Dictator downturn

It just isn't as easy being a tyrant as it used to be.

Published February 3, 2001 9:00AM (EST)

Being a dictator doesn't come with the job security it used to. Tyrants who once seemed invincible lost their grip in 2000, especially those who hid their despotic tendencies behind a fig leaf of democratic process. At the ballot box, in courtrooms and on the streets, once-obedient subjects have begun a widespread revolt.

After a blood-soaked decade in power, Yugoslavia's Slobodan Milosevic was toppled in October, in a revolution triggered by his landslide defeat in elections. A few weeks later, Peru's Alberto Fujimori tendered his resignation, in the humiliating wake of a televised videotape of his spy chief Vladimiro Montesinos bribing a congressman. This past summer, Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was voted out after 71 years of virtual one-party rule. A year earlier, public protests forced Nigeria's military rulers to submit to elections, bringing civilian rule to Africa's most populous country for the first time in 15 years.

Even retired dictators, their lieutenants and families are having a harder time of it. This week, a Chilean judge ordered 85-year-old former dictator Augusto Pinochet under house arrest. The move comes one month after Pinochet was indicted on charges of ordering the kidnapping and murder of some 70 political prisoners following the 1973 military coup that brought him to power.

"Times have changed," says Reed Brody, advocacy director of Human Rights Watch, a New York human rights group. "The days that a tyrant could brutalize his people, pillage the treasury, put his bank account somewhere and then seek exile abroad have ended. What we see now is dictators can hide, but they cannot run."

There are exceptions to the trend, most notably in the Middle East and Africa, where optimism about fledgling democracies continues to be overshadowed by a handful of repressive rulers, including Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and Liberia's Charles Taylor.

The tighter the fist -- and the less pretensions toward democracy -- the stronger the hold dictators have, especially in regions already suffering from war and instability. Geography also matters. The tyrants most susceptible to collapse, it seems, are surrounded by countries already on the road to democracy. Most entrenched are dictatorships in bad neighborhoods -- regions plagued by conflict, instability and other autocracies.

But the same trends toppling tyrants elsewhere could break down even the most entrenched regimes.

Those who study human rights and democratization say several influences are contributing to the collapse of dictatorships. While opposition movements have growing access to information -- including from other successful liberation movements -- dictators tend to become isolated and out of touch.

"Dictators become isolated, overconfident," says Steve York, who recently produced a PBS documentary on nonviolent revolutions called "A Force More Powerful." "They become surrounded by 'yes' men, people who tell them only what they want to hear. That's clearly what happened to Milosevic."

What's more, "Dictators have to play the game of running democracies," York says. Authoritarian countries seeking foreign investment and integration into the world's financial and political organizations are feeling pressure to at least pretend to conform to human rights and governance norms. Pressure on governments to achieve at least the appearance of legitimacy has forced leaders like Zimbabwe's Mugabe to submit to elections -- the vehicle for Milosevic's and Fujimori's downfalls.

And the pressure isn't just on dictatorial regimes -- it's also on Western governments and banks that are increasingly reluctant to have their connections with those regimes exposed.

Swiss bank accounts used to be the ultimate safe haven for dictators who pillaged the coffers of their countries and then made a getaway. But that exit strategy is more treacherous these days. After the Holocaust assets and Bank of New York/Russian money laundering scandals, banks have begun scrutinizing the source of money in their accounts more closely.

This "naming and shaming" phenomenon, driven by international banks, is playing a surprisingly important role in exposing the corruption of tyrannical leaders, and contributing to public outrage in the countries from which leaders pillaged.

Besides losing a safe place to hide their stolen assets, tyrants are also finding that they have fewer places to run to. Most countries are increasingly unwilling to face the international shame and other consequences of giving shelter to deposed dictators, indicted war criminals and exposed murderers on the run. For instance, Human Rights Watch's Brody was recently in Panama when Peruvian spy chief Montesinos sought asylum there -- and was turned away.

"Panama is a good microcosm," Brody said. "In the past, Panama has given asylum to fleeing dictators, for instance the Shah of Iran, [Raoul] Cedras from Haiti, the former right-wing leader of Guatemala [Jorge Serrano]. And all of sudden, when Montesinos showed up, Panama said, 'We're not doing this any more.' There was a palpable sense that times had changed."

Montesinos' exposure in the bribery scandal and his subsequent flight didn't finish his old boss Fujimori. The final blow came not from Peru at all, but from Switzerland.

