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The “Moscow Consensus”: Constructing autocracy in post-Soviet Eurasia

12.06.2016  |  Politics
The “Moscow Consensus”: Constructing autocracy in post-Soviet Eurasia Reuters

Across the former Soviet Union a new type of authoritarianism became the default — with commerce, parliaments, military, media and civil society used to consolidate elite economic and political power.

For the past decade, the annual report from Freedom House on political and civil liberties has made for sombre reading. Every year for the past 12 years, Freedom in the World has marked an annual decline in political and civic freedoms in Eastern Europe and Eurasia. In much of the former Soviet Union, authoritarianism has become the default political system, informed by a remarkably unified set of ideas about the world, the state, and about politics and society, that resonate among elites. This “Moscow consensus” over norms and values poses a significant challenge to liberal ideas and practices across the region.

Authoritarian rule has multiple causes, most of them related to domestic politics, and historical and cultural factors. But the international and regional environment probably plays a role. Across Eurasia, authoritarian states increasingly band together to resist liberal values and pro-democracy initiatives. Groups such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) or the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) increasingly resemble what Alex Cooley calls a “League of Authoritarian Gentlemen”. Regional organisations and institutions such as the SCO play an important role in supporting non-democratic governments in the region, through legal agreements such as multilateral counter-terrorism mechanisms or extradition procedures such as the Minsk Treaty.

Yet these bodies are often not very effective in formal terms. They mostly exist as virtual bodies, marked by high-flown rhetoric and grandiose summits. These institutions are more influential as mechanisms that help to diffuse non-liberal ideas and norms and help to develop a common worldview among their members. Alongside these multilateral organisations, a range of other channels, such as Russian media, education and training initiatives, social media and multiple, informal links among ordinary people, all contribute to a shared conversation about the world and politics that has profound ramifications for political developments in the region.

Despite many political differences among post-Soviet states, common ideas about political order can be identified across the region. In many states, these ideas underpin a new type of authoritarian regime that craves international status and mimics some liberal ideas, but is at heart a ruthless consolidation of political and economic power. States such as Azerbaijan, Russia and Kazakhstan are the most advanced versions of this political model, but regimes in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Belarus all share some of their common features.

The “Moscow Consensus”

Although regional powers such as Russia and China are often accused of“exporting” their ideas and values, it is misleading to suggest that Russia or China export a political model in the way that western states promote democracy.

In a critique of the idea, Oisín Tansey concludes that “there is in fact little evidence of ideologically driven autocracy promotion since the end of the Cold War”. Rather, we see authoritarian states pursuing their strategic objectives in ways that support allied regimes, which often happen to be authoritarian, and spaces and networks have emerged in which illiberal ideas, strategies and tactics circulate freely.

As a result, in the post-Soviet world it is more accurate to talk about a kind of “Moscow Consensus”, a shared view among elites of how post-Soviet states should be governed and what a modern state should look like. This gives leaders in the region a common language and a common worldview that makes it difficult for outsiders — particularly those with liberal ideas — to gain much traction.

This is a very different process from the active promotion of an ideology, such as Moscow's one-time sponsorship of Marxism-Leninism or western promotion of democracy. Russian leaders have promoted the idea of a new ideological campaign, with Russia as the centre of a new “Conservative International”.

But so far these efforts have been marginal and have limited resonance in other post-Soviet states. What Alexander Morozov calls the “maximum Putinisation of the surrounding world” — the export of conservative social and political values through events such as the International Russian Conservative Forum in 2015 – has so far not developed into a coherent ideological campaign, but remains a rather ad hoc and inchoate critique by Russian politicians of “multiculturalism”, LGBT rights and “political correctness” in Europe.

Much more significant has been the resonance of often unspoken assumptions and rules that inform Russia's contemporary political system and have resonance – again, sometimes unrecognised – across the region. The “Moscow Consensus” combines:

• a view of political order that is essentially Hobbesian, promoting a strong state and hierarchical political elite as a bulwark against chaos, and subordinating all other actors to the political regime;

• a profound suspicion of western influence, combined with a constant search for international respect, status and acceptance;

• a view – shared with Machiavelli – of the masses, as “ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous”, prone to manipulation by western intelligence agencies or unscrupulous opposition leaders;

• a commitment to the mantras of economic growth and structural reform, and full integration into a global financial elite, while refusing to allow a genuine market economy to develop at home.

