The Author

Toni Michel

Toni Michel is a European and Eurasian Affairs analyst. He is holding an MA from MGIMO University and is working with various Civil Society Organisations in Europe and the post-Soviet space.

All opinions in this column reflect view of the autor(s), not of Vocal Europe.

“For those of us climbing to the top of the food chain, there can be no mercy. There is but one rule: hunt or be hunted.”


You, Mr President, have been a hunter for a long time. And your game has finally paid off. Having served your predecessor loyally before he recently passed away, you managed to ride into power through an elaborate scheme that outmaneuvered your competitors within the elite.

Now that your position is consolidated and there are no more checks on your power, you are officially a post-Soviet autocrat.

Your future is bright – if you can keep it. There is a lot of money that can disappear into your offshore bank account and many friends you can make very rich, but the stakes are high. Overplay, and you might find yourself in front of the same judiciary that now listens to your every word. The EU’s human rights sanctions won’t keep you up at night – coups and Colour Revolutions will.

The latter phenomenon has haunted your region for far over a decade now, starting in Georgia (2003) and Ukraine (2004) before moving to Kyrgyzstan (2005). Russia seemed on the brink in 2011/12 while the last revolution to date took place in 2013/14, again in Ukraine.

Curious for More?

There is, however, quite an easy formula for your regime to survive for a long time: keep your elite together and your population distracted. Energy and resource revenues will help you accomplish the former while your loyal security service, loyal media and post-Soviet political culture are going a long way towards achieving the latter. Crucially, you should be able to survive turbulences in either the elite or the population, but not in both at the same time.

Here are ten lessons on how to create a stable regime – and how to defend it if should you one day wake up to angry demonstrations on the main square of your capital.

Lesson 1: Keep Your Friends Close, But Your Enemies Closer

Yes, the political and economic elites are lavishing you with praise today. But make no mistake. The biggest threat to your power comes from these exact people. Make sure that everybody knows who the boss is but be careful not to unnecessarily humiliate people from this circle. Sooner or later, you will have to become a broker between their competing interest. Unbalanced and non-inclusive decisions on your part can create disgruntled groups with abundant resources and regional power bases.

All of this can come back to bite you later – as Eduard Shevardnadze learned, for instance, when he failed to prevent an elite split that saw his justice minister Mikheil Saakashvili switch sides to the opposition in 2001. And since your security service keeps telling you that Washington and the CIA are out to overthrow you, you will be safest if they cannot find a hostile splinter group in your elite to support.

 Lesson 2: Punish Few, but Punish Them Hard

It is all well and good to fill the pockets of your elite so that they like you. But how do you become respected? Fear will do the job. Find a handful of people who are either overt competitors or have defied you in some way. Your ever-faithful judiciary will help you build criminal cases from the bodies everyone holding high office has hidden somewhere. Then, settle for nothing less than the complete destruction of their lives: take away their wealth, their dignity and their freedom. You will send a clear message to everyone else: stand by me, leave the country or suffer the same fate.

Lesson 3: Keep the Men with Guns Happy

As an authoritarian who has made it to the top, you might have figured this one out by yourself. Make sure that you can absolutely trust the men with the guns (let’s not kid ourselves, there are no women here). The top brass of your internal security service and the army must be ideologically, personally and economically invested in the persistence and survival of your regime.

So why not actually appoint someone who has proven to have skin in the game of your survival? A former bodyguard of yours, maybe? If you are sloppy here, you might suffer the fates of Ukrainian Presidents Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yanukovych who, at their time, had no chance of re-establishing control after the security establishment began abandoning them. 

Lesson 4: Bread and Circuses for the People

Of course, the people know about the huge corruption and waste that is draining at your country’s resources and potential. There are three factors, though, that can shield you from any trouble from the street: cynicism (after all, elites steal everywhere), traumas from the past (we do not want to go back to the 1990s) and distractions: have your prime minister and cabinet regularly take the hit for bad governance, inefficient state services and corruption scandals; remove governors and regularly reshuffle your government. Pursuant to Lesson 1, make sure that loyal scapegoats land softly.

In the economy, pursue far-reaching state interference; this will prevent alternative power centres beyond your control from emerging all while binding large swaths of the population to state subsidies. People might still be struggling to make ends meet but they are less likely to bite the hand that feeds them.

Lesson 5: Opposition Means Chaos

If, however, discontent is running high because the world economy is in recession and you have unfortunately depleted your country’s treasury, give your state media a call. Do not get tired of reminding your people of the terrible costs of demonstrations and political opposition to your government. The conflict in Syria and the Tajik Civil War will help you drive home the point. The keyword is chaos. Get hold of some good pictures of these conflicts and play them on TV in a loop until everybody knows that – repeat after me – opposition means chaos.

Lesson 6: How to Steal an Election

You may be fluent in the language of democracy and often invoke the “will of the people”, even if neither you nor necessarily your audience believe a word of it. After all, your country has always been ruled by a strong man and who knows if the country would even stick together without your iron grip on power. Elections, though, are still important as a legitimisation ritual that send a signal of strength to any potential rival. But of course, elections can also serve as a rallying point for the opposition. And botched efforts to steal the vote already kicked off revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. So, how to get this parade over with smoothly?

