Princeton University Library Catalog

Explaining the Authoritarian Crackdown on Civil Society

Leahey, Jack [Browse]
Senior thesis
Beissinger, Mark R. [Browse]
Princeton University. Department of Politics [Browse]
Princeton University. Program in Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies [Browse]
Class year:
Summary note:
Abstract In the entire twentieth century, only nine authoritarian regimes had ever passed laws restricting their civil societies’ access to foreign assistance. Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, that total has more than quadrupled in what has been called the “global crackdown on civil society”: forty-four such regimes in every region have the world have raised legal, bureaucratic, or regulatory obstacles to restrict or totally bar foreign benefactors from assisting domestic civil societies. Virtually all researchers to have treated the subject assume that this repression is primarily, if not exclusively, motivated by the increased political threat authoritarian regimes perceive in a more financially robust civil society, bolstered by foreign support and better able to pressure incumbent, authoritarian elites through elections, public demonstrations, etc. However, the broader historical record of foreign assistance to civil societies strongly suggests that they have not been uniquely, politically threatening since 2000. Since the 1980s, authoritarian regimes worldwide have allowed domestic civil society to more freely operate in opposition to its authority, and civil societies have used foreign assistance in ways much less oriented towards regime change than in decades past. This thesis proposes that authoritarian perception of and action on the threat of foreign-assisted civil society is influenced not just by politics, but by previously ignored factors of the regime and its international context: its dependence on trade and aid conditioned on democratic reform, the affinity of its foreign policy preferences with those of democracy-promoting regimes, the number of past examples of laws in its region, and its non-negotiable need to monopolize the distribution of economic resources in its territory and compel allegiance to its nationally-specific claim to rule. I make the novel theoretical argument that foreign assistance to civil society is necessarily threatening to an authoritarian system of rule, beyond the political consequences of its application. Its ideological bent and economic availability introduces intolerable competition to authoritarian governance, whose pillars include nationally-specific, unshared claims to rule a population and dominate the distribution of economic resources in its territory. This more comprehensive treatment of the crackdown helps resolve its puzzling timing and size: there has never been more money spent by foreign benefactors on “civil society promotion,” and hardly ever a wider availability of international organization memberships and aid unconditioned on democratic reform than in the 2000s. Using time-series and survival analyses to determine why and when regimes pass laws targeting foreign-assisted civil society, I turn up convincing empirical evidence that foreign assistance poses a threat to regimes, independently of the political effects of its application by civil society. I also find that regimes are significantly more likely and earlier to pass laws the less their foreign policies align with democracy-promoting regimes’, the less dependent their economies are on conditioned trade and aid, and the greater the number of examples of successful laws in their regions. The more general theoretical heft of my argument lies in the implied, internationally-conscious calculation authoritarian governments undertake in deciding when to act undemocratically and when to stay repression.