of its oil from the GCC. Finally, joining the GCC would give workers from Jordan and Morocco easier access to the labor markets of the Gulf monarchies, where there is substantial demand for their services.17 After the end of the Arab Spring, the invitations to Jordan and Morocco were put on hold, but they were extended once again in 2014.18 In 2016, Jordan agreed to join the GCC power grid. The question of membership is likely to surface once again if political developments in the region should present new challenges to the two monarchic regimes.

Is authoritarian regionalism a new phenomenon that emerged at the turn of the twenty-first century, or was it present earlier in the history of world politics? In the 1980s and 1990s, Samuel Huntington’s insight into historical waves of democratization laid the groundwork for a new understanding of the dynamics of political regime change.19 Ideas about the wave cycle of democratization and the geographic cores of these waves have come to be widely accepted among scholars. Far less attention has been paid to waves of autocratization, which date back to the 1790s.

These waves involved entities that might be viewed as the historical predecessors of today’s authoritarian regional organizations: alliances of [End Page 159]autocratic regimes seeking to prevent democratization, suppress revolutions abroad, or expand the sway of their preferred ideologies. A number of these alliances were spurred by opposition to the French Revolution, from the First Coalition of 1792 to the Holy Alliance of 1815. These alliances, however, focused exclusively on coordinating military action; none of them established any intergovernmental institutions, and thus they did not constitute international organizations in the modern sense.

The beginning of the era of nondemocratic regional organizations as such can be traced to the 1940s, with the creation of the Arab League in 1945 and COMECON in 1949. Thus, authoritarian regionalism predates the best-known example of democratic regionalism—the EU (whose precursor, the European Coal and Steel Community, was established in 1951). The Arab League and COMECON share two important features. On the one hand, both were based on a strong ideological foundation: pan-Arabism in the first case and communism in the second. On the other hand, in contrast to the regional organizations that emerged in later periods, neither was explicitly modeled on the blueprint of European regionalism. Indeed, over time COMECON, as an association of centrally planned economies, attempted to present a clear alternative to successive Western European groupings. Both of these early authoritarian regional organizations took on significant geopolitical roles. COMECON became the tool that the Soviet Union used to organize its economic relations with its East European satellite states as well as with Cuba and Vietnam during the Cold War. It also served as a means of anchoring communist rule in the member countries.

Another even earlier example of authoritarian regionalism is the Southern African Customs Union (SACU). Created in 1910, originally within the colonial boundaries of the British Empire, the SACU survived the decolonization process. Unlike COMECON and the Arab League, this organization had no clear ideological foundation. At the same time, it also followed a model of regionalism very different from that developing in democratic Europe. Instead of delegating authority to a supranational body, the smaller member countries (Botswana, Lesotho, and Swaziland, two of which were consolidated autocracies) transferred the right to determine the organization’s common policy to South Africa, at that time under apartheid rule. In this way, the SACU became an important tool for ensuring South Africa’s regional dominance and overcoming international sanctions imposed on the autocratic apartheid regime.20

Regionalism Old and New

The development of the EU led to a wave of new regional organizations being established around the world, this time explicitly mimicking the European experience. Most of these groupings—examples of what is now termed the “old regionalism”—emerged in the 1960s in [End Page 160] Latin America and Africa, and belong to the category of nondemocratic regional organizations. They fell short of the grand ambitions of their creators, in most cases becoming examples of mere ink-on-paper regionalism: regional organizations that, despite numerous treaties signed, meetings organized, and intergovernmental bodies established, had no impact on actual policies. Most of these early nondemocratic regional organizations failed to enhance either the economic development of member states or the stability of member regimes—they became little more than bureaucratic status projects.