What you do not want to do is to heavily doctor the vote on election day itself. Vote stuffing, disappearing ballots and other foul play is way too likely to be discovered in the age of smartphones and OSCE observer missions. Better play a long game: choose a loyal technocrat as head of the election commission. Make sure that only “your” guys get registered and exclude unpredictable populists outside your control over some technicality. Make full use of your monopoly over TV to get your message out.

Confuse voters with carefully controlled political parties that completely mimic real opposition movements. Also make sure that all state employees turn out on election day and know that they owe their job to you alone. After all, it is no coincidence that your government is only half-heartedly tackling the staggeringly overblown and corrupt bureaucracy of your country. Yes, the same OSCE observers might criticise your use of “administrative resources”, but when has that ever hurt anyone.

Now you know how to build the foundations of an authoritarian regime, but what if you still find yourself facing down a bunch of determined protesters on the main square of your capital? Four more steps are here to help you out:

Lesson 7: Observe and React

This one is important. You must identify what these people are protesting. If it is a specific issue with little support in broader society, you can try to be lenient. Grant them a demonstration permit in a park at the outskirts of the city and push the protest into obscurity. Alternatively, you can seize the opportunity and chastise some bureaucrat or minister on state TV– there are actually some popularity points for you to score by showing your concern for common people and their problems. The Tsar is good after all, but the Boyars are bad.

If, however, the protesters come from various backgrounds and are protesting a variety of abstract issues from corruption to bad governance, you should clear your schedule. Such demonstrations can attract mass support from broader swaths of society and seriously challenge your legitimacy.

A first step to disperse protesters is to target three specific groups:

*Young parents have no time to spend time in jail or in hospital – getting the police out in force might scare them off.

*“Good people” will be uncomfortable in the company of hardcore radicals. Your handy security service will help you find some provocateurs to join the demonstrators and behave as badly as they can. Then use your media monopoly to attack the legitimacy of the protest and move the focus away from dangerous issues like corruption.

*Identify protest leaders and try to buy or scare them off. Again, your security service will keep extensive files so that you will have no problems finding out how to apply carrots and/or sticks with these people.

Even if you manage to calm the situation down like this, be sure to signal that unsanctioned protest has a price. Applying lesson-2 punishment to a few organisers or random supporters will get that message out.

Lesson 8: Find Friends in the West

Make strategic use of the culture wars in the West and use specific language to gain support with different communities there. For the right wing, declare yourself the victim of a globalist, Soros-sponsored liberal conspiracy. Anti-imperialist rhetoric, on the other hand, will be music to the ears of the far left. Meanwhile, getting one of your surrogates to appear on the Alex Jones Show might even win you the sympathy of the most powerful man in the world.

Lesson 9: What if?

The dynamics of big demonstrations and the underlying mass psychology are hard to understand and nearly impossible to predict. You have no guarantee that this thing will go your way. So, have a plane ready, your offshore bank account information at hand and a place to go.

Lesson 10: Showdown

You cannot allow large scale, persistent protests in your capital’s centre to go on for too long. It is an act of open defiance against you personally and an invitation for any challenger from the elite to drive you out of power by leading the popular revolt – after all, this is exactly what happened in nearly all previous Colour Revolutions. You must use force and disperse the protest. Showdown, though, is a high-risk strategy. Excessive violence against peaceful protesters can widen the protest base, unite the different factions of demonstrators and administer a lethal blow to your legitimacy.

But if lesson 7 fails, it is your only choice. Try first with tear gas, water cannons and police clubs. Escalate the weaponry, if you must. It is up to you personally how far you want to go, on a scale from zero to Bashar al-Assad.

During the operation, closely monitor if the rank-and-file security officers stay loyal to you. Be sure to bus in police forces from the provinces and not from the capital itself; the officers should have as little connections as possible to the people they are supposed to beat up. If you witness larger-scale desertions and open rebellion against you among the security forces, it is probably best to head for the airport. Unless, of course, you are unscrupulous enough to risk civil war by escalating the stand-off with all loyal forces you can find.

If Showdown works and you manage to clear the square with relatively little bloodshed, become a tyrant for a while. Have the police show intimidating force in public and randomly arrest a few dozen protest participants for application of Lesson 2. Publicise those cases well and get the message across that you do not have to be a protest leader to get to know jail from the inside for a decade or two. Use whataboutism to brush off any criticism from the West – after all, they have recently had their own police crackdowns in Hamburg and Barcelona. And, most importantly, go back to Lessons 1-6 and figure out what has gone wrong.

In the end, the life of an autocrat is riddled with traps and carries high risks to yourself, your family and your country, if things go wrong just for once. Meanwhile, other leaders are able to step down in peace after a decade or two in power and still get paid obscene amounts of money for lobbying or speaking engagements. Maybe, Mr President, you would be interested in an authoritarian’s guide to institution building and stable transitions next?


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