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You have been working in the framework of the English School on the transformation of the world order and the structuring of authoritarian and/or illiberal regimes, looking at the case of Central Asia. Can you describe the mechanisms of authoritarian or illiberal socialization that you have observed in the post-Soviet region?

First of all, let me thank you very much for the kind invitation and for giving me the chance to present my work and my research in a more conversational yet still scholarly way. It is a great privilege to be interviewed on this prestigious platform, and I think the whole Illiberalism Studies Program is a fascinating and timely endeavor.

In my article for International Studies Quarterly entitled “Authoritarianism as an Institution? The Case of Central Asia,” I attempted to theorize illiberal solidarism as a framework to illustrate what I believe is a shared understanding of a given set of rules, discourses, and practices (i.e., an institution) that inform how governance and power should be exercised in the region. This shared understanding, which comes about through the process of socialization, rests on two specific sets of mechanisms, which in the paper are analytically separated but in practice are very much intertwined: mimicry/emulation and praise/blame.

The first refers to a behavior that is adopted and internalized by a social actor by virtue of its legitimacy and appropriateness in the social context in question. When, on top of these considerations, there is also an element of prestige—that is, the behavior we seek to imitate and mimic is that of an actor that enjoys an excellent reputation, is powerful, has great standing, and is seen as a model—then mimicry becomes emulation. The second is about validation, encouragement, appreciation, and therefore incentives, often in moral and reputational terms, to not only adopt, but also—and more importantly—persist in adopting a specific behavior. Since this can also take a negative form, I consider both praise and its opposite, blame, as two sides of the same coin: reprimand, public shaming, humiliation, ridicule, and stigmatization are powerful social acts that convey a strong sense of right and wrong in a given social context.

Given my preference for socio-structural theorization, I emphasize both the individual and the structural levels of analysis, in line with what Anthony Giddens termed “co-structuration.” And here is where I see the value of an English School approach to studying authoritarianism in the region. Through this prism, we can see how authoritarian rule in Central Asia does not operate in a vacuum, nor does an incumbent ruler stay in power merely as a result of cost-benefit analysis. Rather, authoritarianism has a social nature and is a social phenomenon.

The key to understanding this is, paradoxically, to see authoritarian leaders for what they truly are: social beings, like all other leaders. Autocrats observe, talk, copy, praise, look for models, comment, take notes, inquire, and scout out solutions that best serve their interests while conforming to their values (or, at least, not compromising them too much).

Methodologically, this has led me to study the two aforementioned mechanisms through the following four proxies: direct references to other experiences in the region, so as to get a sense for the “social context”; evidence of meetings where the discourses and practices under consideration are dealt with, so as to get the “dialogical” element of institutionalization; considerations about the standing of regional peers, so as to uncover elements of emulation; and specific judgments on the (un)desirability, (il)legitimacy, and (de)merit of specific practices, in order to grasp the normativity that ultimately informs what an institution is. 

The latter, in fact, is crucial if authoritarianism is to be accounted for as an institution, for institutions have a fundamental normative, deontic component. Importantly, like the two mechanisms of socialization, these four proxies are separated for analytical purposes, but may well operate simultaneously. In sum, these two mechanisms rest on a series of both discourses and practices that reveal the progressive adoption and acceptance of specific principles and values that are at the heart of authoritarian politics’ creation of a specific structure of rewards and permissibility that emboldens existing autocrats and signals to them the legitimacy of strong rule.

What I should emphasize at this point is that mimicry/emulation and praise/blame are not necessarily the only sets of mechanisms operating in Central Asia when it comes to authoritarian socialization. But they are the ones that I found operating most frequently and most intensely, both in conversations with active and retired diplomats in the region in the period 2013-2019 and in research material analyzed for the paper, which stretches from 1991 to 2020. Others may be in operation and might be uncovered by further research.

Why do you see “illiberal solidarism” as a conceptual framework for explaining Central Asian states’ regional cooperation, as well as Russia- and China-led regional institutions?

