The Dictator's Learning Curve
By William J Dobson (Harvill Secker 294pp £18.99)
We seem to be living in an era when dictators are falling like ninepins. Over the last twenty years or so, we have seen examples of the type brutally murdered (Ceauşescu, Gaddafi), forced into exile (Honecker, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali), or detained and tried (Milošević, Mubarak and Charles Taylor).
Within living memory, dictators dealt with putative or real opponents by simply murdering them, as in the case of Pol Pot, or interring them to rot in Gulag systems such as the Chinese laogai. Nowadays, according to William J Dobson's fascinating book, authoritarian regimes have to be more cunningly circumspect, though as we have often witnessed, many opponents of Robert Mugabe are beaten black and blue, while those brave or foolhardy souls who root around too closely in the murk of Vladimir Putin's FSB-mafia state are killed - the fate of the spy Alexander Litvinenko, the journalist Anna Politkovskaya and the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.
Dobson has travelled 93,000 miles in order to reveal how the more sophisticated authoritarians are adapting (in the evolutionary sense) to opponents who, rather than pursuing terrorist violence, practise forms of leaderless non-violent protest that are as hard to combat as the semi-autonomous jihad of al-Qaeda.
Both sides in such struggles are voracious students of recent history. Those who seek to replace dictatorial regimes sign up for courses taught on Mediterranean islands by the Centre for Applied NonViolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS), in which mainly Serbian instructors (who are reputedly the best) teach young Egyptians, Iranians, Venezuelans and Zimbabweans how to wage asymmetric conflict. They learn how to demonstrate in tight parts of towns and cities, where massed riot police with their tear gas and water cannon cannot deploy easily, and always to use capitals when printing the word 'victory'. Movements called 'Enough' (as in enough corruption and nepotism) are not ubiquitous around the world by coincidence. They include Girifna ('We are fed up') in Sudan, and Zwakana ('Enough is Enough') in Zimbabwe. Tactics used in one setting recur in another. For example, a Serbian opposition campaign that involved putting a T-shirt with Milošević's face in a washing machine was copied a decade later by Girifna, who depicted a bar of soap being used to scrub a T-shirt bearing the image of Sudan's Omar al-Bashir.
It has always been clear that tyrants do not appreciate ridicule. One of the things taught by CANVAS is to deploy humour, so as to present a regime with impossible dilemmas. Knowing that Mirjana, the wife of Slobodan Milošević, liked to wear a white carnation in her hair, and that in Serbia calling a woman a 'turkey' is impolite, Serbian democracy activists decided to let loose several of these birds, all wearing carnations. The dim police duly embarked on an urban turkey hunt, which was filmed by the opposition. After the turkeys were corralled inside a police station, the opposition organised a protest outside claiming the turkeys had been unlawfully detained.
The great virtue of Dobson's book is to show how authoritarian regimes also know how to study what their fellow autocrats are doing wrong. Arguably, the most successful such regime, the Chinese Communist Party, has been quietly studying the Arab Spring. After all, the Communist leaders in China are not fools. Twenty per cent of the current senior cadre studied at top Western universities such as Harvard, while guest lecturers from Citibank or Goldman Sachs regularly appear at the China Executive Leadership Academy in Pudong. Most obviously, the budget for the Chinese state security police zoomed to $95 billion per annum, while such trigger words as 'jasmine' were blocked from the Internet and the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. The slightest intimation of even the most innocuous organised manifestation - such as a crowd going on a Sunday stroll - results in the area being dug up for roadworks and mass saturation by plainclothes security officers. Less obviously, China has shifted to a system of semi-anonymous collective leadership (to neuter the Mubarak effect of a personal focus for opposition) while experimenting with low-level forms of transparency, as in Hangzhou, where government meetings and public inquiries are broadcast on the Internet.