This often contradictory worldview has produced a particular model of authoritarianism that has wider, global resonance and poses a major challenge to liberal democracy. Here, I highlight six key features of the model that are shared throughout the region.

Some of these are common to many authoritarian regimes, such as a visible and often populist leader, control of media and information, or a reliance on intelligence services. But others are more innovative, such as the active use of technology and PR to produce their own legitimising narratives, the management and construction of civil society in ways that support the political status quo, the fusion of business with political power and the use of international spaces and mechanisms — offshore zones, courts, Interpol — to maintain their regimes in power.

In all these areas, states and elites have influenced and learned from each other, and in doing so have produced a new type of post-Soviet autocracy.

Six pillars of post-Soviet autocracy

1) The sovereign leader

When Vladimir Putin came to power in Russia in 2000, he was the embodiment of an old-fashioned, mythical idea — the effective, energetic leader who can cut through the malaise of bureaucracy and political infighting to resolve deep-seated social and economic problems. Fragmented parliaments and weak presidents had proved incapable of managing post-Soviet chaos. Not surprisingly, there was popular support for an updated version of a notion of the ideal leader that had deep cultural and historical roots in the region.

These leaders have become such fundamental elements of the political system that they now are considered indispensable. Since May 2010, Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbaev has enjoyed the title of Elbasy, or Leader of the Nation, and enjoys lifelong immunity from prosecution and protection for his family property. A new law also prohibits insults against the president. This fashion has begun to spread. In December 2015, president Emomali Rahmon of Tajikistan received the title of Father of the Nation, and essentially was made president for life.

In Russia, president Putin prefers to follow the letter of the Constitution, and his personality cult has a sense of irony absent in, say, Uzbekistan. But the construction of his image through television has been relentless and remarkably successful. His opinion poll ratings rarely fall below 80 per cent inside Russia. In Kyrgyzstan, 90 per cent of the population say they admire him. He has achieved what Machiavelli once said was a rare combination – being both loved and feared. Other authoritarian leaders also like to think that they have popular appeal. Hence Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov's enormously popular Instagram account or the construction of president Nazarbaev as an avuncular national patriarch.

Although they are presented as decisive implementers of much-needed decisions, in practice this style of leadership is often ineffective. Even in Russia's much–vaunted “Power vertical”, many presidential decrees go unfulfilled. In 2010, only one-fifth of presidential decrees were implemented on time; many were not implemented at all. Lower-level officials fail to pass information up the chain, leaving political leaders struggling to know what is going on. Although autocratic leaders seek political sovereignty, they instead become bound by gatekeepers, advisers, oligarchs, family members and an unwieldy bureaucracy.

Former Kremlin insider Gleb Pavlovsky argues that “despite his image as an all-powerful tsar, Putin has never managed to build a bureaucratically effective state”. Instead, Richard Sakwa describes Russia as a dual state, in which the formal, constitutional state works alongside informal mechanisms of power: real power resides in this parallel world. The same duality is evident in Central Asian states, where it is often termed neopatrimonial, combining a formal state with extensive patron-client networks. The ineffective formal system of power requires constant intervention – what in Russia is called “manual control”. Presidents appoint special envoys or unofficial “curators”, fixers who will bang heads together to get a result.

These authoritarian systems can be good at managing political crises, building new capital cities or managing foreign policy. They are less good at achieving the kind of mundane socio-economic development, based on rule-based institutions, that determines long-term stability. And they are very poor at managing political change. While they are alive, leaders become the embodiment of the political system, even of the country. Putin's Deputy Chief of Staff Vyacheslav Volodin proclaimed in 2015 that “there is no Russia today if there is no Putin”. Yet such a situation has obvious implications for any succession process. There is no succession plan in place for leaders such as Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan (78) or Nursultan Nazarbaev in Kazakhstan (75).

2. A discursive dictatorship

Autocratic leaders need not be born great, because in post-Soviet reality, greatness can be created through smart television coverage and public relations initiatives. This postmodern reality redoubles the importance of information and media for these new autocrats. Not only do they wish to suppress critics, they also wish to produce a positive narrative that is not simply government propaganda, but is shared by much of the population. Russia has led the way in media production, using television to create a new reality, where – as Peter Pomerantsev puts it – “nothing is true and everything is possible”. High production values, strong narratives and powerful presentation have turned Russian television into a major asset of the regime.