I think the most straightforward answer to this question is that this sense of solidarism, which in the paper I call “illiberal,” is something that has often been mentioned by those interviewees who happen to be (or have been) in a position of power within the diplomatic and official structures of the Central Asian states. In this context, solidarism is meant as the propensity and commitment of political communities to share values and principles in a process of convergence. This has been interesting to see, since you might expect that, in an authoritarian context, elites would do whatever they could to “sell out” democratic credentials and “reformist” agendas.

Conversely, I have heard narratives that quite openly emphasize the legitimacy, appropriateness, and validity of strong rule and authoritarianism, often through the two prisms of avtoritet (authority) and stabil’nost’ (stability). This solidarity, this convergence, this “togetherness” has been found not only in contemporary narratives during fieldwork interviews or declarations of Central Asia elites, but also in archival documents dating back to the early 1990s which I was able to consult, thus corroborating the idea that institutionalization requires a certain amount of time for norms and practices to become institutionalized (akin to what international lawyers would call diuturnitas, or “continuation”).

What I would specify, as it is very important to the argument I advance in my paper and indeed to my research more broadly, is that this does not necessarily amount to cooperation. Rather, this illiberal solidarism speaks to something more pervasive, less ambitious, and more ideational. In direct contrast with realist thinking, which emphasizes self-help, egoism, and national interest (the so-called raison d’état), illiberal solidarism in Central Asia is an example of what I call the systemic interest, or raison de système, of the regional order. Leaders may not like each other (and in Central Asia we have seen examples of this), they may have different and clashing policies, they may well disagree and compete over several issues, but they all know that it is in their interest to ensure that there is as much continuity as possible in the leadership of neighboring countries so as to guarantee predictability and stability.

To come back to your question, I believe “illiberal solidarism” is a valuable conceptual framework for looking at the region’s international relations, for it allows us to look at Central Asia as an order in which specific norms, shared understandings, rules of behavior, and principles are in play. This contradicts, for example, the strand of literature that claims that Central Asia is a “non-region” due to the absence of a common market, shared sovereignty, or an all-encompassing regional organization. This literature has focused heavily on what Central Asia is not, without necessarily defining what it is. Through the prism of illiberal solidarism, I am able to see it as an order premised and centered on the two ideas of avtoritet and stabil’nost’, which have the status of values underpinning a community of states and leaders interested in preserving their power while maintaining peaceful coexistence and relatively low inter-state conflict so as to pursue regime enhancement. This idea of Central Asia as an order is explored in my forthcoming article for Central Asian Affairs.

I believe “illiberal solidarism” is a valuable conceptual framework for looking at the region’s international relations, for it allows us to look at Central Asia as an order in which specific norms, shared understandings, rules of behavior, and principles are in play.

Now, whether this order is something morally justifiable, or legitimate, or desirable, is an important question—authority, stability, and predictability for whom? Order benefitting whom? Whose legitimacy? But this is not the focus of my analysis. Instead, I wanted to make the argument that solidarism does not necessarily have to be nice; whether we like it or not, there is normative convergence around principles that contradict liberal understandings of politics. This is something that within the English School is visible in the way in which solidarism has been studied so far (i.e., mostly through the lens of human rights and democratization), but is also present in the wider literature on autocracy diffusion, which has not seriously engaged with the idea that, survival considerations aside, there may be a component of normativity at play.

Looking, for example, at how neighboring states have reacted to Sadyr Japarov’s recent plans to reinstate strong presidentialism in Kyrgyzstan, it is apparent that there are cost-benefit considerations as well as normative preferences in play. Conversely, one can look at how Japarov himself has used the regional environment and the stability of political power in the other Central Asian countries as an argument to legitimize presidentialism in the eyes of the population. Normative considerations, shared understandings, and ideational factors are often marginalized in analyses of Central Asian regional politics, although this is slowly changing.

Finally, I think it is also important to stress that while my work does acknowledge the undeniable (and already thoroughly researched) role that both Russia and China play in enhancing and entrenching authoritarianism in the region—I am thinking here, for example, about the literature on the so-called “Shanghai spirit”—what I found missing was an account of how the Central Asian states have themselves contributed to this structuring process over the years, including which mechanisms and processes they have used.

