Alexander Libman, an assistant professor of international political economy at the Frankfurt School of Finance & Management, visited Georgetown to discuss his upcoming paper on autocratic cooperation in post-Soviet countries on Wednesday.
His paper, entitled “Autocratic Cooperation and Eurasian Regionalism,” elaborates on research indicating that the autocratic governments in the former Soviet Bloc have failed to achieve economic integration and cooperation since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. Even after signing progressive agreements, autocratic countries often fail to comply.
“Most post-Soviet countries are either autocratic, consolidated autocracies or hybrid regimes at best with very strong autocratic tendencies,” Libman said. “And we have a large literature… which tells us non-democracies — autocracies — should be less likely to really cooperate.”
Libman noted that while democracies sometimes fail to comply with their agreements, certain inherent factors of autocratic governments make noncompliance more frequent.
Libman used historical research to identify two basic problems with autocratic regimes.
“The first one is credibility of commitments,” Libman said. “Once you sign an international agreement, it makes sense for you to comply only if everybody complies…and with non-democracies you can never be sure if they’re going to comply or not, because they are relatively unconstrained… [and] they’re not subject to the pressure of the public.”
The second problem is that nondemocratic governments generally tend to shy away from legislation that restricts their power.
“For many non-democracies, having absolute control over any political, any economic decision is the key of how they survive,” Libman said.
Building upon this premise, Libman and his coauthor, Director of the Centre for Integration Studies at the Eurasian Development Bank Evgeny Vinokurov, aimed to outline the situations in which post-Soviet countries will likely comply with economic agreements.
“What this project tries to do is to understand how can it be that under certain conditions autocracies actually cooperate, and cooperation will mean here compliance with their economic agreements,” Libman said.
Libman outlined the four factors that countries consider before deciding to enter an agreement. These include an increase in public goods that economically benefit all citizens, the availability of private goods like national resources that are sold to increase the autocrat’s wealth, costs of implementation and exit costs.
“Autocracies are much more likely to focus on private goods than on public goods. For obvious reasons, they have lower demands to satisfy the population,” Libman said. “The second problem is they have much higher risks of losing power. If you stop being president in the U.S., you go on and write memoirs or lecture at the university, and you lead a good life, but … the risks [for autocratic leaders are] quite high.”
An audience of around ten people, consisting mostly of graduate students and Foreign Service specialists, attended Libman’s talk. Harley Balzer, associate professor of government and international affairs as well as the former director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown, moderated a question-and-answer session following the talk. Balzer mentioned that the discussion about the former Soviet Bloc is especially relevant considering current tensions in the Crimean region of Ukraine.
“One of the questions that had come up prior to recent events in Ukraine was Ukraine joining the Customs Union. And some people even suggested that the $15 billion economic support package was kind of a bribe to convince them to join the Customs Union and not the partnership agreement with the European Union,” Balzer said.
Benjamin Loring, the associate director for the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies, attended the event and noted the relevance of the topic.
“There’s the general importance of thinking about these issues for foreign policy, for U.S. policy in the region, and that is to understand why countries are coming into unions [alongside democratic states],” Loring said.
Libman’s talk has special relevance for current events in Ukraine. According to Libman, Ukraine will not be joining the Customs Union due to its supranational nature, although joining the European Union is a possibility.
“If countries are well-integrated with each other, and are respecting each other’s borders and they feel like they can trade easily, then there won’t be these sorts of issues,” Loring said. “Russia and Ukraine, if they were able to … be in an association like this, or be in something like the EU all together, then there wouldn’t be this sort of conflict.”