Shortly after Montesinos fled, the Swiss prosecutor's office announced that it had frozen some $70 million in eight Swiss bank accounts allegedly belonging to him. Zurich said it had linked the accounts to arms deals with Russia. (Analysts say Montesinos is alleged to have taken kickbacks for funneling Russian arms to rebel groups in neighboring Colombia.) Hours after the announcement, Fujimori tendered his resignation from the safe perch of Japan, where it now appears he will stay to avoid prosecution in Peru.

Human rights experts say the role of Switzerland and other countries in increasing scrutiny of bank accounts is one major pressure putting the squeeze on corrupt tyrants who formerly funneled money abroad.

An official with a wing of the U.S. Treasury that investigates money laundering praises this new vigilance. "Switzerland used to be synonymous with dirty banking," Will Wechsler, special advisor to former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, said in an interview. "Now it has a fairly good anti-money-laundering regime, especially in terms of high-profile money-laundering figures." In fact, he says, "Banks are often the first line of defense."

Exposing corruption is a big part of this process. Efforts to build democracy have led to greater freedom of speech, freedom of the press and public debate all over the world, says Frank Vogl, vice president of the global anti-corruption group Transparency International, with the result that leaders are increasingly accountable to their publics.

Vogl says this growing transparency led directly to several recent watershed events, such as the 1992 impeachment of Brazil's president Collor de Melo on the grounds of corruption, and the successful 1996 corruption trial of two former presidents of South Korea. "A crucial issue in the move towards the multiparty elections in Nigeria hinged on the views of the candidates on the issue of corruption," Vogl adds. "A major part of [new Mexican President] Vicente Fox's inauguration speech dealt with corruption. The transition to a multiparty system is closely aligned with popular debate in those countries on the issue of corruption."

Just two weeks ago, Philippine President Joseph Estrada, while not widely considered a "dictator," was forced to resign after humiliating impeachment hearings that revealed the extent of his abuse of state funds to fund a playboy lifestyle of mistresses, mansions and gambling. Now neighboring Indonesia is racked by furious anticorruption protests targeting president Abdurrahman Wahid. In November, the son of former Indonesian dictator General Suharto went into hiding to avoid trial on corruption charges. And while Serbia's new leaders are resisting giving Milosevic up for an international war crimes trial, they say they are eager to try him at home for, among other crimes, theft of state property.

So why are some dictators falling while others hang on?

Human rights experts describe something like a regional "domino effect" behind the rise and fall of authoritarian governments. In Latin America and Europe, Fujimori's Peru and Milosevic's Serbia, Karatnycky says, were "residual dictatorships," some of the last dictatorships in the larger regional context of growing democratization. In other words, they were dumps in an otherwise good neighborhood.

As other countries in the region grow increasingly democratic, these residual dictatorships tend to linger or arise in "places where there is civil conflict, or inter-ethnic conflict," Karatnycky says. "Military strongmen come to power after winning a military victory or a coup d'etat and ratify power quickly afterward in some sort of plebiscite."

Experts say that even sham elections make authoritarian leaders increasingly vulnerable to public scrutiny. Those dictators who rule through sheer terror, however, are harder to oust.

"There are a lot of people on my wall who are still in power," Brody said, scanning a wall of posters and pictures of global tyrants. "You've still got a lot of sore thumbs." He points out President Omar Al Bashir in the Sudan, Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Iraq's Saddam Hussein, Laurent Kabila -- since assassinated and replaced by his son -- in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Taylor of Liberia, who is credited with being one of the greatest destabilizing forces in Africa. Burma's military junta and the Chinese Communists also hang on.

"For whatever geopolitical reasons," Brody says, "we cannot say the end of dictators has come."

A new study by the Center for International Development and Conflict Management (CIDCM) at the University of Maryland bears out the observation that conflict and dictatorial regimes seem to reinforce each other. Conversely, non-autocratic regimes handle unresolved internal social disputes peacefully, through negotiation rather than violence.

A CIDCM study issued last week reports, "Democratic governments now outnumber autocratic governments two to one, and continue to be more successful than autocracies in resolving violent societal conflicts."

In Central Asia and whole swathes of Africa, a mix of unstable political institutions, limited resources and the "bad neighborhood" phenomenon of proximity to other crisis-ridden states dims hope for greater political openness and puts much of the continent at risk of bloody conflict. The study raises alarm bells for those areas. Some 25 African countries are at high risk of conflict, if not already engulfed in fighting.

