"Neo-authoritarian", "neo-authoritarianism": these terms are now flourishing in intellectual circles in the United States. It is worth recalling that last May, Time magazine dedicated its cover page to "the strong man" and published an article on the matter written by one of the country's leading strategists, Ian Bremmer. The topic is now being investigated by other renowned authors. A recent example: one of the Brookings' most brilliant researchers, Thomas Wright, wrote in "The Return to Great-Power Rivalry Was Inevitable" that "internationalist liberals" should now switch paradigms. In essence, he argues that we will not manage to resurrect "the international liberal order", but that it is becoming urgent to counter the rise of neo-authoritarians who pose an existential threat to democracies.
How should such a topic be apprehended? Institut Montaigne chose a somewhat empirical approach. Over the Summer, we posted on our blog, under the responsibility of Michel Duclos, Special Advisor to Institut Montaigne and editor of this series, a gallery of portraits of various dictators, autocrats or "strong men" who now govern an impressive number of countries. Who are they? In order: Putin, Orban, Erdogan, MbZ/MbS, Sisi, Assad, Modi, Xi and, inevitably, Trump. Each of these portraits were written by authoritative specialists, who sometimes had to resort to pseudonyms for reasons that one can imagine. Isn’t our selection of portraits slightly arbitrary? Of course it is, and we are fully aware of it: yet elements likely to launch a debate emerge from this juxtaposition of very different profiles, as emphasized in our concluding paper (What to Do About Neo-Authoritarians?).
Two further questions might perhaps be worth answering. Why this term "neo-authoritarians"? And what is the difference between the latter and populists? Our intuition was that three characteristics distinguished new authoritarians from the old ones: unlike frozen dictatorships, they have a real power of attraction (see the "Putin model"); they have all been conditioned by the configuration of the past 18 years; they come from different, if not opposite, political traditions (dictatorships/democracies) yet share a number of common practices. Not all neo-authoritarians are populists, and populism may indeed tend towards authoritarianism, but there are some exceptions.
It is clear, however, that the links between these different phenomena, as well as their economic and social underpinnings, or even a "geopolitics" of neo-authoritarianism, are among the key topics that need to be explored in order to better understand the spirit of our times - the latter often being reminiscent of that of the 1930s. But first, through this series of portraits, who are the neo-authoritarians?
We thus begin, of course, with Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation, an emblematic figure - if not patron saint - of the brotherhood of neo-authoritarians. Yet our portrait painter, Quentin Peel, freelance journalist and associate fellow with the Europe Programme at the Royal Institute for International Affairs (Chatham House) in London, expresses doubts: can the Putin "model" really be replicated?
Michel Duclos, Special Advisor, editor of this series.
Vladimir Putin’s election in March for a fourth term as president of Russia – even if the contest was a travesty of democracy, and his 77 per cent score inflated by ballot-rigging – means that he has now ruled the country for longer than anyone since Joseph Stalin. That is no mean achievement for a man who became leader more by default than design.
Including the four-year interregnum when he installed his loyal acolyte Dmitry Medvedev in the presidency, he has been in power for 18 years – longer than Leonid Brezhnev. He has ruthlessly side-lined his challengers, emasculated, seduced or suborned the oligarchs who owned most of the economy, centralised power in the Kremlin after the chaos caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union, and thrust Russia back to the top table of global politics.
His name is virtually synonymous with his country: “Putin’s Russia” is common currency for commentators (although the concept infuriates the few brave democratic opponents who still manage to express their dissent). But as he presides over the public relations triumph of the football World Cup, and greets Donald Trump for a happy chat in Helsinki after a fractious Nato summit in Brussels, is he really as strong and effective as he appears?
"To the casual follower of mainstream Western media coverage, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has … become the platonic ideal of modern autocracy," says Olga Oliker, director of the Russia and Eurasia programme at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies. Yet his system, if it can be called that, is peculiarly Russian: stable to the point of stagnation in the key positions of power, and lacking any coherent plan for a succession.
Putin is the one person holding it together, with a whole apparatus of propaganda and image-management designed to cultivate the impression of coherence, and the FSB security service arguably more powerful and ubiquitous than the KGB ever was in Soviet days in enforcing discipline. The key sources of income from oil and gas and other natural resources are back in the effective control of the state, as part of a system of privilege and corruption without checks or balances. As for the rule of law, it is there to protect the state, not the individual. And the Kremlin is the ultimate arbiter.