How can authoritarianism, which is a domestic trait of states, be considered an institution of international society, and what does this tell us about the current normative transformations of the world order?

This is an excellent question, and I am not sure I found the answer in my paper! Within the English School literature, there is, in fact, a lot of disagreement with respect to the ontology of institutions. I respect this diversity of positions and certainly cannot claim to have found the definitive answer to this vexing issue. Yet in my view, when a specific trait of domestic governance becomes a standard of conduct, an appropriate behavior, a benchmark, and a pervasive element of the management of “regional life,” then it also becomes an institution between states.

It is important to remember that institutions are sets of principles and associated practices that not only regulate interactions between states, but also create a sense of identity and confer social positionality, assigning and ascribing roles and functions. That is, institutions are both relational and constitutive. In other words, an institution creates an inside and an outside, a membership, a sense of appropriateness that demarcates those who “belong” and those who “do not belong.” 

For example, it was interesting to hear in the fieldwork interviews I conducted for this paper that Kyrgyzstan was almost always an outlier in the region on account of its “unstable politics”—and not, for example, Turkmenistan, which is seldom involved in regional dialogue and is even less present in formalized Eurasian multilateralism. You can really see this social exclusionary logic in operation at the linguistic level (remember I consider “blame” a mechanism for the institutionalization of authoritarianism, too) when you hear officials and diplomats referring to Kyrgyzstan as a belaia vorona (white crow), for example. In thinking of a mode of governance, of a way of doing politics as an institution, I implicitly build parallels with, for example, how constitutional monarchism played a role in splitting Europe into “enlightened” and “absolutist” regimes in the nineteenth century; in the way fascist nations managed to come together in the interwar period and during the Second World War; in how “democracy” has become a membership criterion for acceding to the EU; in the way that monarchy still defines membership of the Gulf order; in how the developmental state has gained traction in East Asia; and, more recently, in the way the “league of authoritarian gentlemen” described by Alexander Cooley has been on the rise.

I believe this means that we are increasingly moving toward what has been called embedded pluralism, which refers to a condition in which differences between states and societies are not just present, but protected and enhanced. It is more than multipolarity, for multipolarity can involve different great powers sharing the same political ideals and values. Here, not only there is a return of multipolarity in terms of “raw power” such as military and economic indicators, but there are also profound ideological differences and political cultures that will have to find a peaceful way to coexist.

Importantly, these dynamics are not simply inter-state, but also transnational. Regional orders are an important part of the story, but they are not the only story. Transnational links between elites and far-right activists who rely on normative signaling across constituencies, pointing to the need to curb and reduce the reach of liberal narratives and policies, are important components of the complex and fundamental shifts that have been occurring for at least a decade, if not longer. This has profound implications for IR theory, too: until recently, much of the constructivist work on norms, institutions, and socialization focused on liberal, “good” values and principles, neglecting the fact that illiberal and authoritarian contexts, however contrary to our liberal views and convictions, are also social contexts in which processes of socialization, learning, sharing, norm-taking, norm-resistance, norm-creation, and legitimization are very much present.

Until recently, much of the constructivist work on norms, institutions, and socialization focused on liberal, “good” values and principles, neglecting the fact that illiberal and authoritarian contexts, however contrary to our liberal views and convictions, are also social contexts in which processes of socialization, learning, sharing, norm-taking, norm-resistance, norm-creation, and legitimization are very much present.

And these processes bridge the domestic-international divide. In my article, I show, for example, how Central Asian leaders create spaces for authoritarian practices by congratulating each other after every landslide victory in presidential elections, as well as how, in the 1990s, they established a truly concerted dialogue on how to prolong presidential rule in the countries of the region through referenda. IR scholars need to start paying sustained attention to this, especially if we are to come up with sharp analyses and accounts of how world order is evolving in terms of its social and normative fabric in an era in which all available indicators are telling us that democracy is under attack.