That makes support for stable democracies there all the more critical. South Africa and Nigeria, which moved to civilian rule only in 1999, are viewed as bellwether states. They help stabilize their entire regions, as a half-dozen stable states around South Africa attest. A constellation of hope surrounds Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, with its west African neighbors Senegal, Benin, Mali and Ghana moving to institutionalize democratic reforms.

"There are some clear democratization success stories in Africa, for instance in Benin and Mali," notes Jennifer Windsor, executive director of Freedom House. "South African democracy has moved forward." She also points to Ghana, where 20-year ruler Jerry Rawlings did not run in recent elections. "In Senegal, in a case similar to Mexico, the one party which has ruled for decades was defeated in elections last year. Nigeria is becoming an electoral democracy, but its democratic reforms need to be institutionalized."

Another positive sign, says Janet Fleichman of Human Rights Watch, is the flourishing of civil society groups in several African countries.

"There have been important waves of democratization in Africa by many of the same forces we saw in Eastern Europe before the fall of the Berlin Wall," Fleichman says. "Civil society groups are demanding changes from repressive, abusive and corrupt governments, who have been in power for a very long time. But democratization efforts in Africa were not met with the same kinds of support that those in Eastern Europe received. So you have a situation where civil society groups, when faced with brutal repression, lacked the international resonance that could have been an important if not a decisive factor."

One important finding of the Maryland study is that transition to democracy is risky, prone both to conflict and reversion to autocracy. "Most new democracies in poor countries shift back toward autocracy in five years," the study says.

The study cites five African countries (Benin, Central African Republic, Madagascar, Malawi and Mozambique) as success stories -- for maintaining democracies and avoiding conflict for more than six years despite limited resources and bad neighborhoods. Not yet out of the woods are the 15 to 20 countries that exhibit a potentially volatile "mix of autocratic features and democratic features [which] are likely to shift either toward full democracy or back to autocracy." Internal violence can both cause and result from this mix. The best change for a smooth transition lies in good resources, stable neighbors and "a recent track record of avoiding or containing most armed societal conflicts."

Some fledgling democracies have conditions favorable for cementing political freedoms. In that category, the study puts Peru; the former Yugoslav republics of Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia-Montenegro; Russia; and several "hybrid regimes" that mix democratic and autocratic features, such as Malaysia, Singapore, Jordan, Yemen, Lebanon, Tunisia and Egypt.

Hybrid regimes, tugged between democracy and autocracy, are by their very nature highly unstable.

One such hybrid regime that analysts say may be ripe to fall is that of Zimbabwe's President Mugabe. His involvement in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo's war is unpopular at home, particularly among the ethnic minority from which most of the Zimbabwean soldiers sent to the front come from. That population, too, suffers inordinately from Zimbabwe's raging AIDS crisis. In fact, suggests national security researcher Erica Barks-Ruggles of the Council on Foreign Relations, Mugabe's failure to back a robust program to target the country's soaring AIDS crisis is contributing to his eroding grip on the country.

Zimbabwean opposition leaders have been closely watching other successful opposition struggles for pointers. Hours after Milosevic fell in October, anti-government protests swept through Zimbabwe as parliamentary elections approached. Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai vowed to stop "Africa's Milosevic." "Mugabe has committed genocide against a minority, rigged elections, ignored the rule of law, and created a state which is internationally isolated," Tsvangirai said Oct. 6, just as Milosevic was conceding defeat in Belgrade. "We have given Mugabe a warning. A similar situation to Yugoslavia cannot be avoided."

Tsvangirai's comments suggest another interesting feature of the falling-dictators puzzle: Like conflict, pro-democracy efforts seem to have something of a "contagion" effect.

"These are not isolated events," says Gene Sharp, a retired Harvard professor and director of the Boston-based Einstein Institute, who has studied and published techniques for how to bring down dictators. Sharp's book "From Dictatorship to Democracy" was used as a virtual blueprint by the Serbian pro-democracy group Otpor (Resistance) in resisting Milosevic this past year. "People realize that dictators can be defeated."

Sharp's book, for instance, has been translated into four Burmese dialects at the request of Burmese opposition leader Aung Sang Suu Kyi, published in neighboring Thai newspapers, and smuggled into Burma. Even in the most impenetrably sealed of autocratic countries, Sharp says, "there is greater knowledge about the nature of resistance to dictatorships. So that the Serbs, for instance, had resources where they could get this knowledge. And the Serbs grasped the concept and just ran with it. They realized that if Solidarity could overthrow the dictatorship in Poland, they could overthrow Milosevic in Serbia."