Nonetheless, some of these organizations did work to strengthen authoritarian regimes: Many of them highlighted the primacy of national sovereignty and condemned all external intervention in domestic affairs. This was the key principle of the Organization of African Unity (the precursor of today’s African Union), which stressed recognition of the former colonial borders; of the concept of the “ASEAN Way,” the ideological cornerstone of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (founded in 1967); and of many Latin American organizations still in existence.21 The reasoning behind this approach had less to do with the threat of democracy—during the Cold War, the United States was open to supporting authoritarian allies against communism—than with the threat posed by rival authoritarian regimes: By stressing noninterference, these modern nondemocratic regional organizations helped to avert conflicts between autocracies that might otherwise have weakened and eventually destabilized the regimes involved.

Over time, the number of nondemocratic regional organizations decreased, but this was due less to the dissolution of the old organizations or the creation of new democratic ones than to the democratization of member countries belonging to existing associations. As their member states underwent domestic political transformations, some of these organizations changed course and successfully carried out broad economic-integration agendas. ASEAN, for example, which in the 1960s had been an alliance of nondemocratic states primarily aimed at limiting the spread of communism in Southeast Asia, grew into a functional economic organization and embraced democratic values (though it still has a very long way to go to develop a meaningful strategy for democracy promotion).22

In response to the democratization of their members, these nondemocratic regional organizations found it necessary to redesign their decision-making [End Page 161] structures. After the fall of apartheid in South Africa, for instance, the SACU negotiated and approved a new governance structure, one based on supranational institutions rather than on South Africa’s unilateral dominance. Examples of the wholesale dissolution of nondemocratic regional organizations are rare: The only prominent case is the collapse of COMECON, which occurred as part of the tectonic shifts marking the end of the Cold War.

The early 2000s saw a new wave of authoritarian regionalism, catalyzed by the weakening of democratic institutions and the emergence of authoritarian regimes in post-Soviet Eurasia and Latin America, with Russia and Venezuela becoming the respective regional leaders in organization-building. Together with Saudi Arabia, these two countries are currently the most active players in the field of authoritarian regionalism. As with the authoritarian regional organizations born in the 1960s, contemporary nondemocratic regional organizations typically strive to imitate the EU, in particular by using similar language to describe their governing institutions and the various stages of regional integration (the free-trade area, the customs union, the economic union, and so forth). As noted above, ALBA is the only exception to this rule.

In comparison to their predecessors of the 1960s, however, the authoritarian regional organizations that came into their own during the 2000s face a strikingly different global environment: Today’s authoritarian regional groupings must operate in a world marked by the widespread promotion and diffusion of democracy. The main threat to the autocracies of the Middle East, Eurasia, and Latin America is not intervention by other autocracies, but rather the intentional promotion and organic spread of democracy by and from the EU and the United States. In view of this situation, nondemocratic regional organizations have unsurprisingly become an attractive instrument for insulating member states from outside forces that might push them toward democratization. While not all nondemocratic regional organizations are set up in order to promote authoritarianism or shut out external democratic influences, scholars and policy makers must recognize that many of these regional groupings were indeed created for such purposes, and still others have assumed this function over time.

Regionalism Reconsidered

A closer look at authoritarian regional organizations suggests that a new way of thinking about regionalism is needed. Until recently, the bulk of scholarly attention has gone to democratic regional organizations and their ability to boost democracy. Yet there is a substantial subset of regional organizations created by nondemocracies and comprising largely nondemocratic states. These organizations, generally initiated by authoritarian states with strong foreign-policy agendas, [End Page 162] can be used to bolster autocracies and even to promote authoritarianism—ends they achieve by conferring legitimacy on authoritarian regimes and by redistributing resources to the weaker member states. In addition to legitimizing cooperation among autocracies on the international stage, authoritarian regional organizations also enhance the prestige of member regimes in the eyes of their domestic populations.

As with any other form of external influence on regime transition, the success of autocracy promotion should not be overestimated:23 External factors can help to sow the seeds of autocracy or democracy only where the soil is already fertile. Nonetheless, in countries with uncertain prospects for democratization, authoritarian regionalism can tip the balance.

