Nino Imedashvili. Ilia State Unviersity


There is a theory of democratic peace and an opposing one of “autocratic peace”.

According to the theory of democratic peace, democracies do not wage war on each other, because, in a transparent system of governance where the government is accountable to the people, political decisions are made through wide-ranging deliberation and compromise. Decisions made in this way gravitate towards peace, as the people will not support putting the destructive experience of war on themselves.

As democracy became dominant in the international system, non-democratic countries perceived it as a threat, seeing the end of their own violent rule in the growing spread of democracy. Therefore, to survive, the autocratic countries began to cooperate closely.

The thesis of “autocratic peace” is premised on the political, economic, and military cooperation of autocratic countries due to the common interest of maintaining power. Sometimes, the cooperation is institutional (“Eurasian Union”, “Collective Security Treaty Organization”, “Shanghai Cooperation Organization”), and at other times informal (the Abashidze-Karasin format).

On the one hand, it is a paradox – are not autocracy and peace polar opposites? After all, the autocratic regime maintains power by intimidating citizens, using violence and pressure on them. However, another “peace” is implied here, and in this “peace,” the citizens are not free.

“Autocratic peace” as the Kremlin’s policy

“Autocratic peace” is Putin’s strategy in the region, one which he has been exporting for years. Putin positioned himself as a guarantor of “peace” in the post-Soviet space, which meant defending and maintaining the pro-Kremlin regime in neighboring countries. Therefore, “peace,” for the Kremlin, means the maximum longevity of an acceptable political regime in the neighborhood; “peace,” for the Kremlin, implies not allowing a change of autocratic leader in the neighborhood, or only a formal “change,” when one leader is replaced by a similar one. This is why in most countries of the former Soviet Union (except the Baltic states), elections are a formality and power rarely transfers through the elections.

Why is the Kremlin interested in having a like-minded regime in the neighborhood?

Kindred political regimes in Russia’s vicinity prolong the life of the Putin-type rule. Mini-versions of Kremlin regimes in the neighborhood “cement” autocracy throughout the region and neutralize the democracy, as there remains no political role model other than the Kremlin.

Putin’s style of autocratic rule in Russia – strongly centralized power, uncompromising control over the media, and discredited opposition and non-governmental organizations – has successfully spread to the neighboring countries, not only due to Russia’s size and influence, but also because the Kremlin is actively exporting this style of governance to those neighboring countries.

Since 2005, Putin has complemented pro-regime public groups (“Nashi”, “Vmarshuem Veste”, “Mestnie”, “Maladaia Gvardia”, etc.) to this style of government, with the aim of organizing counter-marches during anti-government rallies. These groups conduct counter-marches not only during such rallies, but also in response to the statements of foreign ambassadors (US, Estonia, UK). By doing so, the Kremlin undermines the legitimacy and impact of Western criticism about the growing democratic failures. The main message of the counter-marches was “Do not interfere in Russia’s internal affairs.”

The Kremlin also used these groups to spread its main propaganda message – that the West is threatening the Russian identity with gay propaganda. Group members were also appointed as government observers during the presidential and Duma elections to prevent even the slightest success of the Kremlin’s “enemies”.

With this group under its control, the Kremlin was able to neutralize the influence of the opposition and non-governmental organizations, as well as the West, on autocratic rule in Russia.

Putin saw the need to create such groups after NGOs and public groups stood at the forefront of the color revolutions (Georgia – 2003, Ukraine – 2004), which succeeded in changing local autocratic regimes. 

“Color revolutions” as a threat to “autocratic peace,” and Russia’s response

it was the color revolutions that disrupted the Kremlin’s autocratic “peace” in the post-Soviet space, and its reincarnation became vital to Putin. The Color Revolution brought an alternative to the region and made it clear to everyone that it was possible to get rid of an autocratic leader without bloodshed. At the same time, anti-government demonstrations characteristic of the color revolutions spread like a virus throughout the region. The 2003 Georgian revolution was followed by the 2004 Ukrainian revolution. Then there was the Kyrgyz revolution in 2005. In the anti-government protests in Belarus (2010) and Armenia (2008), the Kremlin was already actively involved in the suppression, since the successful trend had to be stopped somewhere.