Sharp adds, "A number of successful examples inspire people."

If Zimbabwean opposition groups can take advantage of the information age the way their Serbian counterparts did, they might be able to make good on the threat to Mugabe, whose party did poorly in October parliamentary polls.

Fostering an illusion of invincibility at all costs, authoritarian leaders from Milosevic to Saddam Hussein move to inspire fear and obedience. Over time, even their own inner circles become reluctant to deliver information that would displease, depriving their masters of analysis critical for their own political survival. And so, ironically, dictators, with access to all the resources of the state, tend to become information-deprived.

"Milosevic simply lost touch with reality, created an alternative reality and started eventually to believe in it," documentarian Steve York says.

And indeed, who from Milosevic's Cabinet wanted to be the one to tell him that he would likely lose the Sept. 24 elections? While Serbian opposition groups were busy employing Madison Avenue public relations firms to fine-tune their message to Serbian voters, Milosevic's political advisors were tripping over themselves to insist pre-elections polls showing Milosevic would lose were lying. So it happens that an emperor fails to notice he has no clothes.

In other important ways, the information age is shifting the advantage from authoritarian leaders to civic groups. With the crushing ubiquity of cellphones, satellite phones, PCs, modems and the Internet, it is becoming increasingly difficult for authoritarian regimes to seal borders and prevent opposition groups entirely from getting access to information. (For example, the just-published book "The Tiananmen Papers" is expected to be smuggled into China this spring, and further disseminated by clandestine e-mails and Web sites.)

"With increased communication, with the information highway, oppressed peoples can become aware of what they can do for themselves," said Robert Helvey, a retired U.S. Army colonel who has trained Serbian and Burmese pro-democracy groups in techniques for resistance. "They understand that no one is going to come in on a big white horse and save them, but that there is information to show them how to go about looking at their particular struggle."

Even the most repressive governments are finding it difficult to sustain the enormous efforts needed to constantly monitor a population.

"Take Burma," said Helvey. "It's against the law to even own a modem there. It's against the law for five or more people to gather without a permit. The democratic opposition leaders there are under house arrest. Many of the opposition leaders are in prison. People are routinely tortured by the police. Military intelligence has penetrated every facet of society."

Even so, Helvey says, "The fact is this: The military junta cannot watch 50 million people 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The government is under a siege of its own making. Who is afraid of whom? The government is afraid of the people."

The task of the pro-democracy movement, then, is to find out why people obey a government they despise.

"Once you understand why people obey, this is the key," Helvey added. "There are a lot of reasons why people -- the military, police, civil servants -- obey and beat up people at the request of dictatorial leaders. When you understand why, then you can construct your information programs to address those reasons and give people reasons why they ought to reconsider."

Finally, an important element of the weakening of dictatorships is the growing international pursuit of justice. Chile's Pinochet, now to face justice at home, was originally arrested in the U.K. on the arrest warrant of a Spanish prosecutor. That arrest and the ensuing debate over whether to extradite him, and where and how he should be tried, set an important precedent.

More and more ex-dictators are facing trial abroad for atrocities committed under their rule. On Dec. 6, an Italian court sentenced seven high-ranking Argentinian military officers in absentia to prison terms ranging from 24 years to life for their roles in the kidnapping and murder of Italian citizens during Argentina's "dirty war."

Similarly, two groups of Bosnian torture victims and genocide survivors sued former Bosnian Serb leader and indicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic in a New York court, winning settlements last summer. And as the frosty trip of chief prosecutor of the U.N. war crimes tribunal Carla Del Ponte to Belgrade last week highlighted, pressure is mounting on Serbia's new leaders to hand Milosevic over to face war crimes charges in The Hague.

In fits and starts, with its share of legal inconsistencies and setbacks, the international community is starting to test the circuitry by which crimes in Chile register in Spain, crimes in Rwanda register in The Hague and oppressed people in Myanmar find organizing advice from a retired soldier in West Virginia. It may not be comprehensive, but the world is taking steps toward becoming more just.

By Laura Rozen

Laura Rozen writes about U.S. foreign policy and the Balkans crisis for Salon News.

MORE FROM Laura Rozen

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Latin America United Nations