Authoritarian hybrid regimes present particular challenges to democracy assistance groups, a recent meeting at the National Endowment for Democracy heard. The arch of historical development no longer appears to be on a democratic trajectory as the post-communist optimism assumed by the transition paradigm and given further momentum by the color revolutions has dissipated.
A case in point is Azerbaijan which has “entered a period of robust authoritarianism fuelled by revenues from oil exports, rendering short-term movement toward democracy unlikely”, an independent analyst told the meeting, held under the Chatham House rule. Democracy assistance groups are best advised to continue assistance to a wide and diverse range of democratic actors, from human rights and legal reform to press freedom and youth groups, since “with authoritarianism entrenched, it is not clear what agents and centers of change may emerge in coming years.”
The government consistently harasses independent civil society groups, not least through lawsuits that use up the valuable time and resources of hard-pressed NGOs. Civic groups recently won a major victory when the interior ministry abandoned a punitive libel case against Leyla Yunus, a leading human rights activist. But no sooner did the state abandon the case when judge initiated a similar case against Intigam Aliyev, president of the Legal Education Society, a NED grantee, and Nurlana Aliyeva, an LES lawyer.
The Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety today reported that the prosecutor is demanding a 200,000 AZN (US$249,000) fine against Aliyev and the confiscation of his property.
“Azerbaijan is not in transition to democracy; it is stalled in oil-fuelled authoritarianism; and the government is increasingly pushing back against Western efforts to instill democracy,” it was observed at the NED meeting. Consequently, it may be an example of a state in which democracy promotion requires both support for independent democratic actors and active engagement – and at least a dialogue – with the government.
Democracy promotion is unlikely to be a strategic priority in the Obama administration’s foreign policy. Its major policy goals and U.S. strategic interests generally require accommodation with authoritarian regimes. But as those regimes, lacking liberal polities’ institutional flexibility and legitimacy, struggle to deal with economic crises, new opportunities may emerge to expand democratic space.
Democracy assistance groups should continue not only to fund grantees in such states but be more actively engaged in encouraging indigenous groups to become more self-reliant, to mentor younger potential leaders and to become more open, accessible and consultative. Some democracy NGOs need to become less exclusive and more integrated into local communities.
In adopting democratic discourse and establishing parallel civil society structures, states like Azerbaijan are not only curtailing independent NGOs but have shrunk political space by promoting largely docile GONGOs. In a recent episode such an ersatz NGO embarrassed a leading architect of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. Under the auspices of the Association for Civil Society Development, a “mouthpiece” of the country’s President Ilhan Aliyev, David Plouffe received $50,000 for a lecture and meetings with senior government officials.
Foreign donors need to give more consideration to understanding and countering GONGOs, undertaking research on their extent, impact and significance, and addressing key policy questions, the NED meeting heard, including whether and in what circumstances independent actors should ignore, confront or cooperate with GONGOs.
Daunting as the challenges of promoting democracy under robust authoritarianism may appear, they may also prompt beneficial changes in support strategies and provide an opportunity to “reconceptualise democracy promotion.”