Play #8 in the Dictator’s Playbook: Silence your Critics

No one is as consistently thin skinned and vengeful as a Dictator who feels slighted. Dictators and evolving autocrats like to take aim not just at the Press and Political Opposition, but also private citizens and civil servants who dare to object to their goals and statements. This is especially troubling because private citizens and regular government employees do not enjoy the prominence and protection that journalists and members of opposition parties often enjoy. Their isolation makes them much more vulnerable to underhanded tactics.  More importantly, attacking individual civil servants and private citizens makes the public unsure who is next. It is not just the targeted individual who suffers, it is the entire community, because no individual feels secure from government action. One need look no further than two currently evolving autocracies to see that when you criticize an autocrat, payback is a bitch.

Hugo Chavez’s critics were slandered, fired and denied services

Hugo Chavez was so thin skinned that the Twitter-obsessed President of Venezuela once had his tweeting critics hacked in order to silence them. He also used more serious and nefarious means to silence critics. Early in his Presidency, he tried to associate all critics with a 2002 coup attempt, whether or not they had participated. He also had political opponents in state agencies and the national oil company fired and blacklisted. He moved on to deny some individuals access to social programs based on political opinions, and finally graduated to imprisoning opponents, including his former minister of defense, usually on trumped up charges. The result of these persecutions was self-censorship not just among public figures and media outlets, but among members of individual communities. However, Chavez’s tactics look positively tame in comparison to the most frightening of modern Dictators.

Vladimir Putin just likes to kill people

Putin wasn’t always so harsh. In the early 2000s he restricted himself to jailing human rights activists and launching criminal investigations against companies for donating to opposing political parties. However, the methods a Dictator uses to crack down on opponents seem to progress over time.  Since 2006 or thereabouts, Putin has pretty much just taken to murdering his critics with ruthless efficiency.  Just last month, Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian activist, was hospitalized with symptoms identical to those he experienced when he was poisoned two years ago. And he is one of many. The most famous is the case of Alexander Litvinenko, an opponent who was poisoned with radioactive polonium-210 in London in 2006. Putin has also ordered the deaths of Mikhail Y. Lesin and Aleksandr Poteyev, civil servants working for the regime who were accused of defection. Putin’s use of secret murders to control opponents ensures that even if there is opposition to him, that opposition will flee Russia in fear for their lives. Given his control of the media, eliminating opponents in such a final fashion enables him to completely control the reality of the Russian people.

Government retaliation against individuals destroys the people’s trust in each other

A lot of the plays in the Dictator’s Playbook are used to unify the public against imaginary enemies and take control of information. Retaliation against individuals opposed to the regime – be they businessmen or union members or whistleblowers – has a different effect.  Inevitably, once ordinary civil servants and citizens are subjected to acts of revenge by the State, it opens the door for petty community feuds to lead to denunciations by fellow citizens.

I will never forget sitting in a pub in Germany in 1998 listening to a friend tell me an old family story. His Great-Uncle was sitting in a bar in the Eifel region of Westphalia (in the middle of nowhere) in 1942-43 and, drunkenly, told a neighbor where he could stick that “shitty” Hitler and his stupid war. The next day he was gone and the family never saw him again. Once a regime starts relying on denunciations (this was incredibly common in Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany, as well as in modern autocracies) neighbors do not know who is an informant and who is an ally. It becomes almost impossible to build a resistance. An oppressive government may unify a portion of the population against it, but if none of those individuals know whom they can trust, there can be no opposition.