Politics of fear
Original Text: Vladimir Gel'man, European University at St.Petersburg and University of Helsinki
‘The politics of fear’ refers to a set of strategies used to ensure political control by authoritarian regimes. Unlike bloody dictatorships, which use mass repression of societies at large and/or major social groups (such as those in Soviet Union under Stalin, Nazi Germany, or Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge regime), authoritarian regimes rely upon selective repression against those who dare to raise their voice against the regime or those capable of doing so at the earliest opportunity. Selective repression is often demonstrative. Examples include politically driven criminal cases, arrests, forced emigration and exile, torture, the disappearance of people and political assassinations. The repression is used illicitly in the surveillance both of persons and of private correspondence, use of provocateurs, public discrediting and isolation (see also Zersetzung in this volume). Such strategies are not intended primarily to punish the regime’s enemies (although this motivation is also present), but to prevent the spread of oppositional activism beyond the relatively narrow and controllable circle of the regime’s staunch opponents. ‘The politics of fear’ performs the political function of preventive signaling: it demonstrates to the elite and ordinary citizens that manifestations of disloyalty may result in tears, loss and harm. This approach is more cost efficient for the preservation of authoritarian regimes than mass repression, but it requires the skillful application of a variety of tools of political control.
The degree, frequency and extent to which authoritarian regimes use ‘the politics of fear’ depend on specific context. Although commonly ‘the authoritarian equilibrium rests on lies, fear, or economic prosperity’ (Przeworski, 1991: 58-59); the specific configuration is determined by circumstance. The weakening of one of these three political pillars prompts autocrats to shift their center of gravity to the two others. The degree of repression in modern authoritarian regimes is reversely correlated with economic growth. When economic growth is rapid and sustainable, the preference of autocrats is to rely upon cooptation of their real or potential challengers, and to buy the loyalty of elites and fellow citizens. Under such circumstances there may be room for contentious politics on certain issues, but there is no leeway for open displays of discontent towards leaders or regimes as such. However, in circumstances of economic decline, stagnation or recession, autocrats have to replace carrots with sticks and rely upon the weapons of large-scale propaganda (lies) alongside those of selective repression (fear). The choice of strategies of repression is driven by autocrats’ perceptions of threats to their regimes. Threats can be defined both by the overall level of discontent and also by their unpredictability. Moreover, threats are perceived more seriously if they arise from multiple sources, if the opposition presents a number of diverse strategies and includes a variety of forms of protest (especially if the protest involves both peaceful and violent means). However, the most important factor affecting the choice of strategies of repression in authoritarian regimes is the previous successful outcomes of those repressive policies. If in the past repressive measures served as an efficient tool for diminishing threats to the regime’s survival, then the probability of their use in the future increases, as does their scope and intensity.
After Stalin’s death in 1953, the Communist regime ceased to employ a policy of mass repression in the Soviet Union. As a result, it suffered not only the emergence of a dissident movement, but also numerous instances of mass riots, occurring spontaneously in different parts of the country. The extensive use of force for the oppression of the latter (the most well-known case was the Novocherkassk massacre of 1962) was risky for the Soviet political leadership. Consequently, repressive policies underwent certain adjustment and transformed into a model, based upon ‘preventive work’ (profilakticheskaya rabota) designed to prevent the spread of protest movements. The Soviet coercive apparatus established an efficient mechanism of monitoring and intimidation of disloyal citizens. The arsenal of the coercive apparatus included not only the threat of repression and/or career difficulties, but also strategies of cooptation, which included promises of career advancement, material benefits and other rewards for loyalty to the regime.
Late - Soviet citizens perceived the risk of punishment for open anti-regime activism to be high and even those who were critical of the regime preferred to avoid direct confrontation with the authorities. In addition, the Soviet regime used a wide range of ‘active measures’ (aktivnye meropriyatiya) to punish its loudest and most dangerous critics, ranging from expulsion from jobs and de facto bans on professional activity, to the political abuse of psychiatry and forced emigration. Even though the number of political prisoners in the late-Soviet period was relatively low, selective repression and other coercive techniques became pervasive. Thus, Soviet citizens received clear signals that being involved in organized dissent would lead to trouble. Despite a large number of potential sympathisers and the rising disillusionment with the regime among both the Soviet establishment and society at large, the narrow circle of committed dissidents found it hard to broaden their ranks. Dissident tendencies did not lead to a rise in mass protest activism thanks to ‘the politics of fear’, which was reinforced by the memory of the previous Soviet experience of purges and mass repressions. Dissatisfaction with the late Soviet system was expressed in forms other than organized protests, and did not present any major challenge to the Communist regime until the late 1980s. During this period, ‘the politics of fear’ enabled rulers to postpone the risk of mass discontent and to bequeath the emerging problem to their successors.