The cases discussed above show that, on the whole, authoritarian countries are eager to establish their own regional organizations and work through them to preserve and promote autocracy, as well as to ward off outside democratic influences. These organizations do not, however, generally seem to operate with autonomy. In most cases, there is a clear leading country (China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, or Venezuela) that initially designed the association. In the cases of ALBA and the CIS, this country also provides the lion’s share of the budget. Yet this does not mean that the other members are mere passive recipients of the policies pushed by the leading states: In some cases, it is actually smaller countries (such as Belarus or Ecuador) that are most active in encouraging the development of the nondemocratic regional organizations. Leaders of these smaller authoritarian states see in the organizations a valuable tool for stabilizing their regimes by delivering economic benefits, legitimizing electoral fraud, and supporting military coercion.

Authoritarian regionalism presents a major challenge for Western states and institutions, particularly since democratic actors have themselves helped to establish regionalism as a widely respected model. The EU, for example, has for decades systematically promoted regionalism worldwide, engaging with regional organizations all over the globe. The result may well be to strengthen the legitimacy of authoritarian regionalism, and hence its capacity to shore up autocracy and thwart democratization among member states. Thus it is important to look beyond the smokescreen of the official goals declared by nondemocratic regional organizations and to carefully examine their possible impact. Of course, one should not depict all nondemocratic regional organizations in the same light: Not all of them were established to boost autocracy, and they have a diverse set of policy effects. It is critical, however, for scholars and policy makers to begin acknowledging that regionalism can often serve not as a catalyst for democratization, but rather as an obstacle to it. [End Page 163]



The coauthors are listed alphabetically; they contributed equally to this essay. Anastassia V. Obydenkova is grateful to the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies (Princeton University) and to Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies for supporting her research presented in this article. Her research was cofunded by the Fung Global Fellows Program at the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies (PIIRS), Princeton University, and by the Niehaus Center for Globalization and Governance, Princeton University.

1. See also Alexander Cooley, “Authoritarianism Goes Global: Countering Democratic Norms,” Journal of Democracy 26 (July 2015): 56–58; Alexander Libman and Anastassia Obydenkova, “Informal Governance and Participation in Non-Democratic International Organizations,” Review of International Organizations 8 (June 2013): 221–43; Obydenkova and Libman, Authoritarian Regionalism in the World of International Organizations: Global Perspective and Eurasian Enigma(forthcoming from Oxford University Press). On cooperation of autocracies in general, see Alexander Cooley, “The League of Authoritarian Gentlemen,” Foreign Policy, 30 January 2013, http://foreignpolicy.com/2013/01/30/the-league-of-authoritarian-gentlemen.

2. Edward D. Mansfield, Helen V. Milner, and B. Peter Rosendorff, “Why Democracies Cooperate More: Electoral Control and International Trade Agreements,” International Organization 56 (Summer 2002): 477–513; Ernst B. Haas, “International Integration: The European and the Universal Process,” International Organization 15 (Summer 1961): 366–92.

3. Kurt Taylor Gaubatz, “Democratic States and Commitment in International Relations,” International Organization 50 (Winter 1996): 109–39.

4. Joseph Jupille, Brandy Jolliff, and Stefan Wojcik, “Regionalism in the World Polity,” (unpublished manuscript, 2013).

5. Andreas Schedler, “Elections Without Democracy: The Menu of Manipulation,” Journal of Democracy 13 (April 2002): 36–50.

6. Nataliya A. Vasilyeva and Maria L. Lagutina, The Russian Project of Eurasian Integration: Geopolitical Prospects (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2016), 104.

7. Evolution of the PetroCaribe Energy Cooperation Agreement (Caracas: Sistema Económico Latinoamericano y del Caribe, 2015).

8. Otaviano Canuto, “Oil Prices and the Future of Petrocaribe,” Huffington Post, 28 September 2015, www.huffingtonpost.com/otaviano-canuto/oil-prices-and-the-future_b_8209010.html.

