‘Authoritarian Black Market’ a growth industry

Authoritarian regimes around the world are banding together to bypass international institutions and human rights norms that conflict with their abusive practices, writes analyst Andrew Rizzardi. Unlike the alliances of the Cold War era, these partnerships have few ideological underpinnings other than a shared rejection of democracy and the rule of law.

But such cooperation has offered aid and solidarity to dictators under pressure, and created a marketplace through which repressive regimes can meet their technology, security, and energy needs without the headaches of transparency and accountability. And if the seven-year decline in global freedom recorded by Freedom House is any indication, authoritarianism is, sadly, a growth industry.


The 2011 Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya demonstrated the power of new media in initiating political change from the bottom up. This did not go unnoticed by authoritarian leaders in other counties, who responded by pursuing advanced technical infrastructure and expertise with which to monitor and control cutting-edge outlets of dissent like social-networking sites and mobile devices.

China is assisting Zambia with the installation of deep-packet inspection (DPI) technology that enables the government to monitor and potentially block social media and “unfriendly” websites. Similarly, in 2010, Ethiopia purchased 150 Chinese surveillance cameras as well as satellite jamming equipment that was used, with Chinese technical assistance, to successfully block foreign satellite transmissions, including the Amharic service of Voice of America.

Both ZTE and Huawei, two largest Chinese telecommunications companies, have been accused of violating sanctions by selling sophisticated networking equipment to Iran, allowing the regime to track individuals based on the location of their cell phones.


Recent oil talks between Iran and North Korea marked a new step in their loose “one trench” alliance, a reference to the perception that they have been forced together by shared international enemies. This odd couple may represent a case of extreme necessity, but energy cooperation between friendly authoritarians is commonplace.

A case in point is Venezuela [which] has propped up Cuba’s one-party regime with approximately $3.5 billion in oil subsidies that account for nearly two-thirds of the island’s total consumption. Venezuela has also made investments in the energy infrastructure of nearby allies, such as Ecuador and Bolivia.

The Belarusian regime turned to new friends in Caracas in a bid to avoid overdependence on Moscow, and hundreds of bilateral cooperation agreements now exist between the countries.


They may face criticism in some international forums, but dictators need not feel alone. Alternative multilateral bodies, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), provide authoritarian states with opportunities for diplomacy and trade, without the nuisances of democracy and human rights. Of the six permanent SCO members, all but Kyrgyzstan are rated Not Free by Freedom House.

Indeed, the growing recognition of common interests among authoritarian and incompletely democratic governments has led to informal emulation of repressive domestic laws and practices. This is most apparent in the recent crackdown on civil society organizations in countries around the world. The wave of new laws tend to combine constraints on foreign funding, increased government oversight of groups’ financing and activities, more onerous bureaucratic and tax measures, and increased state authority to dissolve organizations.

To date, democratic countries and institutions have approached the problem in a piecemeal fashion, barring particular companies, implementing targeted sanctions, or simply stating emphatic disagreement with certain actions. But such disciplinary tactics alone do not offer a long-term solution. Meanwhile, the authoritarian warehouse only appears to be growing. To counter this alarming trend, the focus should not be on supply, but on demand. Put simply, the free world must promote democratic change in repressive states. Unless these governments are held accountable by their own people, they will always find ways to live outside international law.

*Andrew Rizzardi is a political analyst with a focus on human rights, governance, and corruption. He is currently a researcher at Freedom House.

This brief extract is taken from a longer post on the FH blog. RTWT

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