This issue of Worth Reading features three freely-available articles from the April 2015 Journal of Democracy. Two of the articles in this issue are part of the International Forum for Democratic Studies’ most recent research initiative, “Resurgent Dictatorship: The Global Assault on Democracy,” which explores how leading authoritarian regimes are innovating and collaborating to hinder democratic development within and beyond their borders. The two articles from this series are “Autocratic Legalism in Venezuela,” in which Research Council Member Javier Corrales dissects the Venezuelan regime’s methods of deepening its authoritarianism, and “Forward to the Past in Russia,” in which Research Council Member Lilia Shevtsova predicts deepening political decay within Russia and further aggression from Russia internationally. The final article, “Transitional Justice and its Discontents” by Duncan McCargo, takesa critical look at the field of transitional justice.
“Autocratic Legalism in Venezuela” by Javier Corrales”
In “Autocratic Legalism in Venezuela,” Research Council Member Javier Corrales explains how and why the hybrid regime in Venezuela has gradually declined into deeper authoritarianism. Through “use, abuse, and non-use” of the law, he argues that the Venezuelan regime has tightened its grip on power. “Use” entails the passage of legal measures expanding executive power; “abuse” has led to the expansion of regime-friendly public newspapers and broadcasters at the expense of independent media; and “non-use” has enabled wide-scale electoral fraud. The regime has resorted to these tactics against a backdrop of declining electoral competitiveness. It has been aided in these efforts by Chavez’s creation of an “international shield” of neighboring governments unwilling to criticize Caracas, which it maintains using its oil revenues, debt forgiveness, access to investments within Venezuela, and international information platforms (such as Telesur). While this “alliance of tolerance” has successfully deflected criticism of Caracas, Corrales notes that the regime’s efforts to cultivate other Chavista regimes have backfired. Thus, while Maduro is less able to “reshape the outside world,” these strategies may allow him to “stay the course” domestically.
“Forward to the Past in Russia” by Lilia Shevtsova
In “Forward to the Past in Russia,” Research Council Member Lilia Shevtsova writes that the Russian regime’s primary goal is the continuation of the system of personalized power in that country. Despite attempts to integrate Russia into the global order, Shevtsova says, the Kremlin has resorted to a “conservative revolution at home”; the weaponization of trade, energy, information, and culture; and a strategy of “containment of the West.” Shevtsova does not expect these strategies to arrest Russia’s political and economic decay: they have not yet paid enough dividends to deliver the regime from its troubles, but their costs have begun to accrue in the form of increasing militarization and crippling Western sanctions. Further, she writes, Russia’s international expansionism rests on two contradictory ideas, Russian imperialism and Russian nationalism, which cannot coexist forever. Even so, the regime’s propaganda efforts and lobbying networks have provided cover for its belligerent foreign policy and domestic crackdown on political opposition. Shevtsova predicts that Russia’s politics will continue to decay as a result of personalized rule, a system she believes will not change without major confrontation.
“Transitional Justice and its Discontents” by Duncan McCargo
In “Transitional Justice and its Discontents,” Duncan McCargo traces the history of transitional justice since the Nuremburg trials, arguing that efforts to depoliticize them have backfired. He argues that both prosecutorial approaches and truth and reconciliation commissions are flawed by their implicit assumption that legal processes are morally superior to political ones. Citing the mixed record of such efforts, McCargo illustrates how ongoing political disputes over the past can limit the legitimacy of transitional justice mechanisms and cause them to bring about more harm than good. He writes that recognizing the centrality of politics to the creation of “fair and enduring” settlements is the key to improving transitional justice processes. Drawing on the work of Judith N. Shklar, McCargo calls for “tribunality,” defined as “the appropriate use of political power to promote fairness” during ongoing negotiations over the past and its consequences. He concludes by recommending a stronger emphasis on public inquiries and historical fact-finding as opposed to legal mechanisms asserting moral superiority over political processes.
About Worth Reading
Worth Reading is a list of featured readings on democracy disseminated semi-monthly by the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy. Many thanks to Javier Corrales, Duncan McCargo, and Lilia Shevtsova for their research and insight; thanks also to the Journal of Democracy editorial staff for their hard work on this issue. If you have an item you would like considered for inclusion in Worth Reading, please send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.