The Kremlin has tried to stop these developments and restore “peace” in two ways: 1) by pursuing a punitive policy against the “disobedient” and different regimes who came into power through the color revolutions, and (2) by facilitating the stabilization of “obedient” regimes.

1) The punishment for “disobedience” had to be exemplary, so as to set an example for others. After all, the successful transformation of the country by leaders who came with a peaceful revolution would again spread like a virus in the region, and the “peace” facilitated by the Kremlin would be endangered once more. And then Putin would come in the line of fire. The Kremlin therefore “re-exported autocratic peace” and aimed to destabilize Georgia and Ukraine by financing and manipulating separatism, as well as via energy and economic wars, anti-government rallies and election interference. If that was not enough to overthrow the “disobedient” regime, what then remained was direct military intervention. Putin thought that the war would overthrow the already weakened “disobedient” regimes, and “autocratic peace” would be reestablished. Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2022 was aimed precisely at establishing “autocratic peace.” The declared goal of these wars was to overthrow the pro-European rulers.

2)  The stabilization of the “obedient” regimes, in addition to opening up the Russian market, also includes political and military support. The stabilization is, of course, temporary, and it serves the Kremlin’s strategic interests. In Armenia, for example, the stabilization of the Sargsyan regime ended when the latter expressed the desire to sign the EU’s Association Agreement. In 2013, the Kremlin signaled to Armenia that the war in Nagorno-Karabakh would resume, and threatened it with an increase in natural gas prices, economic embargoes, and the deportation of migrants, which ultimately worked effectively. After all, Armenia had already seen this in Georgia in 2006-2008, which ended with a war and then a change of regime (in 2012). That is why Sargsyan obediently joined the “Eurasian Union” founded by Russia. And in 2021, completely isolated from the West, Armenia waited vainly for Russia to help in the war with Azerbaijan. Thus, for the Kremlin, “peace” is when a “disobedient” regime in the neighborhood is removed and an “obedient” one maintained. Because only under an “obedient” regime can the Kremlin exercise military, political, economic, and energy control. The Kremlin sees the EU’s political and financial involvement in the region, aimed at strengthening these countries, as an action to weaken that control. The Kremlin is fighting pro-European rulers in the region, as under a strong pro-European government in the neighboring countries, it will be impossible to exercise control over the foreign and domestic policy so beneficial to the Kremlin’s interests.

The prospect of “Autocratic Peace” in the post-Soviet space

Autocratic peace or democratic?

The Kremlin has contributed the greatest effort, resources, and time to restoring “autocratic peace” in Georgia and Ukraine. The one-week Russian military intervention in Kazakhstan to suppress anti-government marches in January 2022, conducted under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), was enough to bring back the “stabilization” there so acceptable to Putin.

In Georgia, after the “disobedient” regime that came with the Color Revolution was replaced by a regime that is sympathetic to Putin and “obedient”, the Kremlin is no longer pursuing its familiar punitive policy. The current government, despite its pro-European intention being proclaimed verbally, in its actions has become increasingly similar to Putin’s style of autocratic rule. The 2021 “Freedom House” report concurs, speaking of the unfulfilled democratic obligations, and the democratic recession in Georgia. That is why the “peace” established in the country today is favorable for Putin’s autocratic regime, because it no longer diverges politically.

Which kind of “peace” will win in the region as a whole, autocratic or democratic, is now being decided in Ukraine. The devastating effects of Putin’s war on infrastructure and state institutions in Ukraine will alter the EU’s post-war efforts. Instead of strengthening the need for democracy, which requires strong institutions to carry out necessary reforms, the EU will seek to maintain the current institutions, rebuild the infrastructure, and also stabilize the existing less democratic governance.