In studying Central Asian regimes and the articulation of their domestic and foreign policy, how do you determine what is illiberal and what is authoritarian? How and where do the two terms overlap and diverge?

This is a question that is as interesting as it is thorny. You are right that there is a lot of overlap in how these two terms are used in the current IR and Political Science literature, and I myself use them almost interchangeably. This is a limitation of my work that I acknowledge, and which I will address in my future research. In fact, only recently has there been systematic analysis that aims to distinguish the two. I am thinking, in particular, of the work of scholars such as Marlies Glasius, who, through the prism of practices, differentiates between illiberalism (which pertains to the encroachment on—or the limitation of—individual liberties and human dignity) and authoritarianism (which is linked to the sabotaging of accountability of those in power within a political community).

In my work, I define authoritarianism in the broadest possible sense, i.e., as a hierarchical form of political order that emphasizes strong rule, stability, and the importance of the leader’s personality while not adhering to the “procedural minimum” definition of democracy, such as free and fair elections, universal suffrage, and effective guarantees of civil and political freedoms. I do this primarily to account for the very different types of authoritarianism one finds in Central Asia, and you can see how this broad definition combines the two components of illiberalism and authoritarianism as Glasius would understand them.

illiberalism has an in-built, endogenous link to liberalism, and therefore it is often defined ex-negativo, i.e., as what it is not liberal. So it ultimately becomes a matter of defining what liberalism is

Going back to definitions, one may argue that illiberalism has an in-built, endogenous link to liberalism, and therefore it is often defined ex-negativo, i.e., as what it is not liberal. So it ultimately becomes a matter of defining what liberalism is, and one can claim that liberalism is a philosophy that believes in the fundamental freedom and right of the individual to pursue prosperity, development, rationality, and emancipation from governing structures and what Halmai has called “the  public  power  of  the majority.” But by doing this, we somehow put the concept in a subaltern position to liberalism, preventing us from exploring its deeper ideological and philosophical ramifications as well as its multifaceted manifestations.

Authoritarianism, conversely, is a concept that stands on its own, with its own set of fundamental values and principles centered around hierarchy, authority, obedience, and conformity. One should also acknowledge that the distinction between illiberalism and authoritarianism is, analytically, a welcome one, for it makes it possible to identify illiberal practices and discourses within established democracies, as well as elements of liberalism in consolidated autocracies. At the international level, democracies may advocate for illiberal provisions such as closing borders and restricting the individual freedoms of certain segments of society, while authoritarian states may embrace liberal policies such as those at the heart of free markets.

The very interesting—and, some might say, dangerous—outcome of this trend is that we reach a point where the very meaning and constitutive nature of democracy are called question. And far from being merely a semantic and semiotic question, this will have huge repercussions across the globe, as states will strive to ascribe their own meaning to it, thereby challenging the very authority of those who claim to be its “real” representatives. Poland and Hungary are doing exactly this within the EU and, as I have argued elsewhere, the Trump presidency has potentially paved the way for a more widespread dilution of democracy with illiberal and authoritarian practices. This discussion points to the power of illiberal ideas, values, and worldviews, which need to become a more prominent part of political and IR theorizing.

Filippo Costa Buranelli is Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of St Andrews, UK. His research interests are International Relations theory, international history, global governance, Eurasian politics, and regionalism. He is currently Chair of the English School section at the International Studies Association and serves also as ECR/PhD/Precarious Representative of the BISA Working Group on Russian and Eurasian Foreign Policies. His works have been published in several journals and edited collections, including The Oxford Research Encyclopaedia of International Relations, International Studies Quarterly, Geopolitics, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, Problems of Post-Communism, and International Relations, among others. He is currently finalizing his monograph on the formation of a regional order in Central Asia and his article on the same topic is forthcoming in Central Asian Affairs. His upcoming projects include looking at how different regional organizations localize global norms and studying the different functions of informality in world order.

The Illiberalism Studies Program studies the different faces of illiberal politics and thought in today’s world, taking into account the diversity of their cultural context, their intellectual genealogy, the sociology of their popular support, and their implications on the international scene.