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February 26, 2014 12:20 PM Ukraine and the Conditions for Brutal Repression

By Ed Kilgore

A lot of us are having to catch up on our background reading in order to gain some understanding of what’s happening in Ukraine right now. One essential (if somewhat chilling) perspective was offered at The Monkey Cage today by University of Toronto political scientist Lucan Way, who argues that the regime of former president Victor Yanukovych simply didn’t have the internal cohesion to survive the inevitable domestic and international backlash against brutal repression:

One important reason for the stunning collapse of Yanukovych’s regime was that he chose the wrong type of repression to suppress protests. By repeatedly engaging in extremely provocative and public displays of repression - high intensity coercion - Yanukovych simultaneously stoked protests and undermined the unity of the pro government coalition. Yanukovych would likely have survived if he had simply sat tight and let the protests peter out. Protesters might have remained on the square - but they would have increasingly been viewed as a small nuisance rather than a serious challenge to the President….
High intensity coercion involves high-visibility acts that target large numbers of people, well-known individuals, or major institutions. Such coercion includes large scale violence such as firing on crowds, as occurred in Mexico City in 1968 and Tiananmen Square in China in 1989. This can be contrasted with low-intensity coercion. Low intensity coercion involves repressive actions that are largely out of the public eye: low-profile physical harassment, kidnapping and torture of low-level activists and supporters; the use of security forces or paramilitary thugs to vandalize opposition or independent media offices; and to harass, detain, and occasionally murder journalists and opposition activists. It also includes non-violent measures like firing opposition activists from their jobs.
Low intensity coercion is the bread and butter of almost all contemporary authoritarian regimes. Such coercion is used primarily to raise the costs of opposition and preempt serious challenges. Low intensity coercion can also be used to discourage protest activity by raising the costs of protest and thereby encouraging people to give up. It was the primary form of repression used by the USSR under Brezhnev (1964-1982), as well as Putin’s Russia, Singapore, and Belarus today. High intensity coercion, by contrast, is quite rare.

Way goes on to suggest that regimes that consistently rely on “high intensity coercion” need some indissoluble glue that is stronger than the kind of corrupt patronage network Yakunovych relied upon:

[O]nly the most cohesive authoritarian regimes have been able to carry out regular and consistent high intensity coercion without breaking at the seems. Thus, the Assad regime in Syria, consisting basically of a single extended family, or the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe, founded in violent revolutionary struggle, have both been able to carry out extensive repression while maintaining tight cohesion. These regimes are cohesive because they are held together by family ties or shared history of struggle - rather than simply patronage.

Way’s lesson for would-be tyrants would seem to be that you’d better create a genuine cult for yourself, or keep your repression on the down-low, or at least off global network news.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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