When Alexander Lukashenko was losing control of Belarus last year, he tapped into “Autocracy Inc”, says Anne Applebaum in The Atlantic. This club of brutal leaders is “run like an agglomeration of companies”. Police in one state arm, equip and train police in another. Sophisticated networks share kleptocratic financial structures, security services – military, police, paramilitary groups, surveillance – and professional propagandists. Lukashenko’s “rescue package” from Russia was similar to the one President Putin rushed to Bashar al-Assad in Syria a few years earlier. The lessons of communism’s fall have been learnt: “Democratic revolutions are contagious. If you can stamp them out in one country, you might prevent them from starting in others.”
The leaders of the Soviet Union cared deeply about how they were perceived around the world. Today, though, the most brutal members of Autocracy Inc don’t care if their countries are criticised, or by whom. Myanmar’s leaders don’t have an ideology beyond self-enrichment; Iran’s confidently discount the views of “western infidels”. Autocracy Inc is linked “not by ideals but by deals”, deals designed to take the edge off western boycotts. And they’re working. American companies are stuffed with dirty money. Belarus remains the site of one of China’s largest overseas development projects. “If the 20th century was the story of a slow, uneven struggle, ending with the victory of liberal democracy over other ideologies – communism, fascism, virulent nationalism – the 21st century is, so far, a story of the reverse.” The bad guys are winning.