How do conspiracy theories relate to non-democratic regimes?
Conspiracies and conspiracy theories are prevalent in the margins between democratic and non-democratic regimes. By their very nature, hybrid regimes are a likely site for conspiracy theorising: partially free media outlets, elections, and other democratic institutions, which may coexist with authoritarian practices. In such an environment, where expression is possible, but constrained, elections are free (but are they fake?), and where rulers speak the language of democracy, but appear to act in corrupt or self-serving ways, it is natural that conspiracy theories should find both an outlet and plentiful fuel.
It is in weakly democratic or hybrid regimes, such as the -stan countries (but we could also mention Weimar Germany), where exclusionary nationalist rhetoric is mobilised – often by alleging conspiracy on part of a minority or out-group. In such cases, take especially Kyrgyzstan, which at one point appeared to be democratising (it had a ‘tulip’ revolution), but has since seen ethnic tension between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz. Here conspiracy theories in the broadest possible sense have both undermined authoritarian rule, as well as attempts to introduce more democratic practice. (For more, see this article by Scott Radnitz).
Another instructive example in this context are third wave democracies. These ‘transitions’ came about through conspiracy, as old elites who felt their grip on power loosening handed power to new, (relatively) democratic leaders in exchange for various privilege – typically an amnesty and the right to keep their amassed wealth. Such negotiated transitions remain the subject of conspiracy theories. In Poland, and unlike the Czech Republic, no process of ‘lustration‘ was conducted against former Communist elites. The fear, driving much of the debate in the 2000s, was that the new, democratic elites in Poland owed their privileged position to ties with the former regime. The late 2000s saw a host of allegations that new leaders had been Communist stooges – from Lech Walesa to Donald Tusk, not to speak of Aleksandr Kwasniewski.
As we move to more fully authoritarian regimes, the situation is less clear. As Hugo notes, certain polls suggest ‘belief’ in conspiracy theories about 9/11 is widespread in many Muslim countries. I tend to be sceptical of these polls – responses appear to follow elite cues. In Russia, opinions about Russia’s relations with the West track Putin’s approval ratings. ‘Belief’ in something the respondent is unlikely to have any first hand knowledge of can become a proxy for whether or not the respondent accepts the local ‘official’ explanation, more than a question about the issue itself.
In largely authoritarian regimes such as Russia, ‘conspiracy theory’ can be applied to almost all political debate. The party landscape is split into two groups: sanctioned and unsanctioned political organisations. Thus Russians speak about the sistemnaia and the nesistemnaia opposition – the opposition acting within the system, and the one that rejects the system. In this space there is little room for conflict about policy, and political debate tends to centre on the nature of the regime. Garry Kasparov made this explicit, arguing that any sanctioned opposition movement is playing by the Kremlin’s rules, something akin to swearing a feudal oath.
This division is born out in the names of Russian political parties: Kasparov’s party is called ‘Other Russia’. What used to be Nemtsov’s Party is called ‘People’s Freedom Party “For Russia without Lawlessness and Corruption”‘. The anti-corruption activist Navalny’s party is more neutrally styled the ‘Progress Party’. It campaigns, though, to fundamentally overhaul the state. Here’s the Wikipedia summary:
‘The party’s platform stands for the decentralization of power in Russia, cutting the number of government officials, lustration for those responsible for political repressions, reducing the president’s powers, possibly switching to a parliamentary republic and ensuring the independence of the judiciary. It also stipulates “drastically reducing” government interference in the economy, ending censorship, prohibiting the government from owning media outlets and abolishing conscription.’
In this environment, the government describes the opposition as criminal; the opposition terms the government a kleptocracy. Must all articulations of these positions be conspiracy theories? They posit a conspiracy, sure, but they are in no sense marginal, nor are they a form of counter-knowledge, nor is either articulation seen as disreputable. Here the space between conspiracy and politics is small, and, I think, conspiracy theory does not helpfully delineate it.