Control of the means of production is a first step. In Russia, this involved a gradual process whereby owners were forced to sell television stations to pro-regime businesspeople or to state enterprises. By 2015, Freedom House could report in Kazakhstan that “Major broadcast media, especially national television networks, are partly or wholly owned by the state or by members or associates of the president's family”. A similar situation holds across the region, where private ownership in media is only permitted to close allies of the ruling family.

The second, all-too familiar step involved harassment and prosecution of journalists, on a variety of trumped-up charges. The Azerbaijani authorities regularly imprison journalists, including Khadija Ismayilova, imprisoned for seven and a half years in Azerbaijan for her reporting on allegations of elite corruption. It has encouraged the burning of books by Akram Aylisli, a novelist who rejects the government's hyper-nationalist narrative of the conflict with Armenia. Uzbekistan holds the grim record for the longest imprisoned journalists in the world: Muhammad Bekzhanov and Yusuf Ruzimuradov have both been incarcerated since 1999.

But at their most effective, the new authoritarians can marginalise alternative views without resorting to violence. This involves a careful shaping of the agenda, influencing discourse and creating a pro-regime narrative that resonates with a broad majority of the population. The hashtag#krymnash (Crimea is ours) in Russia in 2014 is the most successful example of the circulation of these kind of tropes in social media in ways that support the regime. Kazakhstan has been very effective at making sure its government narrative circulates in social media in ways that make it much harder to promote any alternatives.

These discourses share some important tropes. Anti-westernism is one of them, fuelling paranoia and creating the kind of sharp distinction between “friend” and “enemy” promoted by Nazi political theorist Carl Schmitt. In Azerbaijan, a state with close security and commercial ties with the west and often troubled relations with Moscow, the basic concepts of the “Moscow Consensus” on world order are nevertheless present. In December 2014, Azerbaijan's powerful presidential chief of staff Rehmet Mehdiyev published a dossier that claimed the US was plotting a revolution in Baku aided by an internal fifth-column of liberals and NGOs. Similar worldviews can be found among officials and society across the region, from Minsk to Dushanbe, with Moscow fuelling the discourse through its official media.

These views are not solely the work of Russian media, but it does contribute to a collective worldview, particularly on international affairs. Russian television is particularly influential in Central Asia, where its news coverage and entertainment are often preferred to local channels. Russia has also established well-funded outlets of its news agency Sputnik in former Soviet states, developing local language content that reflects an official Russian point of view. Alongside these deliberate efforts has been a less obvious dominance of Russian-language content in cyberspace.

3. Managed civil society

The anti-western narrative that is ubiquitous across Eurasia reserves a special place for NGOs. The idea of civil society played a central role in western models of political transition for the post-Soviet republics. This policy was only partially successful: many NGOs failed to put down roots in society, and a lack of local funding ensured that they became dependent on external donors.

Nevertheless, NGOs filled important gaps left by the state and highlighted human rights and other abuses. However, Russian officials blamed western-funded NGOs for fomenting the “colour revolutions” in Georgia (2003) and Ukraine (2004), leading to a clampdown on NGO activities across the region. In countries like Uzbekistan almost all independent associations were closed and many activists were prosecuted or fled the country. The Russian government introduced new laws constraining NGO activities in 2006, and developed further legislation in 2012, following major protests in Moscow in 2011 and the revolutions of the Arab Spring. The new law, adopted in July 2012, forced foreign-funded NGOs to register as “foreign agents”. Kazakhstan and Tajikistan followed suit in 2015 with new laws increasing government scrutiny over NGO funding.

Yet the suppression of NGOs was only part of the story. In parallel with these repressive measures, Russian political technologists —led by uber-technologist Vladislav Surkov — developed what was termed a “Counter-Revolutionary Technology” to fill the gap left by civil society with patriotic, pro-government groups.

Surkov established youth groups, such as “Nashi”, a right-wing activist group for young Russians that stressed patriotism, anti-western propaganda and anti-liberalism. In Azerbaijan, youth movements such as Ireli and the National Assembly of Youth Organization of Republic Azerbaijan (NAYORA) spawned pro-government demonstrations and active campaigns on social media. These groups took on much of the form of western NGOS, organising summer camps, music festivals, fashion shows and small grants competitions, but with content dominated by narrow, nationalist slogans and anti-liberal rhetoric.

