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Authoritarian Powers and the Decline of Civil Liberties: Analysing the Increasing Opportunities for Authoritarian Diffusion

Comparative Politics
International Relations
Quantitative
Thomas Richter
German Institute of Global And Area Studies
Thomas Richter
German Institute of Global And Area Studies

Abstract

A global trend of increasing levels of freedom of expression (the right to hold views freely) has been evident since the late 1970s. This trend, however, slowed down – and some would argue even reversed – in many countries over the past two decades. At almost the same time another post-Cold War trajectory came to the forefront. Authoritarian great and regional powers started to regain interest and attention in global and regional affairs. In this paper we adress the link between these two indications of a worldwide resurgence of authoritarianism and ask: do authoritarian powers enable the decline of civil liberties in other authoritarian regimes? We argue that the new rise of authoritarian powers provides an important opportunity structure for other authoritarian regimes to additionally restrict their citizens’ freedom of expression in order to constrain potentially regime challenging political action. We test for this argument linking authoritarian powers with three prominent measurements of diffusion: geographic proximity, trade intensity and joint membership in international organizations. Our regression analysis based on a sample of all souvereign states for which data has been available between 1979 and 2010 yields to interesting results. The influence of great or global authoritarian powers like China and Russia is overrated. Instead, regional authoritarian powers (RAPs) do play an important and mostly overlooked role. Geographic proximity to and higher trade intensity with RAPs are significantly related to a higher likelihood of further restricting the freedom of expression in other authoritarian regimes. This finding has important consequences for ongoing debates about the context and magnitude of authoritarian diffusion and the corresponding role of authoritarian powers.