Of course, there is more than one way of skinning a cat. In Russia, Vladimir Putin has monopolised control of television, while creating his own chauvinistic claque in the shape of the youth movement Nashi. Realising that protests against his rule may have foreign backers (and clearly there are people such as the former Wall Street investment banker Peter Ackermann who are spreading a lot of money and knowhow in opposition circles), Putin has made it harder to set up an NGO (two months being the average duration) than a new business (five days), and the cost of doing the former is 40 per cent higher. Every variety of legal chicanery, often involving tax inspectors, can be deployed against political dissidents when anonymous threats do not suffice.
Another dictator who knows how to outfox his opponents is Hugo Chávez ('El Comandante') in Venezuela. In essence, he has waged a domestic class war in which the poorest classes, D and E, are perpetually mobilised against A and B and a diminishing number of Cs. He is a lord of misrule, perpetually exploiting crisis and chaos. Paradoxically, democratic elections are the lifeblood of his brand of populist authoritarianism. There have been so many elections - 13 in his first 11 years in office - that Venezuelans have lost count. Except that with each election, Venezuela loses another piece of democracy. One of Chávez's most important levers of power is a total monopoly of broadcast media, another sign - as in Putin's Russia - that television is the most important tool of autocracy.
While we have heard much about the baleful influences of such Western media conglomerates as Silvio Berlusconi's Mediaset and Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, the BBC has not rushed to tell us that Hugo Chávez controls six television stations, two national radio networks, three thousand local radio stations, three print media companies and a slice of the Internet. These outlets do not report how many people are murdered each night in the slums of Caracas, or that 100,000 tons of spoiled food were found rotting in containers at a time of gross food-price inflation.
By contrast, all radio and TV stations are obliged under Venezuelan law to broadcast presidential cadenas. These are Chávez's impromptu speeches, which, if aggregated, would amount to 54 days of continuous talking. Then there is his Sunday chat show 'Hello, President', a programme of five hours' duration on average, devoted to the 'socialism of the twenty-first century' (they have been known to drag on for four days when El Comandante really gets into his stride). Special guests have included Diego Maradona and Fidel Castro. Among other stunts, Chávez has moved tank battalions to the Colombian border live on air, and humiliated members of the cabinet sitting in the audience. (Putin also appears periodically on TV giving a group of ministers, generals or oligarchs a wigging for some gross negligence.) Finally, what makes Dobson's book truly outstanding is that there is none of the naive optimism that accompanied much of the reporting, especially on the BBC and Channel 4, about the Arab Spring. In Egypt after Mubarak, power still resides with the military establishment, which 'bottles water, builds roads, sells olive oil, operates mines, makes jeeps, and runs a successful chain of hotels and resorts', even though the Muslim Brotherhood may be formally in government, after the opportune marginalisation of Field Marshal Tantawi. The Brotherhood are of course vulnerable in turn to the Saudi-sponsored Salafists waiting in the wings (Riyadh thereby counters reverse Muslim Brotherhood subversion in the Gulf region), should the Brotherhood fail to quickly sort out Egypt's chronic economic and social problems.
The young Facebook and Twitter activists who brought tears to the eyes of Channel 4 reporters are long since thrust aside, as are the secular liberals whom Western enthusiasts talked up so much. This raises a broader, if minor criticism of Dobson's book. It does not discuss the huge swathes of Chinese, Egyptians and Russians who regard demonstrations as a nuisance, as they struggle to go to work or open their shops, and will always support men on horseback, especially if they aggressively represent national interests, and have undergone the dictatorial learning curve described so well here. Whether these chauvinistic constituencies will always remain under their governments' thumbs - for in China during the recent crisis over the Senaku Islands, for example, they turned on the police who were stopping them trashing Japanese Panasonic plants - is one of the many further questions that William J Dobson's brilliant book provokes.
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Michael Burleigh's new book, Small Wars, Faraway Places: The Genesis of the Modern World 1945-65 , will be published by Macmillan in April 2013.