The concept of political technologist is unfamiliar in the west, but it is part of the shared political experience across the post-Soviet space. Political technologists manage elections, create virtual parties, plant PR stories and organise fake demonstrations of support. They subvert all forms of autonomous social and political activity — civil society — until they become meaningless. According toPeter Pomerantsev, “The brilliance of this new type of authoritarianism is that instead of simply oppressing opposition, as had been the case with 20th-century strains, it climbs inside all ideologies and movements, exploiting and rendering them absurd.” This virtualisation of politics has profound long-term consequences. Politics is viewed with profound cynicism, as a fake activity, a front for oligarchic manoeuvring and geopolitical clashes.

These tactics of the political technologists are no longer confined to specialists from Moscow, but have moved into the international arena, organised by western PR companies and consultancies, who offer much the same mix of media manipulation, planted op-eds, lobbying of political leaders and discreditation of political opponents. One company even organised a fake demonstration in favour of the Kazakh regime in London, employing actors to play the role of demonstrators, a move straight out of the Moscow playbook.

4. The sistema: fusing business and politics

Unlike their Soviet predecessors, the new autocrats are not opposed to business, just as long as they control it. One of the fundamental pillars of the Moscow Consensus is the amalgamation of money and power into a single system – or what Alena Ledeneva has dubbed the sistema. In the sistema, there is no outside, no autonomous institutions such as courts or regulators, and no real division between the private and public sector.

There is no space in the sistema for powerful independent entrepreneurs. Putin's first major step as president was to act against independent oligarchs, the group that in the 1990s had been dubbed the semibankirschina – the rule of the seven bankers. Unpopular oligarchs such as Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky fled the country, while Mikhail Khodorkovsky lost his Yukos oil company and spent 10 years in prison. Other business leaders quickly stepped into line.

Other countries followed this model closely. The Kazakh authorities went after Mukhtar Ablyazov, also an oligarch-oppositionist, who fled the country amid charges of bank fraud in 2009. Businesspeople close to the Nazarbayev family came to control all the most lucrative sectors of the economy, starting with energy and mining, and culminating in a takeover of the banking sector. In Uzbekistan, after president Karimov declared in 2010 that there would be no oligarchs in Uzbekistan, the authorities pursued a campaign against prominent business figures. In Azerbaijan, the presidential family has consolidated both political and economic power into an all-embracing system of control.

Since political loyalty is the main criterion for commercial success, business is a family affair in many post-Soviet states. The lists of oligarchs and emerging businesspeople in Eurasia is replete with the nephews, sons-in-law and daughters of presidents and ministers. This new generation includes many successful, well-educated potential leaders. They enjoy extensive international connections and a foreign education. But at home they exploit local economic and political monopolies to produce a powerful new class, often characterised by wealth, cynicism and indifference.

In this system of fused politics and business, entrepreneurs with suspect loyalties are quickly replaced with figures close to the regime. The circle of wealth and power gradually tightens into a remarkable concentration of money and power. According to the 2015 Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report, in Russia, the top 10 per cent of wealth-owners own 87 per cent of all household wealth in the country. This is much more than in other major economies, such as the US (76 per cent) or China (66 per cent). Although the data are not always available, patterns of wealth concentration are probably even greater in Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and other Eurasian autocracies.

Despite these shortcomings, post-modern autocracies following the Moscow model promote themselves as attractive destinations for investors. Kazakhstan is much more concerned about its rating in the World Bank's Doing Business rankings than in Freedom House's democracy league. Some of this reflects real improvement, but as Charles Hecker has pointed out, Eurasian states have also become adept at gaming the system. Fundamental structural problems in the model came to the fore as commodity prices slumped in 2014-15. In 2016, the IMF predicts a 1.8 per cent fall in Russian GDP, almost zero growth in Kazakhstan, and a 3 per cent decline in Azerbaijan.

5. Policing money and knowledge: the intelligence services

Information and money are the key currencies in Moscow's model of political power. Excessive, visible violence is eschewed, at least by its more sophisticated practitioners. The high priest of the new authoritarianism, Vladislav Surkov, once said that he “categorically rejected all forms of tyranny and violence – from the aesthetic point of view, of course”. Hence the reliance on intelligence services, with their ability – as Putin once put it – to “work with people”.

In reality, this aversion to violent repression is more myth than reality. But it is the various successor forces to the Soviet KGB that play the key security role in all these regimes, rather than the military. These agencies collate compromising information (kompromat) on opponents, track financial and business deals, surveil and detain dissidents, and harass and prosecute journalists, NGO activists and political opponents.

Although these services now answer to their national governments, not to Moscow, they retain many elements of the ethos, worldview and functions of their common predecessor.