9. Tjerk Brühwiller, “Caracas isoliert sich selbst,” Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 27 April 2017, www.nzz.ch/international/schwindender-einfluss-und-rueckhalt-venezuela-begibtsich-in-die-isolation-ld.1289254.

10. Aliya Samigullina and Ksenia Solyanskaya, “Sammit na 10 milliardov dollarov” [Summit for $10 billion], Gazeta, 16 June 2009, www.gazeta.ru/politics/2009/06/16_a_3211415.shtml.

11. See Mark Galeotti, “‘RepressIntern’: Russia’s Security Cooperation with Fellow Authoritarians,” OpenDemocracy, 22 November 2016, www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/mark-galeotti/repressintern-russian-security-cooperation-with-fellow-authoritarians.

12. Patrick Merloe, “Authoritarianism Goes Global: Election Monitoring vs. Disinformation,” Journal of Democracy 26 (July 2015): 79–93; Christopher Walker and Alexander Cooley, “Vote of the Living Dead,” Foreign Policy, 31 October 2013, http://foreignpolicy.com/2013/10/31/vote-of-the-living-dead; Rick Fawn, “Battle over the Box: International Election Observation Missions, Political Competition and Retrenchment in the Post-Soviet Space,” International Affairs 82 (November 2006): 1133–53.

13. Paul D’Anieri, “Autocratic Diffusion and the Pluralization of Democracy,” in Louis W. Pauly and Bruce W. Jentleson, eds., Power in a Complex Global System (New York: Routledge, 2014).

14. Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights: The Impact of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization(Human Rights in China, 2011); Thomas Ambrosio, “Catching the ‘Shanghai Spirit’: How the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Promotes Authoritarian Norms in Central Asia,” Europe-Asia Studies 60 (October 2008): 1321–44; Shanghai Cooperation Organization: A Vehicle of Human Rights Violations (International Federation for Human Rights, 2012).

15. Shenaz Kermali, “The GCC Is Expanding Its Army, But for What?” Al Jazeera, 2 July 2011, www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2011/06/2011626112649845386.html.

16. Jean-François Seznek, “Saudi Arabia Strikes Back,” Foreign Policy, 14 March 2011, http://foreignpolicy.com/2011/03/14/saudi-arabia-strikes-back-2.

17. “An Exclusive Club: GCC Membership Would Benefit Both Parties,” Oxford Business Group, https://oxfordbusinessgroup.com/analysis/exclusive-club-gcc-membership-would-benefit-both-parties.

18. Curtis Ryan, “Jordan, Morocco and an Expanded GCC,” Middle East Research and Information Project, 15 April 2014, www.merip.org/jordan-morocco-expanded-gcc.

19. Samuel P. Huntington, “Democracy‘s Third Wave,” Journal of Democracy 2 (Spring 1991): 12–34.

20. Kathleen J. Hancock, Regional Integration: Choosing Plutocracy (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009); Richard Gibb and Karen Treasure, “SACU at Centenary: Theory and Practice of Democratising Regionalism,” South African Journal of International Affairs 18, no. 1 (2011): 1–21.

21. On ASEAN, see Amitav Acharya, “Democratisation and the Prospects for Participatory Regionalism in Southeast Asia,” Third World Quarterly 24 (April 2003): 375–90; on Latin American organizations, see Christopher Sabatini, “Meaningless Multilateralism,” Foreign Affairs, 8 August 2014, www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/south-america/2014-08-08/meaningless-multilateralism.

22. Jörn Dosch, “ASEAN’s Reluctant Liberal Turn and the Thorny Road to Democracy Promotion,” Pacific Review 21, no. 4 (2008): 527–45.

23. Lucan A. Way, “The Limits of Autocracy Promotion: The Case of Russia in the ‘Near Abroad,’” European Journal of Political Research 54 (November 2015): 691–706.


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