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The World Needs a Garage for Democracy

Vladimir Putin has become a one-stop shop for authoritarians around the world, providing them whatever they need to advance their cause. Democracy’s defenders don’t get the same support — but it’s time for that to change.

By Srdja Popovic and Steve Parks

May 2024

Vladimir Putin imagines himself a great leader, a transformative figure. He dreams of himself, shirtless, muscled, and riding a horse bareback over the mountains of southern Siberia.

In reality, he is a car mechanic.

Although it’s traditionally an honorable profession, Putin’s garage fixes the engines of broken authoritarian governments. Need cash to shore up support among your oligarchs? Putin will loan you the money. Need to suppress an emerging revolt? Putin will send mercenaries. Need to violate human rights cost free? Putin will block UN sanctions. Need to clean up your international image or smear the image of your opponents? Putin will provide old-school KGB propaganda tools and strategies. Need to skirt Western sanctions? Learn from the Kremlin master. Need inflammatory talking points broadcast around the clock to slam your liberal government? Putin’s Russia Today is here for you.

Putin’s garage is a one-stop shop for authoritarians. He is happy to share his insights with other authoritarian leaders and wannabe dictators on how to maintain power despite declining economies, rising death rates, rampant corruption, and endemic poverty. He teaches authoritarian leaders — as well as populists in democracies — how to overcome those moments when citizens take to the streets in mass nonviolent protests.

Many authoritarian leaders have learned how to blunt some of the now common tactics of nonviolent revolutions. For example, an over-reliance on mass protests has led to a decline in the success rate of nonviolent movements. While these movements were successful 65 percent of the time in the 1990s, by 2010, they were winning at a rate of less than 34 percent. Overall, the participation rate in such movements has also declined to 1.3 percent of the population, down from 2.7 percent in the 1990s. And although the number of protest movements grew in the last decade, they rely on old tools such as rallies and marches, while authoritarians seem to be learning and adapting faster.

Democracy as an engine of human rights and equality is breaking down. In 2024, more than forty countries, representing 3.2 billion people and US$44.2 trillion of the world’s GDP, will hold elections. These elections will be held at a time when global freedom is in its eighteenth consecutive year of decline. And democracy’s decline has only strengthened the hand of authoritarian leaders, who frame democratic debate as chaos, offering their version of stability and security instead. Today, far too many people appear willing to cast their vote for the shiny new authoritarian car, happily trading in a democratic model that seems beyond repair.

It is time for the world’s democracies to build their own garage — a one-stop shop that provides the primary tools to help restore democracy’s future. From grants to democratic institutions and NGOs, to education on how to build movements and organizations, to free legal help or media support, today democracy’s defenders need to travel far and wide to learn how to boost their organizational and strategic capacity. We need to recognize that most democratic advocates have neither the time nor the resources to trot across the globe to learn the array of tools that can enable their movements to succeed. Indeed, the very need to go to multiple “garages” wears activists out, thereby strengthening the ever-expanding network of authoritarian nations that do effective business at Putin’s repair shop.

A version of the “democracy garage” is currently being built by the Center for Applied Nonviolent Actions and Strategies (CANVAS) and the Democratic Futures Project at the University of Virginia. Through their People Power Academy, democracy advocates are gathering annually to share the skills and resources to defend and expand democracy’s future. Over the course of three days in late April, more than fifty activists from over thirty-five nations joined together to determine what tools would best enable advocates to restore democracy’s advance. They decided on four:

Strategy: Authoritarian leaders understand how to break apart mass protests. They know how to write laws that imprison protestors. And they are more than ready to use force to strike down those who dare to stand up. Leopoldo López, the Venezuelan opposition leader and founder of World Liberty Congress, argues that democracy’s advocates need skills to develop an extended strategy, one that lasts beyond a single moment of protest. They need to know how to develop a vision that will attract the true believers as well as those in the “middle,” who want to believe change is possible.

Creative Tactics: Mass protests are losing their effectiveness. Armed rebellions have a low success rate. Marches and rallies, however inspiring, are having less impact. Beyond a strategy, then, advocates need to expand their tactical playbook to surprise and catch authoritarian leaders off guard. They need to make the leaders comic figures, not provide them opportunities to demonstrate their strength. And they need tactics in which many people can safely participate. Penn State University professor Sophia McClennen has studied the effectiveness of creative tactics closely, examining more than four-hundred tactics from the last century. She argues that “using humor and dilemma actions clearly improves chances for the movements to challenge their opponents by 10 to 15 percent, and they seem to be most effective against authoritarian governments.”

Storytelling: Fake news did not begin with Donald Trump, or even Josef Stalin. Propaganda has been a tool of authoritarian leaders since time immemorial. Today’s democratic advocates need to learn how to combat misinformation, bots, and troll farms. Yunier Suarez, a Cuban human-rights defender and artist, believes activists must become more sophisticated in crafting stories and narratives around freedom and democracy. Which is to say, advocates must harness the power of social media and messaging if their vision of tomorrow is to gain popular support.

Transition: The West did not create democracy. But too often Western democracies have tried to export its democratic structures as a “cookie cutter” to rebuild a nation emerging from authoritarian rule. The results can be seen in Iraq, Egypt, and Sudan. In fact, research shows that only 42 percent of countries that pivot from dictatorship to democracy through popular nonviolent revolutions are able to stay the course five years later. Recent lessons from Sudan and Burma show that creating a democratic future requires a strategic transition plan that emerges from the traditions and values of a specific nation. It also requires other ingredients, including expert support and an active and engaged society. Otherwise, argues Rania Aziz, a Sudanese women’s rights champion, recent history teaches us that transitions can easily turn into another coup, or an endless cycle of bloody civil conflicts.

Undergirding everything is the insight that activists must work and learn from each other. They must document, assess, and share the results of their efforts with those who are scattered across the globe but united in their belief in democracy and human rights.

A garage to repair democracy, then, is not just a set of tools and procedures, or even a building. It is an academy — a people’s academy that brings together the insights of advocates, academics, and policymakers. It is a space where people can learn how to manifest their own power to replace authoritarians and transition to democracy.

What better time to become aware of it — and join our efforts in support of it — than the year when global democracy is at stake?

Srdja Popovic is founder of the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies and lecturer at Colorado College and the University of Virginia. He is author of Blueprint for Revolution: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Nonviolent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World (2015). His Twitter handle is @SrdjaPopovic. Steve Parks is professor of English at the University of Virginia, where he is also chair of the Karsh Institute of Democracy’s Democratic Futures Project. His Twitter handle is @StephenJParks.


Copyright © 2024 National Endowment for Democracy

Image credit: Alexey NIKOLSKY / SPUTNIK / AFP via Getty Images



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