These services also continue to maintain close relations with their counterpart institutions in other CIS states. Formal, multilateral links within the CIS have not always been successful. And intelligence services cooperation within the framework of the SCO Regional Anti-Terrorist Secretariat (RATS), based in Tashkent, also appears to have been rather ineffective.

But informal and bilateral links are important. Despite sometimes difficult political relations, Uzbek security services appear to operate quite freely in the Russian Federation, policing their extensive diaspora and sometimes participating in forced renditions back to Uzbekistan. Russia provides training and support for intelligence agencies in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and cooperates closely with counterparts in Kazakhstan.

There is increasing cooperation in cybercrime and internet monitoring. At an SCO summit in 2011, president Nazarbaev called for the concept of electronic sovereignty, in which states could control information and websites across their territories. Most post-Soviet states have implemented increasing controls on internet access, although cooperation in this area is still developing.

6. The extraterritorial state

A fundamental principle of the Moscow Consensus is an aversion to external – i.e. western – interference in domestic affairs. Eurasian states increasingly resist any intrusive monitoring mechanisms, whether OSCE election monitoring or UN Special Rapporteurs on human rights. Yet the same states are willing to use international organisations and the courts and institutions in foreign jurisdictions to bolster their regime at home.

• They use offshore zones and foreign jurisdictions to store their funds and invest their profits. Oliver Bullough has termed Russian elites “offshore bandits”, extracting resources from rents, not to invest at home, but to stash overseas. Western lawyers and bankers have been only too willing to lend a hand. Not surprisingly, officials and businesspeople from the region have featured heavily in recent revelations from the “Panama Papers”.

• Despite the dominant anti-western discourse that forms such a central element of the Moscow Consensus, the children of post-Soviet elites are still predominantly educated in western schools and universities. Their cultural and leisure activities take place primarily outside their own borders, in the clichéd spaces of the global rich. This new privileged elite is more at home in Geneva, London and New York than in their own countries.

• Having suppressed political opposition at home, post-Soviet regimes have been targeting opponents outside the country.

• The Russian government has been accused of complicity in the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in London, and of misusing the Interpol system to target dissidents;

• Swedish prosecutors have accused the Uzbek regime of involvement in an assassination attempt against Uzbek cleric Obidkhon Nazarov in Sweden;

• Tajikistan has been accused of pursuing political opponents in exile, including forced renditions and alleged physical attacks and assassinations.

• Authoritarian regimes regularly misuse Interpol and other criminal cooperation mechanisms to target political opponents. Kazakhstan is reported to have used private intelligence companies to track and surveil opponents and to have relied on diplomatic and political pressure to accelerate extradition claims.


Russian and Chinese-led organisations in Eurasia, such as the SCO or the CSTO are often dismissed as ineffective talking shops. Yet the shared conversations in these forums have an important political impact. Ideas and norms that circulate in the post-Soviet space — among political leaders, opinion-formers, businesspeople or in cyberspace — all inform new forms of authoritarianism across the region.

Although post-Soviet autocracies have very diverse histories, cultures and political challenges, there are common features in their political development that owe much to Russian political debate and innovation over the last decade.

Ideas and norms that contributed to the Russian political order often dubbed “Putinism” are at the heart of a “Moscow Consensus” that has resonance across the post-Soviet space. These shared ideas produce some common ideas about a new authoritarianism that mimics some formal attributes of a liberal state — civil society, market economy and multiple media outlets — and combines them with a highly controlling system of political and economic power.

This model of post-Soviet autocracy is resilient, and poses a major challenge to liberal democracies. Its ideas have global resonance: many of its features can be seen in African developmental states, such as Ethiopia or Rwanda, or in the neoliberal electoral autocracies of Turkey or Algeria. For sure, China's influence — and the notion of a “Beijing Consensus” comprising a hierarchical, developmental state — remains a fundamental marker. But in many places, it is a combination of Moscow's anti-western discourse, post-Soviet media manipulation, a managed civil society and the oligarchic fusion of money and power that lays the basis for contemporary authoritarianism.

In the long term, this model will fail to manage adequately the complex social and political challenges of globalisation and rapid technological change. But in the short term, this authoritarian model remains a temptation for societies undergoing rapid change. Western states and international civil society need to get better at demonstrating alternatives to the Moscow Consensus that might begin to challenge the default authoritarianism of post-Soviet Eurasia.


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