In post-Soviet Belarus, ‘the politics of fear’ pursued by the coercive apparatus of the state is demonstrated foremost in its continuity under the presidency of Lukashenko (1994 – present). Belarusian opposition figures disappeared without a trace, civil activists came under attack by the state; foreign donors and initiatives aiming to promote democracy and civil society were pushed out of the country; control over business prevented it from financing opposition; and restrictive legislation forced NGOs into closure or self-censorship. The independent European Humanities University was forced to relocate from Minsk to Vilnius in Lithuania. The regime used an array of tools against its rivals, ranging from the prohibition of anonymous access to the Internet, to threats of job losses for displays of political disloyalty. Recent criminalisation of ‘social parasitism’ in Belarus is the logical extension of these tactics. (Social parasitism has its roots in a Soviet-era legal concept of tuneyadstvo, which was active between 1936 and 1991. It was based on the socialist doctrine that every able-bodied person had an obligation to work, therefore unemployment was seen as a crime against the state). A further example of the use of the strategy of ‘the politics of fear’ can be found in the use of provocateurs in opposition rallies in which subsequent arrests have borne fruit for the regime. Unlike post-Soviet states where mass protests were an issue, Belarus remains an island of authoritarian stability, while the opposition is discredited, disintegrated and disabled. The lack of viable alternatives strengthened Lukashenko's position and has helped preserve his power.
In the early 2000s the Russian authoritarian regime demonstrated low levels of repression. Annual economic growth contributed to the overall rise in a feeling of wellbeing and consequently led to a major increase in loyalty towards the leadership. The Kremlin was able to diminish manifestations of public discontent and co-opt elites. Until 2011, the scope of mass political and social protests in Russia remained relatively low and was not perceived as dangerous. Repression was targeted and included personal harassment of a small number of participants in protest actions. Dissenting representatives of Russia’s establishment were not persecuted but rather discredited and isolated; independent media, NGOs and activists were contained and had little opportunity to inflict damage to the regime. After the global economic crisis of 2008-2009, resources for rapid economic growth in Russia were exhausted, and the prosperity-based regime’s equilibrium was shaken. The rigged outcome of the 2011 parliamentary elections triggered a wave of mass protests, which the Kremlin did not anticipate. Although the scale of protests was insufficient to challenge the regime’s survival, its demonstrative effects were alarming for Russia’s rulers. Vladimir Putin’s ‘tightening of the screws’ after his re-election in 2012 was a reaction by the Kremlin to this new threat. In May 2012, a protest rally in Moscow culminated in violent clashes between participants and the police. Arrests, imprisonments, public discrediting and systemic pressure on leaders of the opposition followed (see the cases of Alexey Navalny, Vladimir Ashurkov, Sergei Guriev, Lev Shlosberg). In February 2015, Boris Nemtsov, one of the leaders of the Russian political opposition, was shot dead near the Kremlin. His assassination occurred two days before an opposition rally, which was planned to launch a series of new protests against the regime; instead it became a march of commemoration. During the third term of Putin’s presidency,’ the politics of fear’ has become a major instrument for maintaining authoritarian equilibrium.
Newly adopted repressive legislation has established harsher punishment for the violation of the new restrictions and increased the already wide-ranging powers of the law enforcement agencies, as well as the scope of sanctions. These moves by the Kremlin are oriented towards preventing the further spread of undesirable information, draining the funding of opposition activities, and imposing tight constraints on independent activism. The new law demands that NGOs receiving foreign funding should register as ‘foreign agents’. In common with other NGOs, the Dynasty Foundation, a major private sponsor of science-related research and education programs, was labeled a ‘foreign agent’ and ultimately closed. The new law on ‘undesirable’ NGOs imposes criminal punishment on Russian individuals and organizations found to be collaborating with blacklisted foreign NGOs; after its adoption, several international donor organizations were forced to end their activities in Russia.
Not only does the Kremlin not prevent the emigration of its opponents, it assists in part in the process, rightly considering this to be an effective means of neutralizing its opponents. As a consequence, the number of political prisoners in Russia remains rather low in comparison to many authoritarian regimes: the most comprehensive list, compiled in June 2015, cites no more than fifty names. It is to be expected that the Kremlin will further prioritise repression, that its scope and intensity will increase and that new targets will be hit by ‘the politics of fear’. The use of ‘politics of fear’ has most recently became widespread among authoritarian and semi-authoritarian regimes in Azerbaijan, Venezuela and Turkey, although its effect on isolating the regimes from threats are rather mixed. In essence, ‘the politics of fear’ becomes a vicious circle: small-scale state repression encourages further application of these tools, and authoritarian regimes have a tendency to use them repeatedly, even if the risk of the regime being subverted is actually not very high.
- Przeworski, A., 1991, Democracy and the Market: Political and Economic Reforms in Eastern Europe and Latin America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press